“Each of us is the president” (© Volodymyr Zelensky), so each of us can write an opera — it seems logical, doesn’t it? At least on July 15, 2020, American rapper, composer, producer, designer, billionaire and author of two operas Kanye West applied for the US presidency. Which West’s characteristic is surprised the most? Maybe the presidency? Well, what president will be (if will be) musician Kanye West like will be shown by time or predicted by a new season of The Simpsons. But the appearance of, probably, the most unexpected side of Kanye West as the opera author has been discussed for six months.
Opera and rap?
It is known that opera appeared in the classical music system. But of course, an opera as not only a genre but also as a form has created just rules of the game which can be played by classics, rockers, hip-hop artists, rappers and other musicians. To leave all the attributes of opera and change the style seemed like a simple update but for non-classical artists the borrowing of the opera format meant something else, to give relevance to their “low-art” creativity. Those creativity where music and meanings fade from the halo glow of “high-art” classical art. Therefore, the answer to the question “what is in opera for non-classics?” is simple: denote integrity, completeness (“opusness”) and narrativity of a performance or music album, so to speak, “the seriousness of their intentions”. But even today known rock operas “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Juno and Avos”, “Mozart L’Opera Rock” is still stigmatized as a musical, thus reducing the “weight” of the meanings or concepts of these works, which entered the monopolistic classical opera territory. Although, to be honest, they don’t do keep the canons of the genre orthodoxly. But from the beginning, the purpose of borrowing the name “opera” to rock, in particular, did not involve the exact application of the opera template.
The type of rap opera or hip-hop opera (hip-hopera) that one would expect from rapper West appeared later than rock opera, in the 1990s. But the “operaticness” of rap operas was determined rather by the concept of albums because the practice of their stage performance as is сustomary in classical operas and remains in rock opera ceded video or even audio format. For example, there was a popular movie called “Carmen: Hip Hopera”, which starred a West’s colleague, then debutant actress Beyonce Knowles. However, it is interesting that after the first opera premiere, West got from the public and critics not for the unfounded definition of “opera” firstly, but for the fact that “Nebuchadnezzar» is an oratorio.
Thrifty Christian Kanye West
Newsfeed was full of headlines like “From ‘I am God’ to ‘Jesus is King’” after the West’s album release “Jesus is King” in October 2019. God of the rap industry as West proclaimed himself in 2013 came to religion, Christianity and Jesus in five years. He manifested this position in the gospel album recorded with the “Sunday Service” gospel choir co-created by West in January 2019. By the way, choir performances in a church every Sunday allowed the singer to save money on the tax ($68 million), because now “they serve Christ”, the rapper said.
The rapper’s path from respecting Donald Trump to the divine epiphany is quite unexpected, so it caused a lot of doubts and controversy. But in the musical context, it is more interesting that West did not stop after the presentation of the gospel album in October. Already in November, he premiered the first religious opera “Nebuchadnezzar”. Her failure (according to press reports) did not become an obstacle for the production of the next opera “Mary” in December. I suppose West also needed the opera staging rather than the traditional concert (as some listeners expected) to show the scale and integrity of the idea, and to draw attention to the awareness of his new worldview.
The opera “Nebuchadnezzar” was staged on November, 24 in the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, and was broadcast online on the Tidal. Unfortunately, today it is no longer possible to see this opera (having a Tidal account) unlike the opera “Mary” which is publicly available. Therefore, now “Nebuchadnezzar” can be judged only from the reviews of critics, the press and tweets. According to “The Guardians”, there were still tickets left on the premiere day, and their price was reduced from $150 to $20. Quite a “hot” offer to go to West so cheap.
The opera was supposed to start at 04:00 p.m. but started two hours later, and the performance lasted only an hour. Later, the press ironically said that probably directors had been completing the stage and scenery these two hours. This conclusion was logical given the certain misunderstandings between West and the protagonist played by rapper Sheck Wes. Nebuchadnezzar stubbornly refused to fall on his face. This caused laughter in the audience and almost made West himself laugh:
kanye: then the king nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face
kanye: then the king nebuchadnezzar fell upon his FACE
kanye: THEN THE KING NEBUCHADNEZZAR FELL UPON HIS FACE
sheck wes: pic.twitter.com/a6Yx74hX99
— keon (@kekewavy) November 25, 2019
But problems with the opera premiere began even earlier when on invitations was painted Darius the Great, emperor of Persia instead of a portrait of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.
There were other questions about historical justice, in particular, the use of Latin:
This is bad!!!! Beautiful voices are not enough to save it. And the performance started more than 2 hours late. Also, why are they singing in Latin, a language which didn’t exist for 700 years after Neb’s death, and that in a completely different continent? #Nebuchadnezzar #Kanye
— Vox Operae (@voxoperae) November 25, 2019
The language even became an occasion for jokes:
— Rob Deemer (@robdeemer) November 25, 2019
Another question is, did West want it to be like classical music? This also interested critics who defended the classical opera genre. The title of the review in the New York Times by Zachary Woolfe seemed especially harsh: “Kanye West is operatic. His opera isn’t”. By writing that the West’s opera was not operatic the critic alluded to the oratorical nature of “Nebuchadnezzar”.
Indeed, the choir performed a tracklist that West had published before the opera on Twitter. It consisted of old and new songs by the rapper in a gospel arrangement. On the same sheet was also marked points in the opera’s drama. Such a laconic synopsis replaced the libretto, which was so lacking to understand the plot for critics. Many of them heard only unintelligible Latin, and critics wrote that they did not understand the plot at all. It is possible that West’s plan was not so clear.
