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Terence Blanchard on Writing Operas, Honoring Wayne Shorter, and More

It’s a heady moment—his first Metropolitan Opera premiere—but the trumpeter and composer shows he hasn’t forgotten who and what brought him here

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Terence Blanchard (photo: Cedric Angeles)
Terence Blanchard (photo: Cedric Angeles)

How did you decide to jump into the world of opera? 

Opera Theatre of St. Louis wanted to do a jazz opera for kids, so my name came up, but after they listened to my film scores, they got excited about putting something on the main stage. It just kind of grew from there. 

What did you initially think of the idea? 

I was like, me? You want me to write an opera? [Laughter] And then one of the administrators said something that blew me away. He said that no one had ever really defined American opera, but it seemed that American opera should have a component of jazz. That made a lot of sense to me. But I didn’t want to write a jazz opera.

You’ve described Champion and Fire as “operas in jazz.” What’s the difference between an “opera in jazz” and a jazz opera? 


A jazz opera is based around the language of jazz and swing from beginning to end. Champion and Fire have moments that are purely orchestral, so I feel like it would be misleading to call them jazz operas. 

Do you have a favorite opera? 

I’m a big Giacomo Puccini fan, and I love La Bohéme. I saw a production of Richard Strauss’ Salome at Opera Theatre of St. Louis before I started writing, and I checked out John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles. But as I began Champion, my teacher, Roger Dickerson, kept telling me, “Don’t think about writing an opera. Just tell a story.” And that’s what I did. 


What do you love about Puccini’s writing? 

How his lines develop in coordination with the libretto. There’s a correlation with the story that just seems so natural; it has a fluidity that I love, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. The story is always in the forefront of my mind.

Hearing the way you intertwine music and words in Fire Shut Up in My Bones made me wonder how you thought of pairing up particular passages.

I’d write out the libretto by hand and read it out loud. Something would hit a rhythm in the way that I was reading, and I’d write that rhythm down. I did that for every scene, notating the rhythm underneath the libretto, and when I started messing around with those rhythms on piano, the music began to reveal itself.


That reminds me of an interview where you mentioned that Spike Lee loves strong melodies, even underneath dialogue. 

I can’t remember what movie it was on, but I was worried about a particular melody fighting the dialogue, and Spike got mad when I suggested something atmospheric: “It’s been scientifically proven that the brain can concentrate on more than one thing at a time!” [Laughter] Since then, I’ve learned how to have melodies interact with dialogue in a more natural way. But my use of melody in Champion and Fire is inspired by La Bohéme. There’s just something about how strong that melodic content is. And as a jazz musician, I have an emotional concept of how to use harmony in those regards. 

What’s one notable difference between composing for opera and composing jazz? 

In most operas, a 32-bar melodic passage is based off a single tonal center, whereas in jazz, the chords in a 32-bar section are always moving. I’ve been trying to write within that jazz framework while removing some of those obvious markers so that it has all the fluidity of a Puccini opera, it doesn’t seem bound by structure, and it still has the color changes from the world of jazz.


That sounds like a fun challenge—but a challenge nonetheless.

It is a challenge, because sometimes those phrases and melodies don’t fall where we think the harmonies should fall, so I might insert another chord or two. Being jazz musicians, we’re so used to even numbers—12-bar blues, 32-bar song form—but in opera, that doesn’t matter. As long as the storyline is moving, it’s going to feel natural.

Just like adding or cutting bars of music to fit picture, right? 

It’s the same thing. The music plays, something happens on screen, and you may have to put in a bar of 5/4 or 7/4 so that the music continues. People reading it might notice that’s an odd meter, but when you’re listening to it, it doesn’t even matter.


Is there an element of improvisation in opera?

I leave plenty of room for the singers to improvise, especially in the way they approach the arias. In Champion, for example, I wrote an aria for [singer] Denyce Graves and bass. I initially thought of it like a duet between Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown, so I had written a bass groove, but Denyce made the entire thing rubato, which was killin’! The lines were still there, but it was all fluid based on how she was singing that night, which made for more personal performance.

Originally Published

E.E. Bradman

E.E. Bradman is a music journalist, Grammy-nominated bassist, stage/studio/touring musician, and musical midwife for childbirth and the dying. Currently based in Los Angeles, he designs immersive and richly textured sonic environments for theater, film, animation, audiobooks, and radio plays. Stop by and say hi at