The Met Debuts First Opera by Black Composer, Catching Up to New York City Indie Companies



The Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Square. Photo: Jordan Gonsalves

The Metropolitan Opera made history this month as it staged “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” by Terence Blanchard. The show marks the Met’s first opera by a Black composer in the Midtown cultural institution’s 138-year history.  

“The Met gives the seal of approval that an opera can become part of the American repertoire,” said Ben Taylor, who is Black and an understudy in the production. 

Opera in the United States and at the Met has long excluded Black artists. In 1955, 72 years after opening, the Met hired its first Black principal performer. It was not until 2015, that the Met banned blackface in its productions. Additionally, Black artists make up just 3% of the Met’s regular performers, according to a report from the Middleclass Artist, an independent journalism site for artists. Regular performers are defined as artists who have been onstage at the Met at least 100 times. 

“You have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” said Taylor. “Oftentimes we don’t fit the image that casting directors have of these roles, even the fictional ones,” he said.

As the Met gains recognition for this historic staging, New York City’s smaller opera companies say it’s about time.

Many independent opera companies were actively developing Black-composed opera long before the Met announced “Fire,” said Marianna Mott Newirth, president of the New York Opera Alliance.

The New York Opera Alliance consists of nearly 50 independent opera companies. In a Midtown Gazette survey sent to the Alliance’s members, 77% of respondents said the Met’s decision follows the direction of smaller companies, which have long been showcasing diversity in opera.

“We, as Black composers, don’t have the luxury of waiting on the Met to champion our work,” said Del’Shawn Taylor, composer and a diversity, equity and inclusion board member at the Thompson Street Opera in Chicago. “Many of us have been working with smaller companies to get our music out there. We should be moving away from this idea that if it’s not at the Met, it’s not valuable,” he said.

New York City indie companies say featuring work by Black artists in their repertoires is nothing new. One of the core purposes of Harlem Opera Theater is to bring visibility to African American composers and performers,” said Gregory Hopkins, artistic director of Harlem Opera Theater and curator of “Blacks in Opera: The Journey.”

“We want audiences to know that our history as African Americans on this continent is more than just slavery. Our contributions have expanded the classical palette in so many ways,” he said.

Bringing visibility to Black composers also involves developing the next generation. Last year, the American Lyric Theater in Times Square, home to one of the most competitive composer programs in America, found that just 34% of its participants were Black, Indigenous or people of color.

“We overhauled our recruitment efforts, diversified our faculty and increased our financial support to program members,” said Larry Edelson, the theater’s president, artistic and general director. The program is already free, but will now include a $20,000 stipend to further promote inclusion. This year’s class of six includes three Black composers.

While this moment at the Met is exciting, some Black artists are weary that change will stop here. Kiara Wade graduated from New York University’s Steinhardt School with her Masters in Vocal Performance and Voice Pedagogy. “It’s an exciting step, but it’s a baby step,” she said. 

Even as some artists say there is more work to be done, the staging of “Fire” has been meaningful for many. “It’s a moment for every Black composer to celebrate. We’ve been screaming that our stories matter since 1619,” Del’Shawn Taylor said. “And people are finally listening. The young, Black audience members will know that opera isn’t just synonymous with Puccini and Verdi. Opera is Terrance Blanchard. Opera is them,” he said.

“Fire” premiered in late September, opening the Met’s 2021-22 season. “Opening night was electrifying,” said Ben Taylor. “We could feel the energy in the room of all the Black performers who came before us who didn’t have this opportunity. They paved the way.”