In Chicago, ‘Opera Can Be Hip-Hop, and Hip-Hop Can Be Opera’

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

“It talked about how ‘Rent’ came to be, and how this guy had the idea of taking ‘La Bohème’ and updating it,” Liverman said in an interview this month. “I was wondering why more classics aren’t updated — taking them for ourselves and spinning a new narrative that reclaims the story and tells something that’s meaningful for us.”

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

The years since have proven that Liverman isn’t 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 star turn in Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” last season, but also shepherded new commissions. And now, with his old friend DJ King Rico, he has taken on composing as well.

Together they have updated “Barber,” loosely adapting its story into one about a barbershop on the South Side of Chicago and blending operatic writing with a kaleidoscope of styles like 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 dramaturg and director. The result, “The Factotum” — its title recalls the famous Rossini aria “Largo al factotum” — opens Feb. 3 at Lyric Opera of 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 them, young Black men, what place they could have in a world like opera, and how free the art form could be.

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

On the bus, the pair would hold court, singing songs like Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz’s “Get Low” in classical voices. “The girls would go crazy,” DJ King Rico said; but more important, the playfulness taught him “that opera can be hip-hop, and hip-hop can be opera. It’s the same notes.”

In a joint video interview, Liverman and DJ King Rico talked about writing “The Factotum,” and the place it might come to have in the opera world. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

“The possibilities just seemed endless,” Liverman said about composing an opera.Credit…Lawrence Agyei for The New York Times

Composing opera is new for both of you. How has it felt to be working in this mode?

DJ KING RICO When Will hit me up about this, that was the farthest 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 make this us. It’s going to be really, really authentic.

WILL LIVERMAN The exciting thing was, the possibilities just 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’d record something and listen back to it a bunch of times and really pinpoint what things were working and what things we could fix.

DJ KING RICO For me, it’s been cool to play 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, engineering. Whatever helps the process move along, just removing the ego, and that has been transformational.

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

LIVERMAN It’s been a big discovery, because we’re also both the composers and librettists. I loved writing parodies back in the day; if TikTok was a thing in my 20s, I’d be all over that. But now, we noticed there are certain words that just sound so corny if you try to sing them operatically, like “That’s so dope.” And in these styles, you have to keep space 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 need to actually breathe here, or do that. On the creating side, you also start thinking about vowels and certain words that speak better.

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

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

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

About the barbershop. In Rajendra’s director’s note, he compares that space to the theater, as a gathering place. What did that idea open up for you in the opera’s story?

LIVERMAN One of the cool things about going into a barbershop is, you never know who’s going to come in. Everybody needs to get their hair cut, from the gangster to the preacher to the teacher. It’s a safe space for us to really be and speak our truths. It’s so much more than a haircut. My hair was a mess about a month ago; I was looking like Moses in “The Ten Commandments.” But I go to my guy in Chicago, and I just listen in on the conversations — the openness, the honesty, the funny things, the joy. Then, at the end of it, I come out a new person. I feel like art has the power to do that.

DJ KING RICO They definitely both provide community. And a work like this allows multiple people to come together. If you’ve seen the things in this story and been impacted by them, probably someone next to you has experienced the same thing. So, you can come together and feel joy in that.

DJ King Rico at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “Opera can be fun!” he said. “There’s room for everything.”Credit…Lawrence Agyei for The New York Times

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

DJ KING RICO Opera can be fun! There’s room for everything. And so if we’re going to put something like this on on a Friday, let’s make this a thing, a vibe. Let’s experience the art and then kick it after. There’s a renaissance that happening, and I’m just thankful that we’re a part of it. Because opera changed my life as a 14-year-old kid 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 going forward for future generations.

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

Then there are young kids of color. But there are also young kids period, and older people. I want this to be a story of humanity, like Rico said, coming together. You see so much of the sad mask in opera, but I think there’s 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.

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