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Opinion | Go See These Black Operas

But this requires, again, doing the work. The story, based on the best-selling memoir of my New York Times colleague, the columnist Charles Blow, is indeed “arresting.” The fraternity step-show sequence is as electrifying as the word around town has noted. But even though Blanchard infuses the music with aspects of blues and jazz in spots, overall, the music is not only unparallel to how actual people express themselves — as in all opera — but is written in a modern classical language that requires the ear to reach even further than, say, “Don Giovanni” does.

We are asked, then, to process working-class Black people expressing themselves in a musical language most of which a composer such as Paul Hindemith would have found familiar. The dissociation reminds me of a moment in “Emperor Norton,” a modern opera I saw in which a character describes the power of the railroad in musical language that mimics trains not at all and sounds more like someone saying he’s dizzy and needs to lie down. I took this as a challenge but was glad I had had a lot of coffee before the performance.

In a sense, both “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “Highway 1, U.S.A.” can be seen as cultural appropriation of music typically thought of as white — a good thing in itself.

However, the tradition being appropriated here is based on a philosophy of composition and audience reception hardly inevitable. Only in the late 19th century did the custom settle in, as ordinary among Western music patrons, that one sit politely through pieces of considerable length that didn’t occasionally, and deliberately, dazzle audiences with virtuoso feats.

As such, “Highway 1” and “Fire” are, like most modern classical music works, best appreciated via multiple viewings or listenings. If memory serves, one of the Black chorus members in Virgil Thomson’s 1928 “Four Saints in Three Acts” recalled later in life that the elliptical lyrics Gertrude Stein wrote for that opera started to make a kind of sense after you sang them night after night. But suppose you get to see the piece only once? That is the kind of challenge that pieces like these two operas present: I have already bought a recording of “Highway 1” to listen to while I cook and to allow the music, over time, to get under my skin. But I worry most people who saw this piece recently are unlikely to do that. A part of me wishes it had been easier to “get” more on first viewing.

I respect operas like these, am elated that they exist and am always up for sampling others. But the two pieces I have just seen leave me with a guilty feeling I suspect many share: a desire that they appropriated from white music a little less!

In Black music that’s fused with white music, I am more excited when the musical language is more viscerally embraceable beyond sheer beauty of texture. Give me quirky melody and dense harmony, yes, but with beginnings and endings that can be gleaned and appreciated in real time, not just after close study, and jazz and blues language (as well as, perhaps, composition from other Black musical traditions) not necessarily foregrounded, but not elusive either. A workout, yes, but one that leaves me with exercise-bike euphoria.

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