Opera gets a dramatic remix by Lyric Opera of Chicago with the world premiere of the new soul opera “The Factotum,” created by Will Liverman and DJ King Rico, presented at Chicago’s Harris Theater, located at 205 E. Randolph St., for five performances, February 3–12.
Loosely inspired by the popular opera “The Barber of Seville” and its iconic aria “Largo al factotum” (think “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!”), the opera follows brothers Mike and Garby as they clash over the future of their family’s barbershop on Chicago’s South Side.
“The Barber of Seville” opera premiered in 1816 and features the irrepressible Rosina who refuses to marry her pompous old guardian. Meanwhile, a bold, young count is eager to win Rosina for himself. And who’s going to make sure those two finish the opera united? The cleverest character in all of Seville: the barber Figaro, whose services are sought after by everyone for everything.
If you can’t trust your barber, who can you trust? So, now we have a barbershop on the South Side of Chicago that posits this question. “The Factotum” blends classical singing with diverse musical styles to create a soul opera, shifting from gospel and funk to rap and hip-hop to classic barbershop quartet and R&B. The result is a heartfelt comedy that redefines everything an opera can be, while celebrating the strength of community.
Audiences are in very good hands with the leaders of “The Factotum’s” musical, which include the fast-rising and Grammy Award-nominated opera singer Liverman, dynamic producer/DJ/multi-instrumentalist Rico and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Liverman and Rico have blended their experiences with electronic music production, traditional operatic musical scores, and live performance into an irresistibly upbeat work.
“The Factotum” is both authentic to the spirit of Chicago’s South Side and innovative in its approach to operatic storytelling. Liverman, and in-demand baritone and alumnus of Lyric’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, spoke to the Crusader about this realism and the inspiration behind this work.
“It’s a nod to The Barber of Seville and Figaro’s famous aria Largo al Factotum. We drew inspiration from this opera as we started to create this story,” said Liverman.
He added: “There’s so much rich history and Black excellence in the city of Chicago. It felt like the perfect place to set this opera and tell a positive story about Black community coming together.”
The musical “Rent” was also a major inspiration, Liverman said. “I watched Jonathan Larson’s documentary ‘No Day But Today’ and was fascinated by the origin story of how ‘Rent’ came to be. I loved the idea of how he took an opera classic and updated it to the times he was living in and what was meaningful and relevant to him.”
The opera’s major message is one of community, with the two brothers exhibiting a united front, although there may be clashes. “One of the important messages in ‘The Factotum’ is that we can fight and go through rough times, but we can also find peace and reconciliation. Not everything has to end violently or bitter. We need unity in this world,” said Liverman.
The introduction of the songs, or arias, came about due to a combination of factors, Liverman said. “We draw every aria and song from the story that we’re trying to tell. Every piece has a different flavor musically depending on the action in the opera.”
Count Almaviva and Rosina’s romance in ‘The Barber of Seville” are the inspiration for the romance between the characters CJ and Rose.
Liverman discussed his success as a Ryan Opera Center alum. “During the pandemic we had our first workshop of ‘The Factotum,’ which led to the premiere. I’m very thankful for my Ryan Opera Center family and the people who helped get this started.”
Among the most visible of Lyric’s community engagement activities surrounding “The Factotum” is a series of colorful murals appearing around Chicago. The first mural, located at 5131 W. Madison St., in the Austin neighborhood, is adjacent to a barbershop and a barbering school. A second one is located at 443 E. 79th St., in the Chatham neighborhood near a South Side barbershop, and a third mural can be found at 321 N. Cicero Ave. in the South Austin area.
There are only five opportunities to see this soulful nod to “The Barber of Seville.” “The Factotum” runs on February 3, 5, 8, 10 and 12, with two matinee performances. For more information, visit lyricopera.org and search for “The Factotum.”
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].