“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” made history when it reopened the Metropolitan Opera in New York last September after an eighteen-month shutdown.
The multi-genre work by jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard is the first opera in the company’s history written by an African American composer. A Metropolitan Opera co-production with L.A. Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago that opened the Met’s 2021-22 season, “Fire” is scheduled to close out Lyric’s 2021-22 season.
Taking the lead role of Charles in both productions is Chicago baritone Will Liverman.
“The opera world is very small,” says Liverman, “so we’re always aware when there’s a premiere of something. I remember when ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones’ was announced by Opera Theatre of St. Louis [for 2019]. And it got my attention because the title itself is very intriguing, from Jeremiah. Growing up in a gospel church, I automatically assumed it was an opera about church.
“I didn’t see the show, but had heard great things and it was getting a lot of attention. I had heard that the Met was going to present it in a future season, like 2024 or 2025. But then I think the pandemic coupled with George Floyd started to really change things for a lot of companies. Finally, we were asking questions of what can we really do to increase the visibility for Black composers and to tell different stories? [Metropolitan Opera general manager] Peter Gelb made the decision: they already had it on the books, but they just moved it up. And then for whatever reason, they wanted to recast it.”
Out of the blue during the 2020 pandemic, Liverman received a call from his agent informing him that the Met would be doing “Fire” to reopen their season the following year. Would Liverman sing the opening aria to be considered for the lead role of Charles?
“I had done a few things at the Met before,” Liverman recalls, “but I never envisioned opening a show for them, let alone it being a lead role. I looked at the score and immediately was like, whoah. MFer this and MFer that. All angry and tense. This is definitely not an opera about church!”
Learning the requested aria “in about a day,” Liverman went to PianoForte Chicago on Michigan Avenue to make a video recording. “They were still open,” Liverman says. “Their business was booming because every singer and every performer was doing everything virtually.”
Taking care to capture the most accurate account of his singing possible, Liverman says he never expected to hear anything back after sending an audition, especially a virtual audition. “I didn’t expect that anything would come of it,” he says, “but I was glad that they were considering me. And then maybe like two days later, I get a call saying, ‘Well, the job is yours. Here’s the contract.’ And then two weeks after that, they made a season announcement and all of a sudden, my face was there as Charles next to Angel Blue and Latonia Moore, two great singers who are staples at the Met and doing great things. Just to be alongside of them was like, what? All of the sudden, things shifted. Then I read the [Charles M. Blow] book and started learning the role. It was all pretty unexpected for me.”
The long journey to the lead at an historic reopening at the Metropolitan Opera started more than a decade ago with Liverman leaving his native Virginia and arriving in the Chicago area to attend west suburban Wheaton College. Liverman had a friend who went to Wheaton and told him about the school.
“I grew up in a Pentecostal church,” says Liverman, “so it definitely didn’t hurt that my Mom was sending me to a Christian college. I liked that it was near a big city. What drew me to the program was a very strong faculty and working with Dr. [Carolyn] Hart. The students were great, I had an exciting time there. I would commute into Chicago and go see stuff at the Lyric and go explore the big city.”
Having attended high school at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk “which got me into opera,” Liverman notes there “were a lot of Black kids in their classical voice program, which you don’t really see all the time. To go from that to Wheaton where I was one of six incoming Black students was definitely a culture shock.”
The 2008 election was going on, out of which Chicagoan Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first Black president. “It was extraordinary to be here in the thick of that,” Liverman says. “There were a lot of things happening in the city of Chicago.” It also gave Liverman a performance connection to Lyric at an early age.
“When I was a junior in college, my voice teacher found an ad for chorus auditions for ‘Porgy and Bess.’ I ended up doing extra supernumerary chorus for that show and for ‘Cavalleria rusticana’/ ‘Pagliacci.’ I, ended up with a bit role in ‘Porgy’ during the hurricane scene. It was intertwined with other voices so I didn’t have a solo, but there’s one person from each section that kind of leads the prayer and I was chosen to do the bass part of it as a bit role. But mainly for both shows, I sang in the chorus. So, I ended up having my professional debut while I was still at school. I would do my morning classes at Wheaton and then take the train to Lyric and do their afternoon rehearsals and stuff. I don’t know how I made that work because we had a lot of shows and rehearsals.”
