Benjamin Preaceley, Latonia Moore, and Will Liverman in Lyric Opera's Fire Shut Up in My Bones Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Journalist Charles M. Blow once wrote in his New York Times column that he “likes to think of himself as a Southern writer.” His childhood in Gibsland, Louisiana, shaped his writing, and in the south, “you don’t so much say words as sing them.” 

Now, at Lyric Opera, his own story is literally being sung. But not exactly in his own words.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blow’s memoir of his early life, was published in 2014. It’s a deeply introspective coming-of-age story, rooted in an incident of childhood sexual abuse and its psychological aftermath for a gifted young Black man struggling to come to terms with his sexual orientation.

But what’s most striking about the book is its lyrical power. Poetry dressed as prose, it’s a rich portrayal of 20th-century life in a still-segregated small town—its impact coming as much from the evocative use of language as from the events described.

Which doesn’t necessarily make it ripe material for opera.    

Fire Shut Up in My Bones
Through 4/8: Sat 4/2, 7:30 PM, Wed 4/6, 2 PM, Fri 4/8, 7 PM; Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-827-5600, lyricopera.org, $49-$299.

So when the opportunity presented itself, on opening night of the Lyric production of composer Terence Blanchard’s new opera of the same name, I asked the librettist, filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, whether having such a beautiful text to work with made her job easier or harder.  

“Both,” Lemmons said, because Blow’s text was “so inspiring, but not theatrical in form.”

No worries: the creative team of Lemmons, jazz virtuoso Blanchard, co-director and original choreographer Camille A. Brown, and co-director James Robinson—all here for the opening—have succeeded in turning Blow’s literary tour de force into a riveting three-plus hours (including one intermission) at the opera.

Lemmons, who told me she tried to retain as much of Blow’s poetry as possible, managed to wrangle the story into the condensed narrative opera demands, while making his internal drama explicit—in part by personifying the pull of destiny and the loneliness that was his frequent companion. And Blanchard, who’s scored many of Spike Lee’s films, notes (in an interview available on the Lyric website) that he composed the opera by speaking Lemmons’s lines out loud, over, over, and over, to capture the inherent rhythm in the words. The result is the best vocal storytelling in the form of recitative I’ve heard from a contemporary composer—backed and carried by a luscious, lyrical, and jazzy orchestral score that includes piano.          

The opera tracks the book, opening with a glimpse of the climax to come, when Charles, 20 years old, armed, and in a rage, sets out to kill the older cousin who took advantage of him when he was only seven. According to the book, this assault did not include penetration of Blow’s body, but it definitely got into his head, and stayed there. As the teenage Charles—a perennial outsider, longing for his absent and inattentive father—finds himself attracted to men as well as to women, he’s haunted not only by the assault, but by his own complicated tendencies. (Was he, “a child of peculiar grace,” somehow complicit in his own victimization?) Forays into religion and fraternal bonding (through hazing) at college fail to eliminate this self-blame, but provide the rationale for a rousing gospel scene and a show-stopping step-dance routine by the fraternity brothers. A breakup with Greta, the woman he loves, precedes the moment of decision that’ll determine the course of his life.

Lyric’s entire cast is exemplary, starting with Benjamin Preacely, the impressively professional fifth grader who plays the young Charles. Baritone Will Liverman, well-known to Chicago since his years at Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center, is fine in the demanding lead role of the adult Charles, and soprano Latonia Moore delivers a knockout performance vocally and dramatically as Billie, Charles’s strong, beloved, and beleaguered mother. Soprano Brittany Renee gracefully handles the triple role of Destiny, Loneliness, and Greta, while tenor Chauncey Packer nails the part of Charles’s charming rascal of a father. Reginald Smith Jr. invests the dicey Uncle Paul with a resonant baritone; another Ryan Center alum, baritone Chris Kenney, pulls off the role of the villainous cousin, Chester, with aplomb. Daniela Candillari conducts the Lyric Opera orchestra; Stu Mindeman is on that rippling piano.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2019. This co-production with the Metropolitan and Los Angeles opera companies was the first opera by a Black composer to be presented on the main stage in the Met’s 138-year history; at Lyric, it is the second (preceded by Anthony Davis’s Amistad in 1997).  

“I don’t want to be a token,” Blanchard has said about that. “I want to be a turnkey. I want this to open up the floodgates for all different types of people.”