Rock and pop artists tend to tread very carefully around the issue of classical music. Paul McCartney waited for 30 years of his career to pass – by which time he was thoroughly established as one half of the most successful songwriting partnership in history – before presenting his first oratorio to the world. Billy Joel and Elvis Costello similarly allowed 30 years to elapse before announcing that they had written classical pieces. Even Roger Waters, a man so untroubled by the concept of modesty he bills himself as a “creative genius” on the adverts for his gigs, spent 28 years working on his opera Ca Ira before presenting it to the public.
You can understand their reticence – the classical establishment is sniffy, even brutal, about pop artists chancing their arm in the world of chamber orchestras, librettos and movements in C minor – but they’re not made of the same stuff as Kanye West, who blithely announced he’d written an opera, which would be premiering at the 17,500-capacity Hollywood Bowl in seven days’ time, a couple of weeks after releasing his album Jesus Is King.
Here was evidence that West’s belief in himself as not merely “the greatest artist that God has ever created” but a polymath genius who can turn his hand to anything remains undimmed by a muted response to a number of his ventures – the people who queue up to buy his trainers seem to have reacted to the news that he was planning on inventing a flying car with an indulgent roll of the eyes. But the feeling that even his fans thought he might be pushing it this time was hard to miss: one US newspaper reported that tickets were still available for the premiere hours before it was due to begin, despite having been slashed in price from $150 to $20.
Reports from the Hollywood Bowl on the night also suggested West may have overstretched himself. The show was delayed by two hours, during which time stagehands could apparently be seen frantically building the set. But you didn’t need to be present to work out things were happening very much on the fly. Watching at home via the Tidal livestream, you could spot the singers reading from scripts, the fluffed cues that occasionally gave the production a certain Acorn Antiques air. “Then the king Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face!” intoned West at one point, but rapper Sheck Wes, in the title role, noticeably failed to fall on any part his anatomy. West tried again: “Then the king Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face!” Still Wes remained resolutely upright. After Wes failed to respond for a third time, West gave up and moved on, fighting a fit of the giggles.
Perhaps it didn’t matter. For anyone without a working knowledge of the Book of Daniel, the plot was pretty hard to follow. There was no libretto: a choir thundered away, wordlessly or in what may have been like Latin, while West, offstage, read an abridged version of Daniel’s first four chapters in a way that was alternately forceful and halting. Either that was insufficiently rehearsed as well, or his copy of the Bible had been printed with the punctuation in the wrong places: “Now among them were. The children of Judah. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azarea. Unto whom. The prince of the eunuchs. Gave names.”
Meanwhile, Wes stalked the stage, resplendent in purple robes and what looked like a pair of Yeezy sliders, conveying Nebuchadnezzar’s travails by randomly shrieking and bellowing, “Judah!” There were moments when the choreography seemed to be in chaos. Babylon’s siege of Jerusalem looked like a cross between a rugby scrum, an exposition of street dance moves and the kind of scuffling leave-it-Barry-he’s-not-worth-it fight that often breaks out in Britain’s high streets when the pubs chuck out on a Saturday. But there were moments when it was genuinely beautiful, a series of graceful rippling movements.
The music went from full-on, high drama, choral and orchestral power to passages where you could hear the kind of crossover West was presumably aiming for: a lone, aching female soul voice rising above the general tumult; sections where you could make out melodies of old West tracks, most notably The Life of Pablo’s Wolves; a beautiful interlude featuring acoustic guitar.
Gorgeous musical passages or not, the halting narration, the imponderable plot, the defiant lack of staging, the fact that everyone bar Nebuchadnezzar was dressed exactly the same, making it hard to work out who was supposed to be who, and the sneaking suspicion that you were watching something that wasn’t actually finished conspired to make the whole thing drag – it somehow felt a lot longer than 50 minutes. By the time it got round to Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego being cast into the fiery furnace, at least one person watching at home on Tidal would have willingly chucked himself in with them, considering immolation a merciful release from West’s reading and Wes’s bellowing.
Instead, it ended with West commanding the audience to stand and put their hands in the air to praise God. At risk of sounding cynical, this also guaranteed Nebuchadnezzar a standing ovation, with the audience already on their feet. West bounded on stage beaming and hugging the cast, as if he were responsible for a huge triumph, which in a weird way he was.
As an opera, or a piece of theatrical entertainment, or even as a means of piquing the public’s interest in the Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t much use. As an act of authentically mind-blowing pop-star folly, of a kind we rarely see nowadays – most pop stars having long been dissuaded from outlandish behaviour fuelled by immense self-regard, perhaps by the opprobrium it occasions on social media – it exceeded all expectations. Indeed, you’d probably have to look back to the mid-70s, when Rick Wakeman attempted to stage a similarly shambolic live version of The Myths and Legends of King Arthur on ice to find something even vaguely comparable.
If it didn’t work in artistic terms, as a bulwark against the argument that pop music is devoid of character and spectacle and crazed, foolhardy ambition, Nebuchadnezzar worked perfectly.
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