“This is real life! You must embody this story. Embody hip-hop. Right now, you must be the hip-hop aesthetic.” This mantra bounces off the canary yellow and baby blue walls in the small rehearsal space in Bethel AME Church in Bronzeville. Director Rueben D. Echoles is speaking to the cast of “Hopera: A Fallen Hero,” a new hip-hop opera written by Adrian Dunn. Echoles, a compact young African-American man clad in flat-brim cap, printed T-shirt, and loose-fitting jeans, has an explosive energy that feels as though it belongs to a man ten times his size. Echoles’ movement is constant–jumping up, crouching down, swaying sideways, he moves as though dancing around security lasers, then refocuses on the cast before him. “Take it from the top.”
This moment in the rehearsal room is the culmination of many years of work. Dunn, who graduated from Roosevelt University with a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance, has been working on “Hopera: A Fallen Hero,” a hip-hop opera, for several years. “Hopera” follows Obadiah King, a young African-American man living on Chicago’s South Side, as he faces family struggles, death, and the corrosive effects of the city’s racial climate.
“I knew opera wasn’t appealing to people of color and people from certain backgrounds,” Dunn says between bites of a sandwich. Dunn is a man on the move. Between juggling a demanding rehearsal schedule, preparing for “Hopera”’s November 13th premiere at the DuSable Museum, a personal singing career, and maintaining the social life of a 24-year-old in Chicago, there is little time for deep breaths–but deep breaths are necessary to succeed in opera and hip-hop alike. He continues, “Being a black opera singer myself, there aren’t very many of us. It’s a beautiful form, but people of color are not always afforded the opportunity to experience it.”
Upon first glance, an audience sitting in the Lyric Opera could not seem more demographically different from one found at a typical hip-hop concert. Yet these two worlds are not so divergent. While older generations complain of hip-hop’s glorification of exorbitant wealth, violence, and philandering, these themes are not new ones. Opera, born in the 16th century, celebrates these same narratives. Stories of infidelity, betrayal, violence, and familial struggle are its driving forces. In the opening scene of Georges Bizet’s celebrated opera “Carmen,” the curtain rises on a scene of a crowd of coquettish women smoking cigarettes as men plead for their love. One of the most commonly performed operas and a story of violent love and betrayal, “Carmen” premiered in Paris in 1875, one hundred years before hip-hop made its first mark on the American music scene.
In 1979, hip-hop trio the Sugarhill Gang released its first single, “Rapper’s Delight,” a track about the affluence of a successful rapper. The song changed American music, and what was once the Sugarhill Gang’s pipedream became a reality and the foundation for future rappers. Over the next decade, hip-hop impresarios came to represent a glorified “hood” culture and stood–or rather, drove their Bentleys beside–some of America’s richest white businessmen like Donald Trump and Ted Turner. Hip-hop, and its irrepressible stars like Snoop Dogg and Nas branded a new form of “cool,” one that is always one step ahead of the public and constantly being reinvented. Yet more than representing the changing trends of American youth, it has also taken a platform of public story telling.
“Hip-hop, right now, is one of the strongest methods of reaching young people. It is a great way to tell a story, and it’s proven to have been very impactful on this generation,” reflects Dunn. “If people give it a chance, it can change them. It can encourage people to change themselves.” It made sense to Dunn to bring hip-hop to new audiences. “Music is music, no matter what the form is. They are equal forms,” explains Dunn. “There was a need for this kind of piece. Both opera and hip-hop have been two huge impacts in my life. Why not hip-hop and opera?” Dunn explains that his goal in creating “Hopera” was to revitalize opera as a commercial enterprise, one that not only exposes new audiences to the art form but also offers socially relevant issues to patrons.
While at Roosevelt, Dunn was in an opera history class where the professor posed a question to the class: “Is it relevant that Othello is black?” The class unanimously answered no. “There’s a lack of work in opera being done on black folks in the 21st century,” Dunn says as he reflects on the experience. “How could my classmates think that Othello’s race was irrelevant?” Dunn’s question reaches far beyond the classroom.
“The message of the show is very current,” says Amanda Davis, who plays Erika, Obadiah’s single mother. “It’s a story about a single parent, violence, and second chances. It’s important for people, young people, to see the message about getting a second chance. It shows hope, and that you should believe in yourself.”
Echoles returns to the piano, and Paris, a young man whose several-hour tardiness was due to a CTA mishap, restarts his scene from the beginning. “Let’s take it back, back to the beginning,” he repeats, “Let’s take it back, back to the beginning.” Paris plays the role of God. In the world of “Hopera,” God is an omniscient rapper.
As Paris delivers his lines, the rest of the ensemble emerges from the flanks. With a ten-person ensemble of singers, dancers, and rappers, the layers of sound are extraordinary. While Paris raps, the blended melodies of gospel and opera ebb and flow like a current moving through his lines. When the piece finishes, Echoles returns to the center of the room. He turns to Paris, “You need to remember what this message means. This is a show about real life. Tell the story. Tell your story.”