Will Liverman: Not Waiting for Permission

Will Liverman: Not Waiting for Permission

Fresh from his performance in the critically acclaimed production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera, Will Liverman boldly steps forward as a Black artist leading others in the industry.


It’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning when Will Liverman and I connect via video call. Despite the early hour, his whirlwind performance schedule, and the fact that he is nursing a cold, he is still warm and engaging. Those two adjectives seem to be fitting for most things related to him—his demeanor, his performances, his voice, his music—warm and engaging.

There’s no doubt that Liverman can sing, with a voice that, according to the Washington Post, “achieves gleaming strength without surrendering its sublime softness.” His buttery baritone is the epitome of good technique: awe-inspiring beauty and strength—powerful when necessary, but never forced—made to look and sound easy through focused, but free singing.

And that voice has opened doors. Liverman’s return to the stage after the industry-wide shutdown has been triumphant, starring in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones. And that’s just the start of a busy season, including returning to the Met stage twice to reprise roles in The Magic Flute and Akhenaten. Liverman conceptualized and released Dreams of a New Day: Songs by Black Composers, a chart-topping album of art songs, and workshopped his own opera—The Factotum, a “hip-hopera” of sorts—with Chicago Lyric Opera. 


Making History

As the first Black singer to perform the role of Papageno in The Magic Flute at the Met, in January 2020, Will Liverman is familiar with groundbreaking moments on the nation’s most prominent opera stage. And in reality, when he was asked to make history again as the lead character in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones—the first opera by a Black composer on the Metropolitan Opera stage—the audition was just a formality, although he didn’t know that.

“I saw that they made an announcement about it, that they were going to do it in their future seasons…and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’” he says. “Then when the pandemic happened and after George Floyd happened, I think that started all these conversations about inclusion and diversity and telling diverse stories. And I think the decision was made to move Fire up to the 2021–2022 season.

“I got the call last year in August to audition. …I learned [the excerpt] in a few days, I went and recorded it, sent it to my manager, and next thing I knew—about a few days after that—they said, ‘OK, the role is yours.’”


Black Identity

Long before the pandemic left singers with empty schedules and free time to muse on their frustrations with the industry, and long before the social unrest in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, Liverman was already grappling with issues of Black identity and representation within classical music and championing work that highlighted Black artists and culture. He premiered the role of Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Opera Philadelphia and has become known as a champion of Black music, performing overlooked works by Black composers and commissioning and writing new ones.

Liverman’s vocal repertoire encompasses a broad range of music, but he doesn’t shy away from being seen as a Black singer or being tied to many “firsts” in relation to Blackness. “It’s a special thing. I feel—it’s an empowering thing, you know, when I look at being a champion of music by Black composers and telling Black stories. Because I want to be a part of the change myself and use my platform whenever I can to highlight these things and to tell these stories because they’re so important.”

While digging into such heavy material, it’s not uncommon for artists to be concerned about how they will be received and whether opera companies, donors, or others who hold power will give pushback or shy away from them because of the subject matter they explore on or off stage. Liverman says this hasn’t been his experience thus far. “I haven’t actually [received pushback]—or if there was, they didn’t tell me about it,” he laughs. “But I wish someone would.” We shared a good laugh at this play on a Black colloquialism that I knew he doesn’t mean entirely literally, but as more of a warning. “That’s always the motivation I need to keep going,” he says.

Bringing Himself to Opera

While aware of Terence Blanchard as a jazz legend, Liverman hadn’t seen his operatic works, Champion and Fire Shut Up In My Bones, prior to being invited to audition for Fire. They met for the first time in St. Louis while he was performing another opera by a Black composer—William Grant Still’s Highway 1, USA.

“He was just so open. Being a jazz musician, he’s used to people changing his music all the time and making it their own. And I would say that was probably one of the best things about this whole process of Fire: the collaboration. Even after it already premiered and after we were already in rehearsals, that never stopped. If something wasn’t working, we had free range to try out a new note or take something up an octave. Doing things to make the piece fit our voices.”

Freedom and improvisation are not new concepts to Liverman. In a recent recital, he performed a medley of songs by R&B legend Brian McKnight, delving into Black popular music in a way not often, if ever, seen in high-profile classical performances. However, this freedom didn’t initially translate to opera. Having a composer be so hands on in a way that created freedom, he says, was a new experience. “Terence is dope. He was there for just about every rehearsal. I love it when a show is able to develop and grow, and you have that flexibility and freedom to really make something your own.”

Will Liverman performing as Charles and Angel Blue performing as Greta in Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Metropolitan Opera, 2021

Safe for the First Time

In Fire we see Liverman, as Charles, stripped down, figuratively and literally. For a portion of the opera, we see him in white boxer briefs and a white sleeveless undershirt. “Fire pushed me to every level possible,” he says. Coming out of the pandemic and then jumping into that was like being thrown into a fire! I’ve never had to be vulnerable in that way.”

