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.