Mixing beatboxing with opera, acclaimed composer redefines genre

Augusta Read Thomas transforms stage with beatboxer, YouTube star Nicole Paris

With an abundant imagination for sound and music, Prof. Augusta Read Thomas unfolds fresh sonic perspectives and a personal artistic voice in soaring pieces played around the world—all while shaping the field of classical composition at the University of Chicago.

Now, the Grammy-winning composer renowned for her masterful use of instrumental color has created a new opera that features acclaimed beatboxer Nicole Paris, accompanied by a youth choir and chamber ensemble. The original work Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun will debut Oct. 26 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is the second opera Thomas has composed in close collaboration with librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer.

“This is art without prototype that expands the definition of opera,” said Thomas, the University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music and the College. “This opera can help to transform the genre. With all these different sounds and artists, voices and musicians and percussion, you can really sculpt a gorgeous sonic envelope.”

In the story of Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun, a famous performer—in this production, a beatboxer—is scheduled to begin a solo show and is alarmed to discover that an opera is about to start on the same stage. Before the mix-up can be resolved, the opera is underway. At first, the performer only attends and reacts to the opera, but eventually the performer participates in the action and becomes fully integrated into the opera.

By weaving together two seemingly disparate art forms, Thomas has created an avenue open to both new and traditional audiences.

“If I were to go to an opera, buy a ticket, get the babysitter, go out to dinner, I want to go to an opera that’s inventive and different,” she said. “Beatboxing is typically outside the world of opera. I wanted to compose this unique artwork for Nicole, broadening the art form. Sweet Potato breaks down any perceived wall between the traditional opera audience and the traditional beatboxing audience, crisscrossing these musical cultures and artistries.”

Paris is originating the guest artist role, but the part is designed for any artist not traditionally associated with opera—such as a jazz or country singer, yodeler, athlete or comedian. To prepare the opera’s world premiere, Paris rehearsed for years, participating in a workshop at UChicago in late summer 2018.

Always searching for deeply personal, embodied sounds, Thomas discovered Paris through YouTube. Paris earned national media attention and fame in 2015 at age 23, when a beatboxing battle with her father went viral, earning 4.7 million views. She forms the center of Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun, even though this role marks her introduction to opera.

“Nicole’s beatboxing is kaleidoscopic,” said Leslie Dunton-Downer, the opera’s librettist. “She doesn’t just do a beat; she’s got all these other sounds. You never know what’s coming next, but you know you’ll love it.”

In fact, working with Thomas and Dunton-Downer has inspired Paris to compose an original musical piece of her own, one she hopes to debut next year.

“I hate being stuck in a box,” Paris said. “Beatboxing is my gift, and it wouldn’t be a gift if I was doing everything that everybody else was doing. I wouldn’t be different at all. I wouldn’t be unique.”

Opera bridges two different worlds

To bridge these two different sonic worlds, Dunton-Downer developed the libretto’s story, characters, and words to address the unique goals Thomas had for this project. The opera’s plot centers on a family facing a crisis when the beloved trickster-child Sweet Potato kicks the sun out of the galaxy. The family prays for the sun’s return to their urban rooftop garden. But when Sweet Potato also cuts the cosmic cord—the sacred string that conveys all prayers beyond the sky—all hope appears lost.

The garden family’s misery worsens when Grandmother Seed-Keeper leaves for her secret cellar, explaining why she may never return. Grandfather Beekeeper is furious at Sweet Potato, whom he sends away on a journey with 89, Sweet Potato’s hummingbird friend, to gain wisdom.

The original story and music meet the commissioners’ criteria for an opera for all ages and all voices. Thomas is supported in part by seven opera companies—the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Minnesota Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, Sarasota Opera, Seattle Opera and Santa Fe Opera—that commissioned this new work as part of the “Opera for All Voices” consortium.

It’s the latest venture for Thomas, who since joining the UChicago faculty in 2010 has launched the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition; spearheaded the city-wide Ear Taxi Festival of contemporary music; and even composed an original work, Plea for Peace, commemorating the first nuclear reaction. The University’s culture of collaboration and interdisciplinary scholarship, she said, nurtures not only her music, but also her classroom and work with the center.

“Revision takes time,” Thomas said. “Composing has to be done in a really, deeply thoughtful manner. That’s what I love about the University of Chicago, because it allows time to think. It allows time for these deep collaborations—a real sense of communication, a sense of community.”

After devoting more than three years to the composition of the opera, Thomas is currently focusing on working with the performers, conductor, director and creative team in rehearsals to ensure successful performances of Sweet Potato Kicks the Sun throughout the opera world.

“The world of sound is so vast,” she said. “Which kinds of sounds can I hear in an opera? How can I make something fresh and interesting that works as a piece of theater, but that also has all the musical elements integral to my music?

“The different kinds of voices in this opera keep it fresh. I think audiences who are tried-and-true—passionate opera aficionados—want new things. One of the most beautiful things about music is how it transforms and renews itself. That’s the entire history of music.”