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Terence Blanchard, the jazz trumpeter making opera history
Renown trumpetist and composer Terence Blanchard performs after receiving the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz 2019 Founder's Award at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, on December 3, 2019. EVA HAMBACH / AFP.

by Maggy Donaldson

WASHINGTON (AFP).- A top-tier jazz trumpeter and Spike Lee's go-to film score master for three decades, Terence Blanchard is now set to make history as the first black composer to stage a production at New York's esteemed Metropolitan Opera.

The storied institution's plans to produce Blanchard's second opera, "Fire Shut Up In My Bones," come 136 years after it opened its doors, having never before staged a black composer's art.

It's progress "bigger than me," the 11-time Grammy winning, Oscar-nominated artist told AFP.

"It says more about what's going on in our country; what's going on in the world of art... and the statement that this makes."

The 57-year-old, sporting bold, thick eyeglass frames, said that even in "the progressive experiment called the United States," society has "a long way to go in this country in dealing with racial issues, in dealing with equality."

"We still have a lot of people who want to turn back the hands of time," he said from his suite in Washington's Mayflower Hotel, hours ahead of a tribute to his career at the 2019 Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Competition & Gala.

"I have a feeling it's going to be a momentous thing, and not because it's me," he said of his opera's historic staging.

"Just because it is."

'Mixed bag of emotions'
Blanchard's second opera entitled "Fire Shut Up In My Bones" is based on the searing memoir of Charles Blow, a columnist at The New York Times. The book recounts his coming-of-age as a black boy in the US Deep South, grappling with racism, sexuality and abuse.

Composing music for heavy stories such as this one requires "putting your ego aside" and letting the notes "get out of your system," said Blanchard, who also scored the just-released film "Harriet" about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

"You can't think about how people are going to react when you're writing," said the composer, a necklace emblazoned with Tubman's image around his neck.

"You have to think about what is this story -- how do I relate to this story? How do I want to tell this story?"

The opera premiered in St. Louis and is set to appear in New York as early as the 2021-22 season.

The Met's September announcement that it would stage the show came just as the house opened its season with "Porgy and Bess" -- an acclaimed George Gershwin opera centered on African-Americans but written by a team of white people.

Blanchard said he felt a "mixed bag of emotions" when his own news went public: "While it's a true honor, we all know I'm not the first qualified African American composer to have an opera."

"For me personally, it's a huge thing, just because of where I come from," said the jazz star from New Orleans, describing the segregation his own father faced as an aspiring musician there.

"To go from that -- a person who never had an opportunity to sing opera, or was not given an opportunity -- for his son to all of a sudden have a moment in time where we're producing an opera at the Met; that's huge."

Spike Lee connection
Blanchard is a show biz regular: he boasts a vibrant career that's included working with greats like Hancock, Dr. John and Stevie Wonder.

He says it's his decades-long relationship with the filmmaker Lee that "has made me grow in ways I could never had imagined."

"He has a very unique cinematic style," Blanchard said of the legendary, Oscar-winning director famous for films including "Do The Right Thing," "Jungle Fever," "Malcolm X" and "BlacKkKlansman."

Blanchard's score for the latter film -- about a black detective who devises a scheme to infiltrate the local white supremacist Ku Klux Klan chapter -- nabbed him his first Academy Award nomination.

"Film has helped me immensely in writing for opera, because I got a chance to write for orchestra," Blanchard said.

Accustomed to juggling several projects at once, the artist said it's important "not to limit myself."

"I want to leave this planet with no regrets," he said. "And regrets, for me, are based in fear.

"To overcome your fear, you have to go out there and stick your neck out."

© Agence France-Presse

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