Last month, The Metropolitan Opera’s opening night performance marked not only the historic re-opening of the house after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a season-long closure, but it also welcomed the eagerly awaited premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones—the Met’s first performance of an opera composed by a Black composer. Recently, I learned that my friend and neighbor, Dr. Angel Caraballo, served as a consultant to the company, advising on the strong adult themes noted on the Met’s website.
Over Zoom, Dr. Caraballo shared with me about the meeting he had with leadership at the Met to gauge if he, his interests, and the company’s needs were a match—not only for this production, but for future ones as well. Dr. Caraballo is a psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry.
Angel Caraballo explains why he accepted the job, “ I said ‘Absolutely, I totally want to do this.’ I love the opera, and this would be such an honor. They wanted me to serve as a consultant to anyone involved with the show—but specifically because there are children in it—and specifically to talk about the part of the show, of the abuse—and to talk about the implications of that from a mental health point of view, and the potential implications of that to children. I was going to help everyone make sure that things were being done in a developmentally appropriate way. And so, in that role, I was potentially going to be speaking to basically everyone in the creative process, ranging from performers and even parents of performers, to directors and intimacy coaches.”
Caraballo advises that the score contains direct references to acts of sexual abuse that are recorded in the book (Charles Blow’s memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones) He points to this as a prime source of where anxiety among any number of participants involved can come from, and notes that in mental health-performance-based consultation like this—certainly like his own experience at the Met with Fire…—it’s vital to clarify with those involved what will not happen.
When did the Met engage you in this process?
These conversations began early on, even before casting had been fully completed. And we wanted to make sure this was done live, in person. And so once they’d completed the casting, and rehearsals were about to begin, I went to the Met—which was super cool to be in the back!—and met with everyone and had multiple, different meetings that day. We talked about multiple things, specifically the issue of sexual molestation and things like the gun.
For university programs or companies unable to engage a mental health consultant, what recommendations do have for a creative team—for a director or choreographer? What questions should the artistic team be asking themselves, and what conversations should they be prepared to have with their cast and company?
First of all, don’t make assumptions that you know where anyone is at. One of the things that was evident to me in having some of these meetings was that people were at very different stages as to what this all meant—as to what the score meant, and the degree of comfort and anxiety around it. You want to make sure that you understand where people are at, and that their questions and their concerns are being addressed.
My participation included making sure that they felt comfortable—that they knew that they were being listened to. Specifically, helping to create and ensure a safe environment in which if a performer asks, “If I feel uncomfortable with something and I bring it up, are they going to listen to me?” the answer will be yes. The people who are thinking about this really need to be thoughtful that not everyone is comfortable with talking about these issues with their kids. Some people are in different places.
What advice do you have for parents that they want to take their kids to Fire Shut Up in My Bones, and/or for this to be their introduction to going to the opera?
Think of it in the same way that you would see movies. This is something that would definitely be at least PG-13. I took my twelve year-old daughter, and before I took her, I had a conversation about what this was. My kids [ages 12 & 15] already knew because I was reading the book—listening to the book in front of them. I purposely did that to have a conversation with them.
I think this is a great introduction to the opera and the topic is actually a very important topic to discuss with children, as long as you’re ready to have the discussion. I think that the way it’s done in the opera is masterful.