The Factotum

A scene from Act I of “The Factotum” by Will Liverman and DJ King Rico.

“The Factotum” had its world premiere to much fanfare in February of this year. Lyric Opera of Chicago commissioned a new work from baritone Will Liverman and his lifelong friend DJ King Rico, and they chose to riff on Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” by creating a modern look at the barbershop. This establishment is in an unspecified part of the South Side of Chicago.

This groundbreaking work with a cast entirely made up of people of color sold out all five performances of its original run at Harris Theater for Music and Dance. But if you missed “The Factotum” the first time around, don’t despair. Lyric has now released a film version which can now be viewed for free. Having seen both opening night at the Harris and now this version, I can say that the latter — in the hands of local filmmaker Raphael Nash — is even better than the former.

“The Factotum” is the story of Mike (played by Will Liverman), who runs the barbershop. He is a legitimate businessman who operates the shop during the day, while his older brother Garby (Norman Garrett) runs an illegal numbers operation there by night. This creates considerable tension between the brothers, who inherited the barbershop from their father. Things are further complicated by the fact that their niece Cece (Nisssi Shalome), an aspiring dancer who stopped speaking after her mother’s death, is about to matriculate at Howard University with Garby paying her every expense from his ill-gotten gains. Police raid Garby’s operation and Cece is assaulted by the cops in a horrifying taser scene. This jolts Garby and leads him to an important decision.

The battle-of-brothers story is also entwined with two love stories. One is comic: Mike can’t see that a wonderful woman he works with, Chantel (Melody Betts), cares deeply for him. The other is more passionate and complicated: Garby’s girlfriend Rose (Cecilia Violetta Lopez) is unexpectedly reunited with old flame CJ (Martin Luther Clark) and must choose between the two men. There’s even a shout out to Hyde Park, where Garby wants Rose to live.

This opera is not really based on “The Barber of Seville” but is inspired by it. In both cases, the barber is central to the action. For Rossini this is Figaro and for Liverman it is Mike. Both are characters who are called on by others for help. Figaro is a clever schemer while Mike is a man of wisdom and avuncular advice. Further, Liverman and Rico have created their own story with detailed and multifaceted characters. This is truly an original work, inspired by one of the most loved operas in the canon. Both the music and the story details are contemporary, but there is also the universal message of the power of community which shines throughout the work.

To create the film Nash used two recordings of the original run as well as another recording made without an audience (so that cameras could be situated in places that would not be possible during a live performance). He has edited these together brilliantly and for me the result outperforms the live performance. This is because we can get a better, more intimate look at the action than even conductor Kedrick Armstrong could have had from the pit. There are of course many wide-angle views of the entire stage, but most of the time we get the perfect frame of action, allowing us to see the faces of these expressive singers, their subtle gestures, as well as the details of the barbershop in which the action takes place. The dances are particularly well edited, allowing both the big picture as well as close-in views of the movement.

As I was watching the film I had many of the same reactions as when I saw the live performance. First and foremost, I was and still am struck by the power and the persuasion of Will Liverman. He’s a baritone with a rich voice of many colors and great depth. He is a commanding presence on stage with his ability to connect text to music. He seemed to perfectly embody the story. You read about composers who have conducted their own operas. But I have never heard of an opera where the composer sung the major role themselves. Of course he’s amazing — he knows exactly what the composer wants! This made the performance exciting for me in a way I hadn’t contemplated the first time around.

The musical styles employed in “The Factotum” are unusual for opera: Gospel, funk, hip-hop, R&B and even some marvelous barbershop quartets. I know some folks who saw it in the original run felt it wasn’t an opera because of the genre music employed. I disagree with that. For example, I believe “Jesus Christ Superstar” is indeed an opera, and that’s written entirely in a rock idiom.

There are a few things which make it less satisfactory as an opera. It is not through-composed, meaning that there are some spoken portions, which I find interrupts the flow. But Beethoven’s “Fidelio” is far worse on this measure. “The Factotum” also seems more like musical theater than opera with its collection-of-songs structure. Yet opera has had numerous jolts of new ideas on form throughout its history. Whether it’s an opera or a musical, I will leave it to the viewer. But to answer that question, you need to experience it. And I recommend you do.

“The Factotum” will be available for free viewing for the next four months. Visit for a joyful look at life in this special Chicago barbershop.

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