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Composer, Trumpeter Terence Blanchard Talks Upcoming Opera Premiere, Working With Spike Lee

Terence Blanchard, photographed at St. Louis Public Radio in March. [6/14/19]
File | Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

The name Terence Blanchard is well known in the worlds of jazz and opera. The Academy Award nominee and Grammy Award-winning composer/trumpeter scored a big hit a few years ago with “Champion”, a joint co-commission by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) and Jazz St. Louis about boxer Emile Griffith.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with Blanchard about his latest OSTL commissioned production, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” as well as his work on the recent Spike Lee film, "BlacKkKlansman."

The new opera will premiere June 15. It is based on the memoir of celebrated writer and New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Blanchard said Blow’s compelling story includes the writer’s traumatic upbringing from being molested by family members.

“The book is a memoir about his struggles growing up, being a little different from everybody else in the family and people not really understanding where he's coming from and he didn't necessarily fit in … and his trials and tribulations of dealing with that,” he explained.

“Just in talking to him, how he still deals with those issues today as a grown person, [is] an amazing thing to see because he's become so successful and so brilliant at what it is that he does – you wouldn't think that he would still have these issues, but they still linger.”

Despite sometimes feeling like “a fish out of water” in the opera business, Blanchard said he’s had a great experience working with OSTL. Blanchard explained he was approached about writing a jazz opera for the main stage six years ago.

“I literally thought they were crazy. I'm like, ‘You want me to write an opera? Okay, where's this coming from?’ But it's been one of the greatest experiences of my life,” he said. “[Opera Theatre of St. Louis] has broken down the stigma of what opera is for me – it's storytelling, that’s really what it is.”

Working on ‘BlacKkKlansman’ and with Spike Lee

Blanchard also enjoys working with film director, producer, writer, and actor Spike Lee. They’ve worked on numerous projects together for nearly 30 years.

Blanchard's main theme for “BlacKkKlansman,” “Blut Und Boden (Blood and Soil),” also just won Best Instrumental Composition at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards.

“[Spike Lee] is a very outspoken person and I think sometimes people may be a little nervous about what he might say when given the microphone,” Blanchard continued, “[When] he won the Oscar this time, for the first time, he started talking about bringing the country together and I think that was a shock for a lot of people but that's really the Spike that I know.

“I think he gets a bad rap because people confuse that with him being an angry black man … for me he's a New Yorker first. And I think what everybody experiences is the New York side of him – the outspoken side of him – but I've always viewed him as a person who cares about everybody.”

Listen to the full discussion: 

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Jon Lewis give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.