A year ago, with concert halls and opera houses shut and most professional singers reduced to performing for their pets, baritone Will Liverman received a life-changing phone call. The Metropolitan Opera planned to reopen with Terence Blanchard’s 2019 adaptation of Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Live auditions were out of the question. Could Liverman record the opening aria?
“The first memory I have in the world is of death and tears,” Blow writes, and the opera, like his book, is a tough tale of sexual abuse, poverty, racism, and violent threats during his upbringing in Louisiana. Liverman turned to the aria and read the line “Prepare to die, motherfucker.” “I thought, What am I getting myself into?” he recalls. “A few days later, we signed the contract.”
Behind the scenes, he had been all but cast already: He was the only baritone asked to audition for the role. “We’d felt he was the right singer and had discussed it with Terence,” says the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. “The audition tape he sent us was a confirmation of what we already knew.” Until that moment, Liverman was a promising young baritone with a knack for classic comedic roles like Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. He’d performed with regional companies, had a couple of secondary roles at the Met (plus a stint as Papageno), and drawn the attention of some talent-sniffers. This casting propels him into a rarefied club, singing the lead in a new work on opening night at the Met. And not just any opening night: This would be a new production, a Met premiere, and the company’s first work by a Black composer.
In the weeks before the curtain goes up on September 27, what Liverman will be worrying about most is how to balance the role’s technical and emotional demands — specifically, how to channel the character’s rage without clenching his larynx. He has no trouble with the first part. “I’ve never been sexually abused [as Blow and his onstage alter ego were], but I know what it’s like to be an outsider, growing up as a Black man in the South.” His challenge is to manage an intensity that rarely abates after the first explosion. “The throat and the emotions are so bound up together. If you’re angry, people can hear it in your voice. And when you’re on that big stage, with that big orchestra coming at you, and you’re wearing the costume, it all gives you the adrenaline. But then, at the end, you’ve got nothing left.”
Once Liverman was in, Blanchard got out needle and thread and refitted the part for him. (Davóne Tines, who sang the world premiere in 2019 in St. Louis, has a darker timbre and a lower range.) Blanchard’s background in jazz and film music, including Oscar-nominated scores for Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods, gives Fire a stylistic concoction that Liverman finds comfortable. “He fuses jazz and R&B and gospel with classical singing, so I immediately vibe with that. When I hear those ninth and seventh chords, that’s so easy for me to sing into.”
Partly, perhaps, because he started out playing piano and singing in a Pentecostal church in his hometown of Virginia Beach. His precise diction serves him well in both gospel and Rossini, and his supple approach to rhythm makes a 4/4 measure into an elastic container of musical time rather than a sequence of rigid beats. “R&B, gospel, spirituals, neo-soul — it all comes into play when you’re singing Strauss and Mozart,” he says. “The chords underneath the melodic lines, at the dramatic detail and word coloring — there are a lot of correlations.”
Liverman exploits those connections in other contexts, too. He is a natural Figaro, the fast-talking fixer of Rossini’s Barber, who hardly has time to give anyone a shave because he’s so busy managing a count’s love life. That character, Liverman thought, would be as comfortable in a Black barbershop on Chicago’s South Side as on a street corner in Spain. “The one I had in mind was in a strip mall in Virginia Beach with a Chinese restaurant next door. There’s so much going on, so much foot traffic in and out, the action, the comedy — it’s a safe place for people to talk about important issues.”
Liverman himself also writes. During the pandemic, he and DJ K-Rico created a stylistically eclectic chamber opera called The Factotum and got a chance to workshop it at the Lyric in Chicago. A lot of recent Black stories crafted for the opera stage, including Fire, have been tragedies, both because of the art form’s conventions and because there is ample historical suffering to draw on. But Liverman wanted to create — and sing — a more lighthearted show. “I wanted to tell a story of Black joy, one that people experience day to day.” And, he adds, “playing piano in church teaches you something about improvisation. Someone busts out in a song, you have to figure it out and go with it.”
The Met moved up Fire and the Lyric adopted The Factotum when they did partly because they’ve come under heavy pressure to diversify. But Liverman sees those opportunities as evidence of a more durable movement. “We’re finally seeing Black stories being told that we can add to the canon,” he says. He mentions Champion, Blanchard’s first opera, and Blue, by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson. “It’s not a matter of replacing the classics but of giving these works a real platform so they can have a life beyond the one-off.” He’s also alert, though, to the danger of being pigeonholed. Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess nearly a century ago in part to provide roles for Black singers, and many have found it both a godsend and a trap. “It keeps the bills paid, but at the same time, you can get stuck,” Liverman admits. Fire Shut Up in My Bones could one day end up as his Porgy, although his eclecticism is likely to forestall that. He’ll be returning to the Met for a New Year’s Day one-off as Papageno in an abridged holiday production of The Magic Flute.
Despite his sudden blast of stardom, Liverman, at 33, is still in the early years of his career, more accustomed to chasing opportunities than to weighing his options. “When you’re an opera singer, you work so hard just to be able to sing — you’re always fighting it out with other people for that one role. I never had dreams of opening the Met season. I was always just content to sing somewhere.”