Lyric Opera’s new ‘Factotum,’ set on the South Side, makes a vibrant first impression

Co-creator Will Liverman leads a first-rate cast in the often heartwarming world premiere.

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Baritone Will Liverman (standing, center) co-conceived “The Factotum” and stars as barbershop operator Mike.

Cory Weaver

African American subject matter has been all but absent from operatic stages for most of the history of the form, but Lyric Opera of Chicago has taken a step toward filling that gaping void with the world premiere of “The Factotum.”

This vibrant, often heartwarming 2½-hour work, which opened Friday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance for five performances, is one of the first anywhere to have an entirely Black and BIPOC cast and creative team.

It was conceived by Will Liverman, a well-known baritone who is a regular on the Lyric stage, and his childhood friend, DJ King Rico, and they wrote the music and lyrics — their first venture into this creative realm.

‘Factotum’

‘Factotum’

When: 2 p.m. Sunday, with three additional performances through Feb. 12

Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $35-$125 (sold out but last-minute returns may be available)

Info: (312) 827-5600; lyricopera.org/factotum


“Factotum” is set on Chicago’s South Side in a barbershop, an institution at the heart of Black life and culture, as an art installation in the lobby makes clear. And it is filled with references not typically heard on an operatic stage, like a debate between two shop denizens over who is the best NBA player of all time: Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

In recent decades, debuts were seen as risky ventures, but today’s operagoers are clearly more open to the new, as the sold-out performances of this production make clear. And just as important, this production attracted a much more diverse audience than is typically seen at a Lyric presentation, and the frequent cheers made clear that the crowd liked what it saw.

Promotional materials bill “Factotum” as a “soul opera,” but just how operatic this work is remains open to question. Yes, it is being presented by an opera house, it features classically trained singers and its pit orchestra does include strings.

But it comes off much more like a Broadway musical, with songs or musical numbers more than arias. The program even refers to the production’s text as a book rather than a libretto, the term usually used in opera.

In the end, though, those are just semantics. Today’s opera houses present works in hybrid styles, and what matters is how well a piece functions musically and theatrically, and, for the most part, this new creation scores on both fronts.

The action in “Factotum” takes place across a couple of days, and revolves in part around Cece (Nissi Shalome), who has gone mute since the death of her mother. She is one week from heading off to Howard University with the support of her two uncles, who are trying to carrying on the legacy of their father, Pops.

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Cece (Nissi Shalome) confronts her Uncle Garby (Norman Garrett) in “The Factotum.”

Cory Weaver

But these two brothers, in the mold of Cain and Abel, are quite different. Mike (Liverman) runs the barbershop, Master Kutz, which is fastidiously realized here by set designer Harlan Penn. Garby (Norman Garrett), on the other hand, has turned to operating a numbers game in the basement, endangering the future of the business and everyone around him.

Part 1 has a more breezy, slice-of-life feel as the work introduces the main characters who populate the barbershop and neighborhood, some ably brought to life by the production’s five ubiquitous dancers. But it turns much darker in the second half, when Cece is swept up and tased by the police trying to break up the numbers racket and the shop crew sings a kind of Black Lives Matter anthem, “Ain’t Nobody Care About Us, We All We Got.”

Unfortunately, the ending of “Factotum” is too pat, too easy, as Cece regains her speech, forgives her Uncle Garby and prepares to head to school. At the same time, Garby gives up the numbers business, and the two brothers agree to set aside their feud.

It’s hard not to wish that the creators had been willing to dig a little deeper and that “Factotum” had a rawer edge and more emotional nuance. It is tough to balance the charm of everyday life and tougher realities, but it’s possible, as Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes’ “Street Scene” makes clear.

That 1946 masterpiece, which like “Factotum” operates at the intersection of opera and Broadway, was set on the doorstep of a New York tenement and is one of the closest precedents to what the creators were attempting here.

The score of “Factotum,” which features an 18-piece orchestra solidly led by conductor Kedrick Armstrong, has an appealingly breezy, bluesy and often funky groove permeated by electronic keyboards, piano and drum set and accented with soft saxophone, soulful trumpet and the stylings of Rico, who could be seen on an elevated stand at the side of the stage. But this score could have benefited from edgier, more dissonant writing in Part 2 to give it more heft and bite.

Lyric leaders and the creative team assembled a first-rate cast, starting with Liverman, who masterfully anchors this production and provides some of its finest vocal moments. Other standouts include Cecilia Violetta López, who turns in a fiery performance as Rose, lighting up a Spanish club song, “Estoy Aqui,” with her soaring soprano voice; Melody Betts, who brings plenty of sass and humor to the role of Chantel, a beautician eager to catch Mike’s eye, and Garrett, a full-throated baritone who proved a powerful counterpart to Liverman.

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