Upon graduating from Wheaton, Liverman headed to Juilliard to complete a master’s degree. “That was like a second cultural shock in leaving a small-knit bubble at Wheaton and then going into the mecca of the arts in New York,” says Liverman. “It’s all so brief. You spend your first year just adjusting to the city and all the things it has to offer. You become a small fish in a huge pond, which was a big adjustment for me. And of course, that second year is your final year even though at the end they’re like, ‘Good luck!’”
In between Liverman’s first and second year at Juilliard, he attended Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program for Singers, where he was invited to audition for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center.
“They have these big auditions that give the young artists visibility because a lot of companies come and listen and sit in on the auditions. Originally, I didn’t apply to the Ryan Opera Center because I didn’t think I was ready. It seemed more of a finishing program for singers who were on the launching pad for their careers. I was still pretty young, I had never taken any breaks. I went straight from high school to college to master’s.”
On the basis of his Santa Fe audition, Liverman was invited to return to Chicago for the final auditions for a Ryan Opera Center fellowship. “And I ended up getting in. It was a game-changer because it changed my whole trajectory. It put me back in Chicago and that’s where I’ve been ever since. This is my home base.”
One of the perks of being part of the Ryan Opera Center is the opportunity to appear in Lyric Opera productions. “They called me the king of the one-liners,” Liverman says, laughing. “I would come in and do my one line and leave. ‘Werther’ was my debut, as Brühlmann. I did ‘Madama Butterfly’ as the notary who officiates the wedding. In my second year I did Fiorello in ‘Barber,’ I did the Marquis in ‘Traviata.’
“My third year, there was a full-circle moment because they did ‘Porgy and Bess’ a second time and I was in my final year of the program. I did Lawyer Frazier. That was my most prominent role as a young artist, which was cool because my scene was with Eric Owens and I got a chance to sing with him onstage.
“And of course, you do lots of concerts and collaborations with the Civic Orchestra that we did at Symphony Center and stuff at Grant Park. You may not get a lot of exposure on stage, but they provide a lot of different opportunities to have a chance to perform. Performance is our best teacher.”
To be asked to return to Lyric several years later to play the lead in “Fire,” after performing the role during an historic reopening run at the Met a few months earlier, is “very special.”
“Lyric is my home company and the place where I grew up,” says Liverman. “And for all these events to have happened that have led up to this after already having done it at the Met, I’m really excited. I’m excited to work at Lyric in this way and to go from a young chorister to a young artist to a leading guy there. And to do this show that I know so well and that my colleagues know so well and to basically pick up where we left off from our last performance at the Met. We have a special opportunity to go even deeper with the story.
“And to be honest, it’s great to be able to work from home, which is really rare. I’m really excited for the opportunity to do this role at Lyric and to find new things in it. And to welcome Jacqueline Echols, who is going to be taking over the role of Destiny, so we will have some new cast members which will be great to hear their voices in this piece and add to it in a special way. It will be great to revisit this and come back home.”
Does Liverman remain bothered by the severity of the language in the piece? “Not so much,” he says, laughing. “Once I knew the context of the story, definitely not. Coming at it cold and looking at the aria without any reference to what the story was, I was just trying to learn it to present something for the Met and they were under a very tight window for me to get this aria together. I did a summary of what it was about so I knew what I was singing about, but I still didn’t really know. But this guy’s pissed off and I understand why. As soon as the curtain opens, that aria is right at the top. And the genius of the piece is that it starts with, he’s got the gun and he’s about to go kill his cousin and prepare to die. But if you don’t know the story it’s like, what is he mad about? Then they go back in time and you see why and how these things happened. And then you get a mirroring effect where he sings it again. And now you have the full context of why he’s about to kill the cousin. It is like an eleven o’clock number, but it’s also what starts the piece.”
