Dr. William Grant Still

Is jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard honored that his work will be staged at the hallowed Metropolitan Opera? “It’s a phenomenal honor,” he told the New York Times. “But,” he said, “it’s bittersweet.”

Part of that “but” is that Blanchard’s Metropolitan Opera debut marks a first that should have happened a long time ago. The Met opened in 1883, and Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” will be the company’s first-ever opera by a Black composer.

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In nearly the same breath, Blanchard mentions that he was recently in St. Louis to see an opera by William Grant Still, a one-act called “Highway 1, U.S.A.” “And I’m like, OK, he was around,” Blanchard said. “I’m honored, but I’m not the first qualified person to be here, that’s for sure.”

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In 1919, William Grant Still was in his 20s — many years from the eminence he would later enjoy as the widely acknowledged “dean” of Black American composers.

But he had already begun to write operas, and he boldly approached the nation’s most important company: the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We have no evidence he got an answer.

Two decades later, Still was far more established, with his “Afro-American Symphony” widely performed. In 1935, he sent the Met “Blue Steel,” its music infused with jazz and spirituals. “Not worthy of consideration,” a company official wrote in an internal submissions ledger.

Then Still wrote another opera, “Troubled Island,” about the Haitian revolution, with a libretto by the poet Langston Hughes. “The Metropolitan was our first target, logically enough,” he later recalled. That, too, was dismissed.

“It would be a mere waste of time,” a 1942 entry in that submissions ledger went, “to go into details about this opera which is an immature product of two dilettantes.”

Dilettante! (William Grant Still composed five symphonies, nine operas, four ballets and a legion of works for chorus, solo instruments and chamber ensembles. He was the first Black person to conduct a major national orchestra and the first Black person to have an opera performed on national TV.)

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It’s not the first time Still got his roses too late to smell them; his namesake adorns the Grand Ballroom of Robinson Center, a performance hall in which seating remained segregated until well into Still’s composing career.