The Metropolitan Opera’s production of jazz composer Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones is the first opera from a Black composer in its 138-year history. The opera based on The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s memoir features an almost entirely Black cast, chorus and dance troupe and recounts Blow’s troubled childhood in rural Louisiana as he struggles to overcome trauma and sexual abuse.
Local audiences have a chance to see a screening of a live performance of the opera, coming to local movie theaters on Oct. 23 as part of the Live in HD series.
Bass baritone Ryan Speedo Green, 35, who sings the role of Uncle Paul, has ties to Tampa. He was born here while his mother was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. His family moved around, coming back to Tampa briefly before settling in Virginia.
He has been with The Metropolitan Opera for 11 years. He’s also performed at opera houses across the country and in Austria with the Vienna State Opera.
Between rehearsals at the Met, Green spoke to the Tampa Bay Times by phone. He said being in this historical production feels amazing, although a little late, as there are many Black composers.
“It’s awesome to have this story be told,” he said. “It’s not only that it’s an African American composer, it’s an American composer, it’s an American story. And what’s more American than the African American story? No story in America is more special and more important than our story ... It’s about damn time.”
He said he hopes other arts organizations will start telling more stories of people of color.
Green has an inspiring backstory, which was told in the 2016 bestselling book Sing for Your Life by The New York Times journalist Daniel Bergner. Living in a trailer park in Virginia as a kid, Green was getting into trouble at home, at school and with the law. After a family crisis in which he threatened his mother and brother, a judge sent him to juvenile detention for the summer when he was 12.
After that summer, Green said he made the decision to stay out of trouble. That meant new friends and activities at school, including Latin club and chorus. He auditioned for The Governor’s School of the Arts in Norfolk and was accepted. A trip to New York City with the school to see Carmen at The Metropolitan Opera “changed his life,” he said.
For Green, opera was something he thought of as only for white people. So when he watched African American opera singer Denyce Graves sing the title role in Carmen, he said it made opera tangible and real.
Having decided to pursue opera as a career, he went to his chorus teacher, who encouraged him with a list of things to accomplish. Green said he spent the next nine years checking items off that list, studying piano, languages and opera. He received a master of music degree from Florida State University and a bachelor of music degree from The Hartt School of Music in Connecticut.
He emphasized the importance of the free audition at The Governor’s School of the Arts for giving talented people who otherwise couldn’t afford expensive fees the opportunity. Will Liverman, who stars in Fire Shut Up in My Bones, also attended the school.
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Green visited Tampa in 2013, in his first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and The Florida Orchestra. The Tampa Bay Times wrote that Green “was superb in his abrupt call to put aside worry.”
Evan Rogister, principal conductor of Washington National Opera and The Kennedy Center Opera House, led that concert. Green credits that Tampa connection with his upcoming role as Escamillo in Carmen, his house debut with Washington National Opera that will also be conducted by Rogister.
Green will also sing the role of Jake in the Met’s production of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and recently portrayed Varlaam in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
His portrayal in Fire of the positive male figure Uncle Paul resonates with him.
“I have a line that I say: ‘Sometimes you have to disturb the earth to make things grow.’ It’s also a theme in my life ... I had to go against all of the norms that society said would be my life ... And instead, I just disturbed the earth ... and I am who I am today because of that.”
If you go
Fire Shut Up in My Bones Live in HD will play at 12:55 p.m. Oct. 23 at the following theaters: Sundial in St. Petersburg; Park Place Stadium in Pinellas Park; Hyde Park Cinebistro and Citrus Stadium Park in Tampa; Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar; and Regency 20 in Brandon. On Oct. 27 there will be encore performances at select theaters. Visit metopera.org for a full listing.