On the way to the Hollywood Bowl to attend Nebuchadnezzar, an opera by Kanye West, my Lyft driver asked what I was going to see.
“Is it a real Kanye show with rapping, or one of those church services?”
I told him I wasn’t sure, but that it was billed as an opera based on an Old Testament story from the Bible.
“I’m not buying this Christian Kanye thing… I think it’s a scam to get more people to buy his clothes. I’m Nigerian, so I know a scam when I see one. Check your email, and you will probably find one of my people trying to scam you out of your money right now,” the driver said—a deep belly laugh accompanying the punchline to his well-rehearsed joke.
As we crept toward the Bowl through Hollywood traffic, he told me a story about a British missionary in Nigeria who paid a witch doctor a large sum of money to cast a spell over his church. The shaman promised the Christian pastor he’d get a good return on his investment. The spell, the doctor said, would fill the church’s pews with wealthy, generous parishioners.
When it comes to faith and religion of any stripe, my driver warned with his parable, you don’t have to look far to find someone lining their pockets.
Money and faith – and the having or not having of both – have long been central themes in West’s music. In the mid-aughts, both subjects were at the forefront of hits like “Jesus Walks” and “Gold Digger.” On the 2013 album Yeezus, the essential track “I Am a God” includes these lyrics:
I just talked to Jesus He said, “What up Yeezus?” I said, “Shit I’m chilling Trying to stack these millions”
West may be a born-again Christian now, but stacking millions is still a priority. At the very least, he equates financial success with heavenly approval. “God is using me as a human being,” he recently told James Corden on an elaborate airplane version of the comedian’s popular “Carpool Karaoke” segment. “As humbly as I can put it, he’s using me to show off. Last year I made $115 million dollars and still ended up $35 million dollars in debt. This year, I looked up, and I just got $68 million dollars returned to me on my tax returns.”
West, it’s been suggested, will likely benefit financially from his decision to, as he told Corden, “start a church in Calabasas”—but not necessarily because the invisible hand of the almighty is working magic on his behalf. There’s a simpler, more earthly possibility: In the U.S, churches, however loosely defined, don’t pay taxes on income or property.
Nebuchadnezzar did feel more like a hastily put together Church of Kanye production than a fully fleshed-out opera. It featured and was centered around the lush harmonies of the Sunday Service choir, a cohesive, powerful gospel group led by Jason White. (Since January, White and the choir have performed with West every Sunday: first in a field in Calabasas, then at Coachella, sometimes at churches around the country, and several times at the Forum in Los Angeles.) The story of the Babylonian king was told without embellishment or a traditional libretto, narrated by West, who read straight from the Old Testament book of Daniel. Controversial collaborator Vanessa Beecroft designed the predictably monochromatic, beautifully lit Yeezy-branded set and costumes.
Rapper Sheck Wes portrayed Nebuchadnezzar with shrieks and howls, writhing and moaning. Dressed in a shiny blue tarp-like outfit that popped against the choir’s cream-colored robes and sweats, he made a strong dramatic impression.
West is a passionate, committed evangelist and brand ambassador; here, as a narrator, he brought the same kind of punchy rhythms and personal emphasis to reading Old Testament texts he has always brought to his raps. It’s an unrehearsed aesthetic that effectively relies on passion to communicate emotion.
It’s interesting watching a notorious egoist try to get out of his own way in service to a newly adopted religious faith. Sure, during the entire production West sat off to the side of the stage reading straight from the Bible, but this was clearly still an “opera” about Kanye: Kanye as mad king with wild dreams. Kanye as Daniel the faithful servant. Kanye demanding his followers bow down to a golden statue. Kanye rescued from a fiery furnace. Kanye as faithful servant. Kanye as a king finding God. Kanye converted. Kanye, quite literally, demanding his followers follow a new god now.
“Stand up! Raise up your hands!” West told an almost capacity crowd at the end of the 50ish-minute production.
“Wait, is that it? Is this the end?” one audience member near me asked as he dutifully rose to his feet at West’s request.
I’m not sure how long even devoted fans will continue to buy what West is currently selling. The Hollywood Bowl felt nearly full, but after anemic ticket sales early in the week, prices for nosebleed seats had dropped from $150 to $20 by Sunday. Nobody really thought Nebuchadnezzar would start on time – doors opened at 1:30pm and the show was scheduled to start at 4 – but a delay of more than two hours taxed the patience of even the most forgiving audience members waiting in the chilly evening air.
The problem with asking an audience to wait that long is that it builds anticipation. The crowd cheered wildly when the lights finally went down well after 6pm, thrilled that something was finally happening. All around me, groups of friends lit up joints they’d been saving for show time. A little tipsy from two hours of unexpected pre-drinking, everyone was ready for a spectacle, ready to be wowed.
But even though there were moments of beautiful Requiem-like choral music and gospel anthems, the crowd became increasingly subdued instead of hyped as the short program dragged on. At the end, it was as if we were still waiting for it to begin.
The prevailing vibe on the way out of the Hollywood Bowl was one of disappointment. That’s it? That’s what the great Yeezus calls an opera?
As he has so often, West got in his own way with this production. Both his subject matter and musical concepts had the potential to succeed, but an obvious lack of preparation or fleshing out of ideas limited what he was able to achieve. We get the message: Kanye is on the straight-and-narrow path now, and he wants us to join him. But so far, that path is not leading to interesting musical or dramatic innovation.
A week before he hastily produced Nebuchadnezzar at the Hollywood Bowl, West and the Sunday Service choir performed at Joel Osteen’s Houston mega-church. It makes sense that he would be drawn to a church and a pastor who subscribe to the prosperity gospel: a version of Christianity that preaches salvation with a side of health and wealth.
In the end, it seems, West is looking for redemption and money. Salvation and a tax return, along with an audience that will follow him down the path of righteousness—even if he has to remind them to stand up and cheer at the end up a mediocre show.
Catherine Womack is an L.A.-based arts and culture journalist who regularly contributes to the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter: @cewomackwrites
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
With 'Nebuchadnezzar,' the opera Kanye West unveiled at the Hollywood Bowl, the rap impresario invited the faithful on his path to righteousness but had to remind them to stand up and cheer, Catherine Womack reports.
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