Does the Mom who sent Liverman to Wheaton College view the language in the opera as acceptingly as he does? “Well, it took me a long time,” Liverman admits. “I was like, ‘Look. Remember, I am a singing actor. What you see on stage is me being a character.’ But Mom actually enjoyed it! I was very surprised. I had a friend of mine who went to see the Met HD broadcast with them in Norfolk at our local theater and it was pretty packed there. My friend at intermission made an announcement, ‘These are the parents of the star of the show!’ Everybody in the movie theater started clapping. My mom really enjoyed that moment and she enjoyed the show. They were moved by it and she was crying and stuff. They couldn’t get to New York because of the Delta variant so we hope to work something out for them to see it in Chicago.”
Was Liverman prepared for the immense phenomenon that “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” became? He sighs deeply. “Nothing could really prepare you,” he says. “Nothing. You have those moments that just sit with you. I’m sure this will be deeply with me for the rest of my life. I’ll always remember.
“I remember we were coming—or we thought we were coming—out of COVID and right around July or August when I was prepping to go to New York to start rehearsals, here comes the Delta variant. And that was a very scary thing for all of us because we were like, ‘Oh, crap. We’re going to get back to square one.’ Just as summer is peaking, people are out, people are starting to get vaccinated, and here comes this variant we don’t know anything about. I remember Peter Gelb saying, ‘We’re hopeful, but we’re not entirely sure if this show is going to have an opening.’ But we still kept going to rehearsal every day. It was like, ‘Well, we made it through another day of rehearsal. We’re not cancelled yet.’ Things sort of continued and we got masked up, we got tested twice a week. So, there is that element of the unknown of, ‘Are we going to make it?’ And then all of the sudden, we made it.
“And then here we are, a year-and-a-half later, opening the Met season after we had been shutdown since March of 2020. Just thinking about what that means and the idea that we have our first Black composer ever to be featured on the Met stage. Also, telling a story about a living person who is also out there in the audience. There were so many things wracking my brain.
“The thing that really kept me going to just stay calm, even though I was seeing myself on buses in Times Square and stuff, was that I knew that this piece was way bigger than me. I knew that I wanted to do a great job. It wasn’t about me getting a good review or this is my moment. I was already very thankful for the career that I had thus far. It was about doing a great job for the movement and for Terence and for Kasi [Lemmons, librettist] and for this is our time as Black artists to really show that yes, these stories are relevant and we have the talent and prose to carry a show and for it to be meaningful and impactful. I just want to do my best to use that platform to represent that. I couldn’t allow myself to get freaked out. It just became bigger than me and I feel like the spirits and the ancestors of my family and everybody just really carried me and kept my mind super-clear.
“I remember at curtain when the orchestra started tuning, we could just hear the audience erupt over the intercom. For two minutes straight, all they did was tune and we heard it backstage. I start the show so I’m sitting there, so people in the wings are like, ‘You’ve got this, Will, you got it.’ All that. The support from the chorus, the other cast, was just, I just felt carried in a way. Just so comfortable. We’re here. And it really helped get me through.
“It’s been so special because never before in an opera have I seen something that had so much authentic Blackness represented on stage. This is not ‘Porgy and Bess.’ The scene where Charles goes to church and tries to seek salvation there. Those moments where you could look on that stage and folks could see themselves. ‘Oh, my gosh. I remember that.’ Folks in the audience—and Black folks in particular—could see themselves.
“Here’s the thing. I think while it is a story about a Black man, and that’s very significant and important, the unexpected thing for me was that a lot of folks could relate to the story in some kind of way where there’s the mom, or maybe they’ve had a very similar experience of abuse. We’re talking about something that is a very sensitive subject that we don’t really touch on in opera. Folks really could see themselves on stage in a way, and felt seen. Black, white, Asian. That was the unexpected thing for me, was folks would come up to me. That was a weird thing, too: being recognized in the street! Who knows opera singers? Even with my mask on, people would know it was me and say, ‘I really enjoyed your performance. It was really moving, the whole opera.’”
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at Lyric Opera, 20 North Wacker Drive at Madison, (312)827-5600, lyricopera.org. March 24-April 8.