Chicago classical music and opera presenters have in recent years worked to increase the participation of Black performers and other people of color. It began with programming more works by composers such as Florence Price, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, as well as hiring more people of color to perform in leading roles. The harder nut to crack was this: how do you get a more diverse array of people in the seats to enjoy this music?
When the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago a decade ago mounted the Chicago premiere of William Grant Still’s opera “Troubled Island” the South Shore Cultural Center had standing room only for a predominantly Black audience. Riccardo Muti has filled the sanctuary of the Apostolic Church of God in more than one performance in Woodlawn over the years. Yet downtown venues often have difficulty finding this audience.
Lyric Opera of Chicago has found them at last. Last Friday, Feb. 3, a new “soul opera” called “The Factotum” had its world premiere at the Harris Theater and the audience was substantially Black and younger than an average opera audience. Not only that, but all five performances of the opera were sold out before the first note sounded.
Will Liverman is a name well-known to Chicago opera fans. This popular baritone was a member of the Ryan Center at Lyric Opera early in his career and one role he has performed regularly is the title character in Rossini’s “The Barber of Saville.” Figaro introduces himself singing “Largo al Factotum,” where he describes being the fellow who can do many, many things and is therefore always being called upon for assistance. That’s the “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!” part of the opera that everyone knows, the regular cry for help from the man who can do it all.
Liverman and his lifelong friend DJ King Rico had the idea to make a loose update of the Figaro concept, with a Black barbershop on the South Side of Chicago serving as the place where the action happens. One of the many charming aspects of the story is that it is not Mike the barber (played by Liverman) who is the Factotum, it is the barbershop itself. It is the place that means many things to many people. It is a refuge, a place to seek comfort or advice, where you go when you need to spruce up your look, somewhere to discuss local happenings, and much more. This barbershop is a community anchor as well as its own compact community.
Lyric Opera commissioned the pair to create “The Factotum” and they responded with a work that is contemporary in musical feel and story, but which has a universal message of the power of community to help heal the wounded and change our lives for the better.
The music is unusual for opera. There are many popular genres represented, including gospel, funk, hip-hop and R&B. The underlying musical integument is more jazz than classical, and it is music that is accessible upon a first hearing. It is evocative and colorfully introduces the hopes and dreams of an ensemble cast packed with interesting characters.
The story is unusually well constructed and is both complex yet laid out in a way that is clear and convincing. There is tension between brothers Mike (Liverman) and Garby (Norman Garrett) because Mike operates a legitimate hair cutting business during the day, while Garby runs an illegal numbers business there at night. They worry about their niece Cece (Nissi Shalome). Her mother recently died and she hasn’t spoken since. She wants to study dance at Howard University and it is Garby’s illegal money that will pay for it. Garby’s girlfriend Rose (Cecilia Violetta Lopez) wants more attention from her man and when he is too busy, fortuitously an old flame returns. CJ (Martin Luther Clark) had loved her in the past and hopes to rekindle their romance. Chantel (Melody Betts) works at the barbershop doing women’s hair and her long-time affection for Mike, obvious to all, is invisible to him.
It is in this modest barbershop setting where the hopes and dreams of these people are played out. Liverman and Rico are splendid storytellers and they leave many things unsettled, allowing the viewer to fill in some of the gaps. (Will Mike and Chantel get together? We don’t know, but we do care!)
Kedrick Armstrong conducts in an interesting pit. There are strings and brass plus electric bass, saxophones, drum set, electric guitar, and DJ King Rico was credited on CDJ/Laptop. The music was vibrant and performed with remarkable fluidity. I was, however, disappointed at the amplification, which hardly seemed necessary.
Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj directs the work with remarkable naturalness. He ensures that the opera proceeds with clarity, humor, and impact.
This is a story with both laughter and tears, but the hope far outweighs the sadness. One of the few criticisms I can make is that the transformation of Garby from criminal to convert-to-legal-operations was far too rapid and thus difficult to credit. There was also an emotional “We Shall Overcome” moment in the opera, where the principals sang in front of a black curtain. (Did that represent a Black protest of thousands? Was it to highlight the depths of their despair?) It was powerful, yet the heart of the story always seemed to be the almost-family nature of this group and it was the family resolution that packed the greatest wallop.
Will Liverman and DJ King Rico have created a welcome new musical theater work and I expect many Chicagoans will be pleased to say, when they see that it is being produced in other places, “I saw the world premiere at the Harris.”
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