There has been recently renewed conversation about how Black people, and Black bodies, are treated in opera. Industry-wide, artists have shared traumatic experiences. Liverman says there’s one key component that made the cast of Fire feel safe with the physical and emotional vulnerability the show required. “We felt protected because we had people who looked like us on the other side of the table.”

The composer, choreographer, assistant director, and many members of Fire’s production staff were Black. From proper lighting for Black people’s skin to production issues, Liverman says he felt heard and safe because there were Black people “in the room to advocate for us, and making sure that we’re getting what we need, and paying attention to other things that only Black people could know, like — that’s just the culture.” 

Will Liverman performing as Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Virginia Opera

It Felt Like Change

In opera, Black singers often begin their studies by removing their culture and identity in order to navigate the classical music world. Whether directly or indirectly, the message is sent that Black identity is to be compartmentalized and saved for other spaces. When asked what it felt like to be in a space like the Met and not feel those limitations, he answered without missing a beat: “It felt like change.”

Still, he acknowledges that in the industry, Black artists have to be deliberate about seeking out Black music, culture, and other Black people. “When I did my album Dreams of a New Day, all that rep—you’re not taught it in schools. You have to seek that out. There are so many Black composers that are writing fantastic songs and symphonies, and we need to highlight these things.”

Will Liverman performing as Papageno in The Magic Flute, Central City Opera

Not Waiting for Permission

While the role of Figaro in The Barber of Seville became his calling card, even this led him back to his own heritage, inspiring him to partner with DJ/recording artist K-Rico, a high school friend, to create The Factotum. The duo combined opera, hip-hop, barbershop, gospel, funk, neo soul, and R&B in a reimagining of The Barber of Seville that takes place in a present-day Black barbershop in Chicago—an idea that came to him on a day off, during a production of the opera, while sitting in a barber’s chair.

“Every city that you go to, people know the struggle of trying to find the Black barbershop. But I was sitting there and I was like, there’s so much in the barbershop world that’s like its own Black sitcom, because of all the people that come in and out. If Rossini had stepped foot in the Black barbershop, I feel like he’d have a lot of material.”

The project began in 2018. In the midst of rehearsals for Akhenaten, Liverman would take the ferry to Staten Island to work in K-Rico’s studio. He brought in friends to record the demo, taught them the music by rote, before he even had sheet music, and raised money to do a recording. After reaching out to donors, word about the project got to the Ryan Opera Center, at Chicago Lyric Opera, and they reached out proposing a workshop. 

Will Liverman performing as Charles and Walter Russell III performing as Charles Baby in Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Metropolitan Opera, 2021

“I get a call from Judith Faulkner who’s with the Ryan Center: ‘Hey, I heard about this project. Would you be open to maybe workshopping it with the Ryan Center? Do you have any music from it? What’s the plot?’ And I’m like, ‘As a matter of fact, we have the demos ready.’ We sent them the demos and kind of a loose plot and replied, ‘Ok, let’s do the workshop.’ And I was like, ‘OK! Let’s do the workshop!’ So I spent the whole summer during the pandemic writing this opera, finishing it with Rico, and then we did the workshop, and then we did this documentary. Next thing I know, we have a premiere in 2023.”

He’s driven in part, he says, by a desire to tell stories of Black joy. “We have to be honest and know our history and tell stories that deal with Black trauma and Black pain. But to balance that, we have to remember what it’s like to celebrate Black life and what that is. We are a joyous people, and that needs to be celebrated too. Where else, what better place, than a barbershop world, where it’s more than just a haircut or getting your hair done—it’s a safe haven.”


The Hustle Is Real

Though it may seem like the opportunities just show up, Liverman wants fellow singers at all levels to know that it’s initiative, not just talent, that opens doors. He notes the array of platforms singers now have to showcase their ideas and talents. “That’s the beautiful thing about how things have changed from my day as a young artist—” he stops himself. “I can’t believe I just said ‘from my day.’ That was—oooh!” He’s only 33.

He laughs and goes on. “It’s different. Nowadays, there’s so much power that you have over your own content. When someone types in your name, you have the power to control what people see. So, young artists don’t need to wait to invest in studio time. Get a Spotify page, put out singles of whatever you want.”

He wants his journey to resonate with singers at any point in their education or career. “The work never stops. People often can think, ‘Oh because you did this thing, then these opportunities are happening’ or ‘Wow you got a record deal,’ and it’s like, no—I had the idea to do this thing, and I took initiative. I always wanted to keep my materials fresh. Spending money on the recording sessions and the headshots, those things will help keep you active. I call it the 24/7 audition. The opportunities—the grants, the funding—it’s all out there. You just have to find it. The resources are out there. If you don’t ask, you don’t know. 

“And when you’re ready, once that opportunity comes, you’ll have everything.”

Brittani McNeill

Brittani McNeill is an operatic soprano, cross-genre performer, writer, and equity consultant who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She holds degrees in communication and music from East Carolina University, Morgan State University, and the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University.