An Interview with Baritone Will Liverman
There’s an inescapable delight that comes with listening to the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous 1997 single “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” wrapped up as the song is in Diana Ross samples, the Clinton-fueled optimism of ’90s America, and Biggie’s unapologetic lyrical grandstanding (“Jig on the cover of Fortune, 5-double-O. Here’s my phone number, your man ain’t got to know”).
It’s that same sunny, sonic serotonin that opens “Creating ‘The Factotum,’” a 15-minute documentary from Lyric Opera of Chicago that follows the workshop of a new opera. The work in question takes the premise of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and sets it in the musical world of a Black barbershop in Chicago. It’s an idea that baritone Will Liverman initially had a few years ago, and one he began to develop with DJ/recording artist (and his former high school classmate) K-Rico. Liverman himself sings Mike, whose bravado is equal parts Figaro and Biggie.
“The Factotum” is one of a few projects that Liverman had started before last year, and quickly prioritized when live performances were put on indefinite hold. In this time, he also managed to record and release “Dreams of a New Day” with pianist Paul Sánchez. Connecting several generations of Black art song, the album is built around Shawn E. Okpebholo’s “Two Black Churches,” a new song cycle commissioned by Liverman. Should all go according to plan, Liverman will return to the Metropolitan Opera this fall to star in the company’s season-opening production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”
VAN: As someone who in the last year has struggled with productivity and motivation, I look at all that you’ve done, and the first question I have is just: How?
Will Liverman: [Laughs.] Man, it’s been a year. The first few months were definitely just brutal, I couldn’t really do anything. But in a way, I just found the motivation to take on all these projects that had kind of been on the back burner. That was one way to keep me from going to the dark place.
For me, I think it was a perfect storm of a few things: The George Floyd killing really sparked some motivation, because that also uprooted a lot of things in the classical world about diversity and inclusion onstage and offstage. The album was also a few years in the making. We had a few setbacks with finding venues because of COVID, but Jim [Ginsburg, the album’s producer] was able to find a venue in Goshen, Indiana of all places, and we found a way to record it safely. All these projects I’d been thinking of and that were in the works came to the forefront at once.
After the shock wears off, there’s a part of the brain that kicks in and goes, “Well, let’s see what we can do right now.”
Absolutely. I still have my days where I can’t do anything. The days where I’m feeling really extra motivated, I try and get a lot done and be creative and think of ways to keep it going. And I think the good thing is that other companies and artists are also finding new ways to be creative and produce outside of the box. This digital presence that we now have is something that needs to go hand-in-hand when live performance comes back. That’s been my big mission, too, with “The Factotum.” We really want it to live onstage, but to also have a digital presence—like the “Hamilton” model where they put out the Mixtape before people saw it. People were coming in already knowing the music.
You mentioned the challenges of recording during a pandemic, but your new album also takes on added meaning in that motivation you mentioned in the wake of George Floyd.
I was talking with Shawn Okpebholo about it recently and he reminded me of how [the album] got started. It was, like, two years ago and there had just been another police shooting—the sad thing is that there had been so many, we couldn’t even pinpoint which one it was. But I was talking with my father about his experience growing up in a segregated Virginia, doing some research into the Civil Rights movement, and through all of that I found this poem, “Ballad of Birmingham.” The way the poem is set, it’s from the perspective of one of the girls [killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church]. And she’s talking about marching the streets of Birmingham for freedom, and her mom thinks it’s not safe because she could get shot, or the dogs are gonna come, or you’re gonna get hosed down—those terrible things will happen if you march. But you can go to church. It’s a place of refuge, a place of peace and safety. And we know what happens after that.
I’ve worked with Shawn before, on an album of spirituals, and he was the perfect person that could set this and really capture what that story was. And then he had the idea for a sort of parallel to the 2015 Charleston shooting and commissioned Marcus Amaker specifically for this song cycle. So that’s how “Two Black Churches” came to be.
How did that become a full album?
I wanted this piece to reach as many people as possible, and the best way to do that is to have it be on an album. I wanted to also, in general, highlight Black composers for their contributions to art song. Margaret Bonds was immediately something that went along with this idea of the Black experience. I also wanted to highlight living composers and sort of normalize their repertoire, so Damien Sneed came to mind with “I Dream a World.”
