The Rosina Project, an electric, modern-day reimagining of Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville, performs as part of Pivot Arts’ 2019 Festival May 31- June 2. Alexa Erbach, Pivot Arts marketing manager, interviewed George Cederquist (Artistic Director, Chicago Fringe Opera) and BRAVEMONK and Kelsa (Co-Founders/Co-Artistic Directors, BraveSoul Movement) about their exciting collaboration. The Project was originally developed in the 2018 Pivot Arts Incubator Program at Loyola University.
AE: The Rosina Project is based on Rossini’s famous 200-year-old opera The Barber of Seville. What made you want to adapt it, and why do you think the story is still relevant today?
GC: It really started with the music, not the story. In the summer of 2014, I was directing at an opera festival and had a lot of spare time on my hands, and I was dreaming up new projects. I wasn’t directing The Barber of Seville, but I kept on hearing Figaro’s famous aria “Largo al factotum” (when he sings “Fiiiiii-ga-ro!”) in my head. To me, it sounded like a hypeman, working the crowd. The more I listened to the opera, and to Rossini’s music, the more I noticed Rossini’s use of harmonic progressions that create a sense of forward movement and increasing intensity. I realized there’s a lot in common between Rossini’s music and that of Hip-Hop, EDM and other contemporary pop genres.
I also saw parallels in the ways that Rossini’s characters and Hip-Hop MCs spoke: eloquent and lightning quick. I wondered if there’d be a way to have Hip-Hop MCs rewrite Rossini’s libretto in their own words. Our lead writer, Mikey to the P, who is a brilliant MC in his own right, has successfully crafted dialogue that communicates Rossini’s story within the brilliance that is rap.
AE: I love the idea that this is a “hip-hopera!” What about hip-hop movement, music and culture and opera make this seemingly unlikely pair work?
GC: Hip-Hopera is indeed a thing. Yet it has really only been explored on a small-scale, like with single songs or arias. The Rosina Project is, as far as I know, the first time an entire opera has been integrated into the the hip-hop genre, and with such authenticity. One of my main collaborators, K. F. Jacques, is a classically-trained operatic baritone who is also a virtuosic MC and Hip-Hop producer/composer. He plays Figaro, and his integration of both hip-hop and opera, their movement, music and culture, is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
AE: What was your reaction when George first approached you with this idea for The Rosina Project? Had you ever worked on an opera before? What made you say “yes?”
B: Yes, I worked on an operetta once before, where I did more than dance. I was actually a character, and I sang. When George approached us about wanting to do something with an opera, I first just wanted to listen. George talked about being inspired by our company’s performance. His words of appreciation really helped open me up to his ideas. He talked about ideas around community and participation that are familiar in hip-hop, and it really spoke to the languages and values that I understand and uphold. At first, I was a little skeptical. Here’s a white guy who wants to do an opera, which can be alienating to certain people. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t signing up for something that was going to just use hip-hop to make it look cool. But George really values and respects our input.
K: It sounded interesting and fun, but also complicated and a little hard to imagine at first. It sounded like a project with great potential that could also turn out totally wack if not done right. We said yes because, well, George is a pretty persuasive guy.
AE: A large part of Chicago Fringe Opera’s mission is to shine a contemporary light upon a centuries old art form. How has this particular collaboration with BraveSoul helped with that, and what do you want your audiences to take away from this show?
GC: I saw BraveSoul Movement perform at Millennium Park at Chicago Summer Dance in 2017. I knew then that they were the perfect collaborators. Kelsa, BRAVEMONK and their colleagues have brought such knowledge, such authenticity and such virtuosity to the project. They’ve been patient and open-minded but, like me and opera, they also work in a highly interdisciplinary art form: hip-hop. That common ground has allowed us all to achieve so much.
While the Project successfully integrates two distinct art forms, it’s even more important to me how successfully it brings together a diverse group of artists and audience members. At the end of the day, the show is really just one big house party, and our audiences get to see virtuosity very close up.
AE: What was the collaborative process with Chicago Fringe Opera like? What is one your favorite moments in the show?
B: It has been cool, especially working to help shape the movement of the piece, as well as some aspects of the sound- because in hip-hop and African American culture, those things are very much connected. It helps for the scenes to illustrate what they intend and to come off authentically, when all of those elements are working well together. One of my favorite moments in the show is the battle scene.
K: It has been really great working with George. He is very open, gracious and patient. He listens and takes input. He is also very organized and on top of things. He has been a great director. Not at all overbearing. He does a great job of pulling together talented voices, and providing space and structure for them to do what they are awesome at doing. I really loved working on and being a part of the battle scene. I especially love seeing a powerful woman shut it down. The first time I heard Pinqy Ring, I got goose bumps.
AE: And finally…what’s one fun or unexpected fact most people don’t know about you?
GC: Growing up in Michigan, my childhood dream was to play hockey for the Detroit Red Wings; but it turned out I was way too short to do that, so I became an opera director instead.
B: I performed for Michael Jackson.
K: I spent a year in South America (1999-2000), and for several months I was backpacking through Brazil. I did quite a bit of hitchhiking, bartering for food and sleeping outside. This was before social media and cell phones were really a thing. Sometimes I yearn to go back to that time period and to bring a bunch of young people with me who have never experienced what it’s like to unplug and detach in that way. It really feels like a lost era sometimes. But I think The Rosina Project is an opportunity to bridge the gap and connect more.
The Rosina Project kicks off the 2019 Pivot Arts Festival May 31-June 2! For information and to reserve your tickets visit pivotarts.org/project/the-rosina-project.
Photo of The Rosina Project by William Frederking.