Why do modern opera composers fear melody? This is really the question for nearly every composer of a modern opera I have ever seen.
Here are two people, Will Liverman and DJ King Rico, one of whom is absolutely immersed in the music of our present era as a working DJ (and who laid some sick beats during the show but only as scene changing music), who have the perfect opportunity to write a score full of absolute bangers and they decide to… not. There is not a single melody in this entire opera that you can even begin to remember when you leave the theatre. It’s a wall of sound that occasionally delivers some satisfying sonic resolutions, but they’re satisfying in the sense that something dissonant has occurred and it’s being resolved into a recognizable jazz chord or something, rather than hey, someone is singing an aria.
In fact, every time somebody is alone on the stage they are singing through-composed nonsense that never gives the audience a recognizable melody. The most painful example of this was when the characters go to a club to see their friend Rose perform as a Latin music artist. If Rose showed up at a club and sang what she was given in this opera she’d be booed off the stage so fast she’d get whiplash. And these composers KNOW that. They know better and still they give us pretentious nonsense.
Writing a melody doesn’t make it musical theatre and not opera. And if you believe it does I strongly rec you go do a seance and talk to Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, etc. etc. etc. There’s a reason their operas are performed after all this time. And it’s because they have good songs with musical hooks. Opera was the pop music of its day and this opera is very committed to serving its community and being for the people. Well, give the people something they can recognize as music, then.
What does make it musical theatre is all the spoken lines of dialogue. This has more than Hamilton, more than Evita, more than half a dozen other “musicals” written in the last few decades, so I don’t really understand the point of not writing songs at all.
I wanted to like this so much and the music put me off. Except, and this is something so odd about it, all the quartets, quintets, octets and other moments where groups were singing together were really satisfying even if they were also through-composed. They helped break up the really boring recitative and arias.
And the boring music is such a shame because the creators were trying to do something really grand here and came so close to something truly wonderful. The Lyric is touting this as groundbreaking when it’s really just the same and as boring as every other modern opera.
What this show gets right is giving us a snapshot of a close-knit group of friends in a community on the South Side. You have people you should care about, except we get told to care about them instead of seeing reasons why we should. This is in keeping with a lot of traditional opera, but seeing we’re in the modern era and storytelling has evolved, maybe update that shortfall of older works.
The Factotum is absolutely a showcase for powerful singers singing powerfully. But I am astonished they could even remember what they were supposed to sing, there was so little to hang onto musically. Pros at work, clearly.
Will Liverman (one of the composers) as the barber brother Mike and Norman Garrett as the gangster brother Garby are terrific anchors for this production and it rules to have two baritones leading the show. Both are wonderful singing and acting their parts. The acting overall in this is incredibly strong. It’s kind of awful that Mike is such a stick. He’s supposed to be the sympathetic one and he’s very hard to like as he keeps preaching on and on at every turn like a low-rent street corner Malcolm X. You understand his vision for his community, but he’s a boring scold.
Melody Betts as hairdresser Chantel gets to go full Aretha and is an absolute highlight in every single thing she does. She has the best comedy moments in the show along with Symone Harcum as Sandra and Martin Luther Clark as Charlie. She’s the rock in the whole thing while the men fight like children. Nissi Shalome as CeCe, who spends the majority of the opera dancing instead of singing, is a joy to watch as are the other dancers in her small troupe. That really helped put energy into this show and she’s the person you care about most, which is as it should be. She’s the hope for the future.
There are at least 4 major plotlines here and only two are decently defined. The brother vs. brother comes off well. The ambition for the community as embodied by CeCe going off to Howard University only to nearly be derailed by Garby is also strong. The two romances fare much worse and it’s impossible to care about either of them as a) Will is unlikeable and oblivious to Chantel’s love for him and b) the love triangle of Garby, Rose and returning soldier CJ is just utterly non-compelling as you like none of them well enough to care who is with who. You kind of care about Rose’s career. She seems nice. But it’s that shallow. Too much going on to establish a compelling narrative.
I wish they’d go back to the drawing board and rework this because it could absolutely kill with the paring of plotlines and addition of real arias. It’s a great concept full of talent, but it just doesn’t seem there yet. That said, I’m not mad I watched it. It’s just that it works better in concept than present execution.
Photos by Cory Weaver