I’ve said before that the spirituals are a very important part of the puzzle for me as a genre—growing up in church, it’s sort of like that perfect blend of gospel meets opera. But Black composers writing spirituals are also writing songs. I had heard Henry Burleigh with all of his spiritual songs on recitals, but I had no idea that “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” was out there.
Do you experience a difference in the felt sensation of singing when you’re performing something like “Five Songs of Laurence Hope” versus something like “Bohème” or “Magic Flute”?
It is different. It’s such a personal connection and experience, and honestly it’s harder in a way to sing these songs because I have to find that balance of telling the story and relying on my personal experience. When I first got “Two Black Churches,” I couldn’t get through without crying for the first five or six times that I sang it.… I guess that’s what I get for picking the subject material.
But even with Margaret Bonds, it is a different thing versus the standard repertoire. With that, we’re telling the same stories that have been performed for 100 years. Part of your job as an actor is to make those stories believable. But it’s just different when you are telling stories that you’ve experienced, that you were alive for. We have to continue to tell these stories and not just have it be an extra add-on after we spend time with the greats like Schubert, Schumann, and Mozart.
I feel like with new works, a lot of the time, you see something in a big premiere and then it’s gone and we never see it again. I mean, I guess we won’t know the pieces that stand the test of time until we’re long gone. But I think now more than ever, I’ve been so passionate about telling stories of now, and stories that people can relate to.
So much of that seems to resonate with “The Factotum” as a new work that tells a contemporary story. Why that particular story?
I’ve been a part of some amazing dramatic new works in opera, and we have to continue that; but there’s not that many comedies out there. I wanted to tell a Black story that is about the joys of being Black in America, and celebrating what it is to be Black. And I thought the barber shop was the perfect place to do that because there is so much in-and-out. It’s like a sitcom, basically. And for me, growing up with Black music like R&B, neo soul, gospel, I wanted to find a way to take that and fuse the classical voice with it. And that’s not to take away from opera—I fell in love with opera from watching a standard show, and I think we have to have these standards, of course. Celebrate those, they’re always gonna be around. But we can also start to think differently about how we can bring in new audiences and get them into the world of opera.
You mentioned in “Creating ‘The Factotum’” how you connected with K-Rico to develop the piece. What was it like working together?
I had done arranging in the past, but it was my first time really coming up with a text and rhyme scheme. The first thing I did for “The Factotum” was rather long, it was like this six-minute long aria of just everything that I was thinking. [Laughs.] And I gave it to Rocket and he was like, OK, interesting, some good stuff… I think there’s too many words. Let’s go back and rework this. And so that’s how we started collaborating. I would be at the piano and send him something like, “What do you think of this?” And then we’d tweak things. That was 2018, and then by 2019… I would finish rehearsals for “Akhnaten” at the Met and then go on the Staten Island Ferry and be at his studio until 2, 3 a.m., consistently, just trying to crank out this demo. And then we picked a Saturday and got all the singers to Staten Island.
I didn’t write anything out, it was just all recorded, so that’s how they learned their music—old-school gospel way, everything by rote. We’d feed it to them and we pieced together this demo to apply for grants. We raised some money through a nonprofit here in Chicago called 3Arts. And that’s how Lyric got involved: I was reaching out to donors that I knew at Lyric, so they were telling them all about it, and then Lyric contacted me and were like, “We lost our season, and we’re very interested in ‘The Factotum.’” Even then, I was nervous. I always had this idea, you have to stay in your box; if you’re an opera singer, that’s what you do. I felt like I had imposter syndrome for a long time.
One of the lines that stuck with me from the Lyric’s video is the part that plays over the credits; your character keeps using the word “legacy” which feels so pertinent in the larger context of the piece.
That’s the second piece in the opera and it’s right after the barbershop quartet—which is like a gospel, take-me-to-church type of thing—and then we bust out with this legacy piece. And it is exactly that. Especially being people of color, it’s thinking about our legacies. And our family—that’s what it’s really about. Your family sets that foundation. My dad was the first one to go to college. I was the first one to get my master’s. And of course, these things are normal—Black people going to college—but we’re building that foundation that was taken away from us from the start, and creating something finally where we can look back 400 years from now, and hopefully we have created a better world. No more dreams of a new day, we’ve lived it out. We’re actually there. ¶