Interview conducted by AGMA’s Director of Communications Alicia Cook. Published on page 16 of the Fall 2021 issue of AGMAzine.
Following an “intermission” that went on for what seemed like an eternity, opening night of the 2021–22 Met season optimistically arrived. Coming back from the shutdown notwithstanding, opening night was a historic occasion—it marked The Met's first performance of an opera by a Black composer and Black director. The Met reopened its curtains with Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. “Fire,” for short.
AGMA members Kenneth Floyd, Chorister, and Jōvan Dansberry, Dancer, were both featured in the production.
“I have long admired and followed Mr. Blanchard’s career via his film scoring and when I heard we were opening the season with his opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, I was so elated.” expressed Kenneth Floyd, who has been a part of The Met Chorus since 2005. “The notion that, through the racial turmoil the nation was enduring while battling a global pandemic, and a grueling contract negotiation with The Metropolitan Opera formalizing many DEI initiatives, they would be opening the season with an opera about an African-American man, written by an African-American composer, and with an all African-American cast, was a bold move toward The Met becoming an industry leader in bringing diversity, equity and inclusion to the stage and in programming.”
In March 2020, Floyd returned from a 10-minute break during a music rehearsal of Simon Boccanegra and learned those 10-minutes were going to extend much longer, due to COVID-19. He took a job as a COVID-19 Disinfection Technician on the set of a new Apple TV show. He was promoted after six months to the position of PPE Administrator and finished the run with the production company in July 2021, just in time to make history at The Met.
“There are going to be grand productions such as La bohème and Turandot, but it’s exciting to be a part of new productions that move outside traditional boundaries,” Floyd said. “I’ve enjoyed the film scoring of Terence Blanchard and Nico Muhly and now their operas are so accessible to the audience. Now if only we can get Howard Shore to compose an opera of Lord of the Rings. Ha!”
Floyd was featured in The New York Times in an article which chronicled the production from rehearsal to opening night. In the article, Floyd was quoted as saying that the performance felt “different because of new faces in the auditorium.”
“Growing up in the South as a young singer of classical music, often there wasn’t much diversity in the audience at my recitals other than my family members and a few senior African-American women from my church who supported me. ” he explained further to AGMAzine. “Usually, looking out into The Met’s audience during a performance, one could still see that lack of diversity. But this time, even before the curtain went up, the scene on the plaza was consumed by a sense of arrival and proudness on this historic night.”
Jōvan Dansberry was coming off the successful run of Porgy and Bess at The Met, as well as performing in Le nozze di Figaro and La traviata, when he got word that they’d be closing down. During the shutdown, he honed his acting skills, taking virtual acting classes and seminars and was cast in a few film and television projects. Dansberry was also involved in working to bring theater back, as a member of the Associate Board of Classic Stage Company (CSC), as well as The Met/AGMA Negotiating Committee.
“I still have such a hard time putting into words how momentous opening night of Fire was for me. There are so many layers,” Dansberry said. “Here we are, back on stage after a complete shutdown for 18-plus months. After the country has been truly shaken by a racial awakening, the first production to launch The Met season is this historic and incredible production led by The Met’s first Black composer and first Black director. And not only do I get to help create this historic moment, I get to be in the room with the actual composer, which is so unusual for a Met production. Watching Terrance work and make changes in real time was truly remarkable. I also got to perform with 11 dancers that I have also looked up to and been inspired by for years, but never got to share a stage with all together. Lastly, there are so many aspects of Fire Shut Up in My Bones that I can relate to as a gay Black man. It gave me so much joy and pride to be a part of the telling of that story on The Met Opera stage.”
Dansberry has been a Dancer at The Met since 2014. Dancing at an opera house, compared to dancing at a ballet company, sometimes raises some eyebrows.
“I have spent a lot of time trying to explain to family and friends what I do when I say, ‘I’m a dancer at The Met Opera.’ They usually ask, ‘You’re an opera singer?’ and my new response is ‘Not yet!’ ” Dansberry shared with a laugh. “All kidding aside, what is truly unique about The Met Opera is that you are getting the best talent from all the Arts together on such a grand scale; the best singers, orchestra musicians, dancers, costumes, sets, and so on. For me, what is so important and transformative about incorporating dance and movement in these productions is that dancers are the physical essence that gives the music and story more life.”
Preparing for this production was no easy feat. Music rehearsals started early in the preseason and Fire was rehearsed alongside the other responsibilities of Met Artists.
“Before rehearsal started, I was nervous,” admitted Dansberry. “With the Delta Variant surging, we were wondering if we were going to have to shut down. After being out of practice for 18 months, I was wondering if I was going to be able to retain choreography. But when I walked into the room, I saw so many familiar faces who were all available at the same time, because of the pandemic, to create magic together. We started with the Step number, and that required us to have a sense of brotherhood right away.”
While returning from a long hiatus would be emotional under any circumstances, for the Artists of The Met, their reunion was bittersweet because one of their own was missing. Chorister Danrell Williams, who unexpectedly died during the closure, was honored and remembered, and was there in spirit.
Opening night arrived and as Floyd and Dansberry described, it was a night to remember. The New York Times reported that the performers received an unbelievable eight-minute ovation.
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones is truly an extraordinary work and I think it’s so well received for many reasons. It’s groundbreaking for telling a Queer Black story, the representation of a Black fraternity on The Met Opera stage, as well as the dynamic movement that we don’t often get to see in an opera. I think it exhilarates the audience because they don’t often get to experience something like that. I hope that those people who did experience it left The Met with a lasting impression that there is a place for these stories to be told on a grand scale.”
At press time, Floyd and Dansberry were looking forward to safely completing the season at The Met.
“My hope for the future of opera is that it keeps finding ways to bring people inside,” Floyd said. “We need to keep educating so others realize that the genre is more accessible than they originally thought. I hope opera companies find ways to diversify their programming, so their audiences will see themselves reflected and know that they belong in the room.”
“I believe large Arts institutions often have been afraid to challenge norms,” added Dansberry. “My hope is that more well-established institutions can help propel new stories, storytellers, and Young Artists to the forefront. As for opera, I think we must realize that it can and should be for everyone. We have seen so many first-time opera goers with Fire Shut Up in My Bones. This is because we are telling a story about a community that hadn’t up to this point had a voice on that stage before – and there are so many more stories of others to tell!”