'I Turned Shakespeare Into an R&B Opera'

I am a hip hop, soulful, beat-making composer and opera singer, and I began singing opera by accident. Being from the south side of Chicago, classical music wasn't the world that was around me. My dad would have the Lyric Opera on PBS from time to time—rarely—and, of course, it was often on cartoons like Bugs Bunny, but there was no reason for me to ever be authentically interested in opera. R&B, Soul, Jazz, Gospel and Hip Hop were around me in a visceral way. I mean, I know it, like I know the smell of my mom's pancakes on a Saturday morning. It is in my pores. I didn't have to study it or learn to appreciate it, it is me. It makes up my experience and memories and is inextricable from the history that shaped the world I was brought up in.

But there were special things that happened beyond my power that allowed for opportunity and exposure beyond singing R&B songs and making beats. There was a black man who was a professor at a university where I auditioned, who was in a position to make and influence decisions. When the other white professors told him I had a "gospelly" voice not suited for a classical program, he spoke up and confronted those comments, understanding their dismissiveness. Under his tutelage, I began to really love the musical storytelling form of opera, to the point of composing my own and being able to sing lead roles in every opera presented at my university. Even to the level of winning awards and coming to audition for the Metropolitan Opera.

At these auditions curious things happened that still puzzle me to this day. I performed well, and seemed to be a stand-out, but was not chosen to advance—while a white tenor whose voice was cracking when he sang was asked to continue on to the next round. Now, I understand that a career in the arts is difficult for just about everyone. There is such a surplus of a supply of talent and much less demand. And even beyond that, the arts are extremely subjective. So even for any talented artist, a path in the arts is a struggle. Still, this experience was a catalyst for me to take a step back from operatic singing to focus on other musical interests. I spoke to the judges after the competition and the comments were off and unclear as to why they didn't see fit to allow me the opportunity to go to the next round, even though the "cracking tenor" did.

But opera is not something that was made for me to begin with. Why should I feel that I'm even invited to the party?

The operatic tenor Roland Hayes made a lucrative and successful career as a classical singer throughout the 1910's touring and performing operatic arias, spirituals and even his own arrangements, and this was in the depths of segregation and Jim Crow. But it was his independent and creative thinking outside of the box, as it were, that allowed for him to find his success. Even the likes of Marian Anderson, or Leontyne Price took their talents abroad initially as a way to build their brand and to create a demand for their talent in the States. Another creative turn.

Black performers historically have had to take much more agency with our art. It is the spirit of Melvin Van Peebles who had written, directed and produced Sweetback's Badass Song on his own dime because he wanted to create film for Black culture. Mr. Van Peebles was already a successful up-and-coming writer in Hollywood, but was becoming weary of the same "stock roles" he was asked to write for black actors. So he left Columbia Pictures to fund a groundbreaking film that later would influence many Hollywood films and filmmakers to come. Think of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance or Motown Records. How many of these influential black geniuses would we know about if they had to ascend in the white American infrastructure alone? But yet the whole world celebrates their work and all our lives are the better for it. It is the understanding of that infrastructure that informs the decisions of those who want to take action to make a difference and etch out a space for the overlooked by self-empowerment.

Even in the world of modern music theatre, there is still this stigma of certain individuals struggling to break into particular roles. Or the fact that the pieces and roles that do seek black voices are limited in their dimensionality when there is an array of types of characters to play for white actors in other works written by white authors. So even if there are shows that employ many black actors and performers, there is often a limit in the types of roles that are played. It seems to be in the nuts and bolts of so many professional situations in the arts.

I remember being hired to sing the tenor lead in a Puccini opera and a conductor came over to me and said, "you know, you should really think about singing Sportin' Life from Porgy & Bess." He was not offering me a job: this was his "professional" opinion, and although traditionally the roles in Porgy & Bess are performed by opera singers, typically the role of Sportin' Life is played by more of a "vaudevillian" style performer, including often a skill for dance as well. I did not tap dance in Boheme, neither did I sing in a vaudevillian style, but this conductor thought it would suit me well. Maybe it's because Puccini wasn't originally written for black singers to sing...? If we are to limit ourselves to roles that were made for black opera singers, or slated in the description as for a particular race of brown hue, then the roles as an opera singer of color would be severely limited indeed.

