CHICAGO — The opera’s title suggests a modern riff on Mozart and Rossini, but the substance of The Factotum channels more of playwright August Wilson. With music and lyrics by Will Liverman and DJ King Rico, this slice of contemporary Black life served up in a South Side Chicago barbershop had its enticing world premiere Feb. 1 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Liverman, a liquid-voiced baritone who also starred in the earthy and brilliant Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera, is the barber Mike in this new venture. But is he a Black urban Figaro, the factotum here? He’s the good guy for sure, a community-minded man tirelessly ready to extend a helping hand in the neighborhood. The go-to guy, though? One could argue that’s Mike’s brother Garby, basically a small-time criminal with sundry tainted irons in the fire and made larger than life in the grand form and voice of baritone Norman Garrett.
Garby’s main play is the numbers game, which takes us back to August Wilson, whose cycle of dramas chronicles the African American experience decade by decade through the 20th century as it unfolds mainly in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. (The one exception takes place in Chicago.) Much like Wilson’s character Wolf, who runs numbers from a diner in the play Two Trains Running, The Factotum‘s Garby centers his operation in the barbershop that he and Mike inherited from their father. And just as the diner’s proprietor frets that Wolf’s action will bring trouble, the good barber Mike is constantly on Garby’s case to take his game elsewhere, lest the cops descend on the shop.
That’s the core, driving conflict in The Factotum. And while it’s kept squarely in focus through the first of the opera’s two acts, the tension between Mike and Garby sustains a highly charged drama. It’s true of opera as it is of straight drama: Good first acts engage the imagination; second acts make great plays. This one roars out of the gates, then loses its way. The narrative is fixable, and the implicit potency of The Factotum is worth the repair.
Just as Wilson’s plays are distinctively American, so is this opera. And like Wilson’s vernacular story-telling, The Factotum offers an authentic perspective on Black American culture. The language and the music, and for that matter the infectious dancing that continuously animates the narrative, bespeak a Black American verismo. The music is an infectious mélange of soul, blues, jazz, and DJ riffs turned out from a high perch by the show’s co-creator, Rico. Skillful orchestral writing allows even a chamber-size, electrically accented ensemble to establish or support a sweeping gamut of expression.
It’s hardly incidental that the opera begins with the solitary figure Cece, dancing through the overture. Dancing is what Cece does, and Nissi Shalome conveys her wordless world with airy grace. A teenager about to enter college, she doesn’t speak. She hasn’t spoken since the death of her mother several years ago. Cece’s welfare is the bond between her uncles, the contentious brothers Mike and Garby. With his ill-gotten gains, Garby loudly intends to sponsor the girl’s college education. He is the rock, the man, an unassailable Prometheus who makes up his own rules, does things his way. Until his way exposes Cece to a calamitous turn of events.
Garby, at once the more effusive and dramatically compelling of the two brothers, has a Latina girlfriend, Rose (the beguiling and sympathetic soprano Cecilia Violetta López). Rose is a singer of Latin pop, perhaps on the brink of a break. When “business” prevents Garby from attending her big coming-out performance, she confronts him in a heated and indeed riveting scene. But here one might point out that the medium is opera: The scene is entirely spoken, a fundamental lapse that is only underscored moments later when Rose steps out onto the street to sing a tender soliloquy of her heartbreak and despair.
Part of the problem that ultimately hobbles The Factotum springs from a plausible but not very well worked out love triangle of Garby, Rose, and an old beau from her high school years called CJ (tenor Martin Luther Clark). After an absence of eight years in military service, CJ shows up unexpectedly, and the flame begins to glow again in Rose. But now she’s Garby’s girl, just waiting for a ring. The two men are near a throwdown when silent Cece, who has had a bad night at a police station, enters with a moralizing speech. Garby sees the error of his ways, they all sing Kumbaya, and the opera ends. OK, they don’t sing Kumbaya. But lovable Cece lacks only wings in her role as can-do deity.
The barbershop itself is a visual treat, the minutely detailed, single-set creation of Harlan Penn. It’s a marvelous hangout for an appealing collection of characters. No small part of that appeal lies in the fetching costumes designed by Devario D. Simmons. The whole show, anyway this first iteration, was nearly stolen by the delightful and generously voiced Melody Betts as Chantel, a hairdresser at the shop, a single mom with a young son and eyes for Mike. She also has an eye for reality, and her pragmatic observations, as wry as they were penetrating in Betts’ knowing delivery, repeatedly brought down the house.