When operatic baritone Will Liverman saw a documentary about Jonathan Larson, the late composer of “Rent,” Liverman was intrigued by Larson’s updated reconfiguration of Puccini’s “La bohème” and had the clever idea to do the same for Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Liverman had sung the role many times and wanted to reboot it to a contemporary South Side Black barbershop with himself as the barber, and a hip-hop soundscape.
Did I mention Liverman did not commission such an update for himself but decided to compose it himself? And the lyrics? And the libretto? All with the help of his high-school friend DJ King Rico, although Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj is also listed as a book writer and is also the director.
The end result—given its world premiere by Lyric Opera at a sold-out Harris Theater Friday night and dubbed “The Factotum”—was a unique, though confounding experience, to say the least.
Hip-hop is about rhythm and groove with spoken word punctuations. Opera is about singing and melodic line. Can two such disparate worlds be effectively cross-fertilized? Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” showed it can be done in an innovative way with impact. In “The Factotum,” the rhythms and grooves are there, to be sure. Laid on top of them, however, is a chatty and cumbersome libretto that is wordy and overly syllabic, lacking the directness, simplicity and swagger of hip-hop. Having opera singers deliver those words in full-on operatic voice with operatic gravitas and emphasis on sustained vowels and swallowed consonants and a vital element of hip-hop, i.e., immediate and visceral communication, is gone. In fact, without constantly looking away from a busy stage and three video screens to look up at the dense supertitles of a work being sung in the same language, “The Factotum” can be a challenge to comprehend.
Yes, there were small samples of the familiar Overture to “The Barber of Seville” embedded in the backbeat score here and there. But there was more actual Rossini in say, the 1979 coming-of-age film “Breaking Away.” There was little attempt to transpose the light and comic plot of “Barber” to the heavy melodrama of “The Factotum.” Figaro is a carefree spirit, but Mike the barber has all kinds of problems including a brother who uses the shop to run an illegal numbers game after hours and a dancer niece heading off to college who, left alone in the shop, is tased by police during the chaos of a raid.
The niece being a dancer means that much of “The Factotum” is performed in ballet-like pantomime where backbeats are traded out for pop-like Muzak with jazz touches. It is unclear what the niece’s silence is supposed to symbolize, but movement is her preferred mode of expression until after the tasing. The characters who inhabit the barbershop are also introduced by movement and pantomime with a barbershop quartet that doesn’t sing four-part barbershop-quartet harmony.
There is a lot going on “The Factotum,” subplots that meander in and out, juxtaposing of styles that stop and start without transitions, characters interacting and preaching in an omniscient manner with little distinct characterization and a finale that breaks off more than resolves.
Whatever one wants to make of “Rent”—I am an unabashed fan—it brilliantly transposed the plot and feeling of Puccini’s “bohème” into a new time and sound world. But then, Jonathan Larson was literally a contemporary bohemian who lived and knew the world of the starving artist: so much so, he never lived to see the success of his work. Pre-“Factotum,” Will Liverman was neither a composer nor a South Side barber, but an opera singer who often happened to play an eighteenth-century barber onstage.
Lyric Opera’s “The Factotum” at Harris Theater at Millennium Park, 205 East Randolph, lyricopera.org. Through February 12.