Meanwhile, West was reading something like a sermon, not even a rap. This text highlighted with markers directly in the Book of Daniel the author of the opera also posted on Twitter:
The line between opera and oratorio has always been thin. Long ago they were distinguished by literary sources (texts and plots of the Holy Scriptures in oratorios and secular ones in operas). But today this criterion is no obligatory (there is the Stravinsky opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex” on the secular text and the Schoenberg opera “Moses and Aron” according to the biblical plot). You can also see the difference between opera and oratorio by the number and importance of choirs, which have more weight in an oratorio. However, the clear “watershed” between these genres is still determined by the presence of theatrical action in an opera and its absence in an oratorio. Thus, the opera’s similarity to an oratorio was successfully used by Handel who wrote oratorios for the church during Lent when secular operas could not be staged and presented them in the scenery and with theatrical action like operas. But the composer was only suspected of tricks.
The West’s opera press release states that “‘Nebuchadnezzar’ brings together elements from different worlds, including opera, fine art, modern dance, and gospel music, to create an innovative performance structure. West’s sound is the bridge between these artforms”. Obviously, West had been in the heat telling about “an innovative performance structure”. There were the presence of the reader, the original biblical text, the church choir, the gospel singing, it all points to the oratorio as well as the plot of the king’s “transition from wicked, imperious, self-declared ruler (as well as West who declared himself God and wickedly supported the racist Trump associated with the Nebuchadnezzar genocide of the Jews — L. S.) to a true believer who finds salvation in his faith”. So one cannot disagree with Wolfe, the story turned out to be too autobiographical: “He’s Daniel, the consummate storyteller and interpreter, the prophet and hero, and he’s also the suffering leader who’s found peace in God”.
Maybe the next opera will be less autobiographical-narcissistic and more operatic?
The opera “Mary” was staged at the closing of the “Art Basel Miami” within a half of month after “Nebuchadnezzar”. But it was announced only three days before the premiere. Unlike the first opera, “Mary” was staged for the second time on December, 22, in Lincoln City, New York. The only thing in which you can compare productions today is their different design because you can watch the whole opera only in the second version (the first is documented by photos):
In an interview with “Vogue” West said that initially, they wanted to name the opera “Birth of Jesus”. By the way, this would predict the title of the rapper’s next album “Jesus is Born”. However, “West thought it would be more interesting to tell the story from Mary’s point of view; unlike Jesus, a divine being, Mary was just a human, petrified by the angels’ message and brilliance”.
As usual for West’s operas, the preview of the second performance was posted on his Twitter:
— ye (@kanyewest) December 20, 2019
This page comprehensively shows the whole structure of the opera. There were the words West was uttering as a reader alternate with his songs in the arrangements of the “Sunday Service” choir and orchestra. The plot represented the story of Christ’s birth from Mary’s position as West had noted. Selected songs and their sequence if not in the operatic close connection of music and action but the general mood corresponded to the narrative. Although this narrative could have been interrupted by West himself, who instructed the musicians right during the performance (“no trumpet” to the trumpeter who screwed up his solo from time to time); yes, there were some funny moments in this opera as well.
Critics have already noted the minimalism of the production by Vanessa Beecroft, with which we can now only agree. The visual design was in golden, yellow, and orange colours as well as “sunlight” during the day according to the plot. And at night (you’d be surprised) was in dark blue with moonlight imitation. Also, it is difficult to believe that after the episode of Christ’s birth the night mood was decided to capture by the quote of the first part from the Beethoven “Moonlight” sonata for piano (№14) with the words “Gloria” by choir a capella .
The choir was located above the stage in an outfit similar to the artists’ costumes in Beyonce’s performance at the Grammy ceremony in 2017 (halo in different shades and vestments). There were West and his backing readers sitting on the left of the stage, angel Gabriel was on the right as a part of the theatrical action happening in the center of the stage. Occasionally singing in opera style Mary, her cousin Elizabeth (once they even sang in a duet), angel Gabriel, Zechariah, and the dumb stage participants only “marked” what was said in the West’s text. So minimalism was related to directing as well. Therefore, if we ask about the genre which West calls “opera”, we could probably describe “Mary” as a gospel opera. It is a mixture of opera narrative and theatrical action with the practice of gospel services. But the formality of theatrical action and the small number of solo vocal numbers gives the right to name “Mary” a gospel oratorio.
Regarding the second opera, West said that “he wants to use the grand medium of opera to make music that is a ‘beacon of light’”. That had to be proved. Borrowing the word “opera” serves as a tool to increase the significance of the holistic narrative performance. It doesn’t matter whether it corresponds to what is called an opera in classical music or not. Although, firstly, what can be called an “opera” today even in classical music is still an open question. Secondly, in the West’s opuses, the opera attributes do exist. Another issue is that the artist was probably responsible only for the conceptual component in the work, the selection of his songs. But the new choral arrangement, the orchestra parts by someone (there is no information about this at all, as well as about the conductor of the orchestra) talk that Kanye West can hardly be called the sole composer of these “operas”.
Perhaps thanks to West someone first visited this nominally “opera” and later will become interested in its classical samples. Perhaps the spectacular action in both operas, the vocal and energetic power of the gospel service from the truly incredible choir did impress the audience who did not think about “opera or not-opera”, “oratorio or not-oratorio”. So “Kanye West is an ‘opera’ author”, why not?