So it seems there are a few options for a black talent in the performing arts. Either we protest, give up, endure to push past the barriers and have to continue to strive and be 150 percent better than our white peers, or make something new. One can always create something new. When we weren't signed to the major record labels, we started our own companies. When we weren't invited to perform on American Bandstand, we created Soul Train. When our content wasn't played on NBC we started BET. When we didn't have a place to perform and celebrate our culture on a grand stage, we created The Apollo Theater in Harlem and The Regal Theater in Chicago. When given throwaways, Black Americans have consistently persevered and created prime delicacies. When fully embracing this legacy, the limits then become only in what we can imagine. The fact of whether or not the manifestation of a vision is fully appreciated in one's lifetime can be trivial when one considers that from the outcome of creativity there is more opportunity for voices that are usually muted.

There were a plethora of valuable lessons I learned when I followed a career path in the music business as a creator of Hip Hop and R&B. Nothing was more valuable than an independent mindset, with creativity and an entrepreneurial drive. When returning to the classical arts realm, creativity became my answer to the dilemma I faced in my own music career as well as what I would regularly see with my black and brown colleagues. If I create more roles for my people to perform, then maybe there would more opportunity for our talent to be seen and our stories to be told. This is what led me to create works such as Hal King and one night I had a dream that was the impetus for its creation.

In my dream, I saw Usher (the R&B singer) wearing a 19th century European poet shirt with jeans and Timberland boots, running through a battlefield. When I woke up in a daze, I was a bit confused, but I had a strange sense of clarity in my soul. I knew what I had to do. I had to look within to find a way to synergize my experiences in opera and Hip Hop/R&B to create a piece that was innovative, encompassing a sense of something "traditionally" classical, while still being a natural representation of my culture.

I began to reach laterally to artists I knew who were experts in all the areas that were needed to bring together this "grand opus." To make a modern-day gesamtkunstwerk, or a "great artwork" encompassing all art forms as a unified operation; music, theater, visual arts, dance, poetry and film. My desire was to maintain that concept, yet remain innocent to the trappings of the prominent expectations in opera that are now only a necessity of tradition, but were originally developed for the practicality of the medium as it grew in Europe. This framework is what set the stage for Hal King as a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's King Henry IV and V in a African American midwestern town in the late 1950's. A film that is in every way true to the traditions of "classical opera" but on the surface feels like modern music theatre encompassing a celebratory black experience in urban culture.

One of the costume designers for Hal King pulled me aside on set one day and told me that I was maintaining the legacy of the black creatives from the 70's that he worked under as an apprentice, such as the aforementioned Melvin Van Peebles. And that is the importance of our history. It is ours to build upon as we grow. Hal King is one answer to an age old issue for Black Americans in the performing arts, fulfilling the vision of so many who came before and continuing a legacy ensconced in the essence of African American culture. By forming a space for ourselves utilizing our creativity, there's no telling the impact that our artistic expression today can leave for the artists who will shape our future.

One day, I ran into a young artist I knew who was auditioning for a role that in my opinion minimized his talent. He said to me, "Hey brother, we've got to eat...! Right?" Very matter of fact. And at the core of the humanity in that statement, it's true. Though it would be one thing if this were a flash in the pan, or a one time occourance, but I can't count how many times I've spoken to my colleagues of color in the theatre, film, opera and broadway circles (as well as others I'm sure) where they have felt it necessary to take a role, a part, or a situation that didn't fit their level of skills and training. For every Denzel or Viola there are thousands of brilliant actors who aren't seen. For every Audra McDonald or Lawrence Brownlee, there are countless others waiting for their chance or even taking opportunities that aren't ideal, and in some cases even degrading or typecast.

Common said in his song Black America Again "The roles of the help and the gangstas is really all they gave us..." Viola Davis in her Emmy acceptance speech for How To Get Away With Murder took the stage and made the statement "You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there." And this has been the issue with diversity and inclusion throughout American History. It has to to do with the access given by those who have the power. We can protest the fact that there are not enough roles that represent us as a people, which is in my opinion necessary, We can speak out against stereotypes that are written for us by people who objectify, knowingly or unknowingly, our experiences, as we should. We can use our voices to raise awareness of the "two-dimensional" presentations of our culture. As needed as these responses are, at the end of the day, real change happens with action, and my film musical Hal King is my action to be a part of that progress in the world today.

Steve Wallace is an award-winning singer and composer from Chicago, IL, with two decades of experience performing and creating music in various styles and a special expertise in blending juxtaposed genres.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.