Review 2019: Kanye West’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’
Famed Rapper’s First Opera Features Beautiful Music, But Lacks Dramatic SubstanceBy David Salazar
Note – This review is based on the live stream of the performance so there is undeniably some information and details that one can only ascertain from a live viewing experience. It is also worth noting that little information has been distributed about casting; as soon as it is made available, we will update the review to reflect it.
Kanye West is anything but typical, his art and persona polarizing, but undeniably unique. There was no doubt that when he announced his intentions to create an opera a few weeks ago and debut it at the Hollywood Bowl, it was bound to make a mark of its own.
The mark was made before the show ever began. Originally scheduled to start at around 4 p.m. Pacific Time / 7 p.m. Eastern, the show didn’t actually begin until a little over two hours later (it is worth mentioning that the doors opened at 1:30 p.m. PT). No doubt, that this would generate some tension and anticipation for the event to start. And when it did, it only lasted about an hour in length.
West’s opera “Nebuchadnezzar” comes directly from the Book of Daniel in the Bible, as curated by the rapper himself (West posted photos of the text on social media throughout the performance). It tells the story of the blasphemous Babylonian King who goes crazy until he sees the light and gives himself over to worshipping God. West himself has noted the parallels with the character and his own career, which in recent years is deeply connected to religious themes, performing alongside his very own Sunday Service choir.
Ultimately, the work itself seemed closer to a ritualistic setting than a dramatic one. One would not be remiss to call it more of an oratorio instead of an opera, in the traditional sense of both forms.
The chorus doesn’t stop singing for the entire hour, often singing a capella. The orchestra itself only appeared for a few sections, including the climax of the entire evening. There are settings of traditional mass movements, including the “Miserere,” “Requiem,” and “Lux Aeternum” littered throughout with occasional soloists being showcased with the chorus. There are a few vocal soloists layered throughout the piece, but they don’t’ necessarily interact with one another in a dramatized manner. Music, while a character of the piece, is mainly a backdrop, for the ceremonious nature that unfolds on top of it.
There is no denying the music itself can be spellbinding in its repetition and the sound of a potent chorus, the Sunday Service Choir, was absolutely spot-on and carried the show quite beautifully. Those who were skeptical of West rapping and throwing in modern touches that might go against what they hold dear to opera will be pleasantly surprised by how precious this music can feel at its very best. There was a true richness to the choral writing that matches the very best of them.
But writing beautiful music is not enough to make opera exciting and visceral. Opera is about emotional shifts. Music in opera personifies human struggle and emotional turmoil.
This is perhaps where West came up short.
The pace of the music rarely ever changed in any meaningful ways. There were some rhythmic shifts here and there, the character of Daniel got what could be considered an aria, and the orchestra joined in in a powerful climax at the end, but it all felt like one never-ending musical line from the chorus, mushing it all together. You never really felt that the music was building anywhere unique or that it might take a sudden left turn to drive the listener into another emotional realm.
The story certainly warranted it as it followed a powerful man defy God and then suffer for it until coming back to the light. But that did not seem to be West’s vision for the story and in choosing his path, he blunted the dramatic and emotional power of his music. This, again, was probably the biggest reason why it felt less like an opera and more like an oratorio (though it must be said that even these have shifts in musical settings as defined by tempo and harmonic modulations).
But that was not the only element to undercut the dramatic potential of this opera. A lot of other choices in the storytelling hampered it a bit.
The first of these was the telling of the story. The music itself was not the main vehicle for delivering the narrative, West was. West was an omnipresent narrator, reading directly from the Book of Daniel. But like his choral music, which remained in the same gear throughout, his tone in reciting the text never wavered from the preachiness that was imposing, but hardly inspiring. Only at the end of the entire performance, as he read of Nebuchadnezzar’s union with God did he seem to throw more potency behind his voice, even calling on the audience stand up and raise their hands with the rest of the chorus.
The dramatization of the story that West was narrating thus fell onto the choreography and staging of Vanessa Beecroft. It wound up a mixed bag due to one prominent decision.
Diminishing Returns From Tortured Screams
The choreography added dynamism to the set with a battle expressed through dance early on and Nebuchadnezzar’s madness explored through a mist and a group of dancers circling around him. Nebuchadnezzar eventually lays on the floor and moves about in similar choreography to the other men and women around him, emphasizing his purification and unity with the other children of God. At the beginning of the show, a group of men and women dressed in white walked into the audience, almost unifying themselves with the spectators as a part of the drama to unfold; at the end they reappeared in the midst of the public, raising their hands in unison with the those seated around them.
But it was the character of Nebuchadnezzar and its personification that proved torturous for the viewer. Sheck Wes, dressed in what looked like a purple tarp-like vestment, entered the stage right from the start of the opera and remained there throughout its running time. But instead of singing or speaking, all he did was scream like a madman from start to finish. While it was disturbing at first and undeniably in line with the description of Nebuchadnezzar going mad, it became a case of diminishing returns of the frustrating kind.
The intention was likely to show Nebuchadnezzar as a disruptor of the peace and harmony of God, embodied by the chorus and dancers, all in perfect coordination and dressed in the purest of white. He was the lone outlier in his apparel and his free-wheeling behavior that often felt overly improvised.
But screaming was grating and distracting. Whether intentional or not, it undeniably detracted from the experience. You wanted Wes to just disappear. One could also argue that the performance could have remained true to the original intention with some variance or true character development. Why not have Nebuchadnezzar’s screams vary from time to time? Or build up to the ultimate madness instead of having showing all the cards at once. It did ultimately jive with the rest of the performance’s overall musical flatness. It must also be mentioned that at one point, West repeated the line “And he fell flat on his face,” three times, seemingly trying to get some reaction from Wes, but got none.
Whether or not this is a great opera or not (or if it even is an opera in the truest sense instead of an oratorio) is not really the point ultimately. The more important takeaway is that a world-renowned artist like Kanye West, who thinks very highly of himself, would feel that his artistry needs to crossover into the world of opera and in doing so, he sought to find a middle ground that would honor some of the artform’s traditions in his style. Perhaps this is a one-off experiment and status quo resumes. Or perhaps this inspires other artists that are not traditionally associated with opera to seek out a dialogue with it and develop the artform in unique ways.