In Chicago, ‘Opera can be hip-hop and hip-hop can be opera’

Baritone Will Liverman was singing in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” about five years ago when he saw a documentary about Jonathan Larson and his musical “Rent.”

“He was talking about how ‘Rent’ came about and how this guy had the idea to take ‘La Bohème’ and update it,” Liverman said in an interview this month. “I was wondering why more classics aren’t updated, taking them for ourselves and creating a new narrative that takes the story back and tells something that’s meaningful to us.”

Then he visited a black barbershop and an idea occurred to him: this could be the setting for a new version of Rossini, like “La Bohème”, one of the most beloved operas in the repertoire. “The thing is,” Liverman said, “I didn’t really take over the agency about writing anything because I felt like I was just a singer. I was like, man, someone should do this.”

The years since have shown that Liverman is not just a singer. An enterprising artist on the rise, he has not only become a fixture of contemporary works at the Metropolitan Opera, including a starring role in Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” last season, but has also directed new commissions. . And now, with his old friend DJ King Rico, he has also started composing.

Together they have updated “Barber,” loosely adapting its story to one about a barbershop on Chicago’s South Side and mixing operatic writing with a kaleidoscope of styles including R&B, funk, hip-hop, gospel, rap, and, of course, barbershop. . quartet. Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj joined them, collaborating on the show’s book and becoming its playwright and director. The result, “The Factotum”, whose title recalls Rossini’s famous aria “Largo al factotum”, opens on February 3 at the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

Liverman, 34, and DJ King Rico, 33, met as teenagers at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Virginia. There, they found a mentor in Robert Brown, a teacher with a gospel background who taught black youth what place they could have in a world like opera and how free this art form could be.

“We had someone to look up to who was just like us, who taught us what opera was but could also play the keys and play the craziest rendition of anything you’ve ever heard,” Liverman said. “That’s what really sparked it all, even before we knew what was inside of us. He instilled that.”

On the bus, the pair were courting, singing songs like “Get Low” by Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz with classical vocals. “The girls would go crazy,” said DJ King Rico; but more importantly, joy taught him “that opera can be hip-hop and hip-hop can be opera. They are the same notes.

In a joint video interview, Liverman and DJ King Rico discussed writing “The Factotum” and its potential place in the world of opera. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Composing opera is new for both of them. How did it feel to work in this mode?

DJ RICH KING When Will brought this to my attention, that was the furthest thing from my mind. I sang opera in high school; I did it for two years. That was really cool, but then I went the other route. So when he came back, what immediately started playing in my mind was like, OK, we’re going to do this for ourselves. It’s going to be very, very authentic.

LIVERMAN The exciting thing was that the possibilities seemed endless. There was a lot of trial and error, figuring out how the operatic voice can serve these styles we know and love. We were in the studio; we would record something and listen to it a bunch of times and really identify what things were working and what things we could fix.

DJ RICH KING For me, it’s been great playing various roles. That’s what the factotum is: a jack of all trades. Having to master a lot of different things throughout this process: writing the music, recording, designing. Whatever helps the process move forward, just removing the ego, and that’s been transformative.

There’s an added layer here, Will, of writing for yourself in the role of Mike.

LIVERMAN It has been a great discovery, because we are also composers and librettists. I loved writing parodies back in the day; if TikTok was a thing in my 20s, I’d be on it. But now, we realized that there are certain words that sound really cheesy if you try to sing them operatic, like “That’s so cool.” And in these styles, you have to leave room for the operatic voice to feel natural.

There were some things that I sing for my part that I had to rewrite because it’s like, Oh man, I really need to breathe in here, or do that. On the creation side, you also start thinking about vowels and certain words that speak better.

Given how wide the range of styles is in this opera, how did you arrive at what sounded right for a given moment?

DJ RICH KING I don’t think we ever got to what felt completely right until Rajendra came on board. He helped complete the story line, and even now, in rehearsals we’re still fine-tuning it. But as far as whether to use hip-hop or gospel or whatever, I think it’s more the emotion that we want the audience to feel and what supports it.

We used to play this clip of Basquiat saying, “Black people are not represented in these spaces.” But we exist here, so we’re being very intentional about being ourselves in this space. Then there’s this song, “Conversation,” where it’s got all the genres mixed into one so you get to see all the personalities of the different characters in the barbershop. We wanted it to feel a bit chaotic and authentic.

About the barbershop In Rajendra’s director’s note, he compares that space to the theater, as a meeting place. What opened that idea to you in the history of opera?

LIVERMAN One of the best things about going to a barbershop is that you never know who is going to walk in. Everyone needs a haircut, from the gangster to the preacher to the teacher. It is a safe space for us to really be and speak our truths. It is much more than a haircut. My hair was a mess about a month ago; I looked like Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” But I go to my guy in Chicago, and I just listen to the conversations: the openness, the honesty, the fun stuff, the joy. Then at the end, I come out as a new person. I feel like art has the power to do that.

DJ RICH KING Both definitely provide community. And a job like this allows multiple people to come together. If you have seen the things in this story and they have impacted you, probably someone next to you has experienced the same thing. So you can come together and feel joy in that.

The Metropolitan Opera said recently, in a throwback of sorts, that contemporary works have become box office giveaways, including Will, the sold-out run of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” you were in. Not only were those seats filled, but the audience was also visibly different. Do you see “The Factotum” aiming for something similar?

DJ RICH KING Opera can be fun! There is room for everything. So if we’re going to put something like this on a Friday, let’s make this a thing, a vibe. Let’s experience the art and then kick it after. There is a renaissance happening, and I am thankful that we are a part of it. Because opera changed my life when I was a 14-year-old boy studying those scores. I feel like if we can continue to expand it and expand the audience, it can continue to do the same thing in the future for future generations.

LIVERMAN I hope other artists look at this and see that anything is possible. When you have a dream or that feeling, that inner voice that says “Do this”, do it. As Rico said, one of the ways we think of the factotum is to be a jack of all trades. We put it together ourselves over a number of years, and I want it to be an inspiration for other artists to get out of a box that says “I’ve got to be in this one lane.”

Then there are the youth of color. But there are also small children and older people. I want this to be a story of humanity, as Rico said, joining. You see a lot of the sad mask in opera, but I think there is something to be said, just as powerful, about joy and happiness. We need those stories, but we also need some of the things that make the heart feel good.