Opera in Jazz

As with his first opera, Champion, Terence Blanchard characterizes Fire Shut Up in My Bones as an “opera in jazz.” The composer’s performing career as a trumpeter can be heard throughout the work, which draws heavily on jazz harmonies and instruments that fall outside traditional opera orchestration. But jazz is not the only “non-traditional” genre to appear in this opera. In addition to the evocative juxtaposition of classical music and jazz, the opera is filled with passages inspired by gospel, big-band music, and the blues. There’s even an the intricate step dance, scored entirely for on-stage snapping, clapping, and stomping. What is more, all of these musical styles move between being part of the world audible to the characters—what is known as diegetic music—and music that is only audible to the audience. In this way, Blanchard brings different styles of music into the realm of operatic scoring, not only as audible depictions of the characters’ world but also as a means of expressing their inner lives.

The musical styles Blanchard uses in Fire Shut Up in My Bones often have a concrete connection to the setting of a particular scene. In Act I, for instance, Spinner’s band is playing at The West End, a seedy bar on Boogie Woogie Road. The music being “performed” by the characters is appropriately jazzy, including the song “Lord Love the Sinner,” sung by Spinner. (This is an excellent example of diegetic music, since the music the audience hears is part of the onstage story.) By contrast, the later scene in which Billie and Spinner make up at Thanksgiving also has a distinctly jazzy character, but in this case, the jazz reflects not the scene’s setting but rather the personalities and actions of the characters.

The opera’s use of the chorus also reveals how the composer mixes various musical genres. The traditional role of the chorus as a commentator on the opera’s action is exemplified by the recurring “Char’es-Baby, Youngest of Five,” which periodically reminds the audience of Charles’s ongoing struggle to be seen. Yet the chorus also infuses the opera with elements of the gospel tradition. In the several scenes that take place in church, the chorus fulfills the role of a gospel choir, singing diegetic music. The opera also utilizes gospel elements, such as call-and-response, outside of religious settings, such as at the chicken factory where Billie works and at the nightclub where Charles meets Greta.

The mixture of traditional opera composition and jazz elements can be found in many operas by Black composers, including James P. Johnson’s De Organizer (1940), the works of William Grant Still (whose Afro-American Symphony is often used as a textbook example of the combination of Black vernacular and symphonic music), and Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie (1974). Critics reviewing these operas in the early 20th century even expected this kind of stylistic mixing and were disparaging in their reviews when not enough of the work was derived from “Black music,” as in the case of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1910). Yet the innovative mixing of musical styles in the works of Black opera composers is not limited to combining operatic styles with popular genres. Works like Anthony Braxton’s Trillium Opera Complex, a series of operas he began in 1980, utilize their own variation of musical mixture, drawing less on vernacular music and more on a wide variety of experimental techniques including the use of electronics and music determined by chance.

Critical Inquiry
How does the opera’s use of different types of music contribute to the narrative of the story? Are there types of music beyond the classical tradition you would use if you were writing an opera?


Essay by Leah Batstone, a musicologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vienna.