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Article Published: 23 Jan 2022

My First Opera: Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard
Terence Blanchard (photo: Cedric Angeles)

Music was a major part of my life as a young person. I went to church every Sunday, and my dad sang in the choir. My parents loved classical music, and my dad would come home at night and put on his recordings and just sit down and listen to great opera. When operas would come on PBS, he would make me sit down and watch them. He loved all the classics, like Carmen. My favorite was La bohème.

My parents started me on piano when I was about five years old. In fourth grade, I started playing trumpet. Even though I had this classical background, I was enamored with the musicians I heard in New Orleans playing jazz and street music. I was very humbled by what I would hear. The years of being inspired and influenced by them really motivated me to work hard, which helped me to grow and learn more about music.

I started playing with Ellis Marsalis and Willie Metcalf in high school, and I had an R&B band called The Creators. I played with Lionel Hampton at Rutgers University, then with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which helped me grow immensely as an artist. After I went out on my own, I got a call to be a part of this film session for Spike Lee’s film School Daze. He remembered me after that initial call because I had worn Lakers gear to the session. Spike is a big New York Knicks fan. So, he called me back to play on his father’s score to Do the Right Thing. One day he heard me playing the piano and liked what I was playing, and he asked if he could use it, and that’s how my film career started — with my song “Sing Soweto” being used in Mo’ Better Blues and then subsequently in Jungle Fever.

I got involved with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis because they wanted to do more to expand their audience and thought jazz would be a perfect vehicle. Gene Dobbs Bradford, who organizes Jazz St. Louis, remembered a conversation he and I had years ago, when I told him about my dad being an opera lover. Mine was one of the first names he gave James Robinson, the artistic director at OTSL. Jim had my album A Tale of God’s Will, and he really loved it and thought my lyrical writing might be really suited to opera.

The first live operas I attended in St. Louis were The Ghosts of Versailles and Salome. They were really captivating. The idea of being able to write music for something that people would experience in that way was really intriguing for me. Film is such a static thing in that once it’s shot, it’s shot and you’re responding to that. In opera, there’s no visual for me to respond to. I’m creating the scenes and the sonic palettes in my studio. To have people walk around and sing your lines, and to put together a wardrobe and see the set created, it’s all pretty crazy when you think about it. Opera really is the highest form of music theater.

The experience of writing Champion, my first opera, was terrifying. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. But at a certain point, I had to not care. My composition teacher told me, “Don’t write an opera, just tell a story.” So that’s what I did — I told a story and things changed. When I saw it performed the first time, it was magical. I just remember thinking about the possibilities of telling different types of stories and what that could entail musically and visually.

It’s so interesting to think about my father loving opera so much, and then to run into all these male African American singers and think about how opera has been a part of the African American community for decades without being recognized. I feel blessed to be here and to open people’s eyes to that fact.

Terence Blanchard is a trumpeter and Oscar-nominated composer. His first opera was Champion. His second, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, was the first opera by a Black composer performed at the Metropolitan Opera. It will open at Lyric Opera of Chicago in March.

This article was published in the Winter 2022 issue of Opera America Magazine.