Kanye West’s Opera ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ Was Stunning To Witness, But He Just Preached To The Choir

As you likely know by now, Kanye West is a self-professed genius. Last night, for the first time since the mercurial producer dared to compare himself to both Walt Disney and Howard Hughes, I thought he might be right. The perception is the thing and Kanye proved he was at least a master of controlling the public’s perception.

To wit: Despite it’s billing, Nebuchadnezzar isn’t much of an opera by most standards of the genre. As I understand it from Saturday afternoon public television broadcasts and plenty of research, opera is generally far less elaborately produced and focused much more on the singing of the libretto, or “small book.” In fact, some publications sent both pop and opera critics because of the lack of overlap in the two musical styles (and even they seemed to miss some of the religious context and how Kanye relates to it).

In this case, the focus was much more on the reading of the “big book” of the Holy Bible — specifically, the book of Daniel from the Old Testament and even more specifically, the Authorized King James version — by Kanye himself from offstage. This was certainly a choice that had its pros and its cons, but one that spoke volumes to the intent of Nebuchadnezzar.

For what it’s worth, Nebuchadnezzar was a stunningly staged performance, with white-robed choir singers popping forth from every corridor of the Hollywood Bowl once the performance started — two hours later than promised. A lot will likely be made of the late start time, but with Kanye, this sort of thing is par for the course — I took it a lot better than some of my box companions.

As Kanye narrated the story of Nebuchadnezzar — actually twin stories of the Hebrew prophets Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from Sunday School — out of the most pretentious version of the Bible he could get his hands on, Sheck Wes spookily played the title role, issuing guttural howls from the middle of a whirlwind of human bodies that more than once made me wonder whether or not he’d stopped acting. His performance made him the standout focus of the show despite clearly missing a verbal cue to “fall on his face” at one point in the narrative.

But for all the motion and the bulked-up, orchestral version of “Wolves” and selections from Kanye’s recently released album, Jesus Is King, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a more elaborate version of my old church’s Easter play, right down to the proud mom filming her eight-year-old’s stiff-kneed recitation of dusty old Scriptures (you know Kim K was filming from the terrace). Kanye seemed to count on the general public’s ignorance of the mundanity of this sort of production — and of opera itself — to scam the more credulous among them into thinking he really did something.

As the lead, Sheck Wes didn’t do any singing really. Generally, in what we’d consider an “opera,” the narrative is progressed through the singing of the choir, often in dialogue with the arias delivered by the show’s leads. What we got was a massive vocal section “oohing” and “ahing” moodily as Kanye struggled to pronounce old-fashioned terms like “shew” from a version of the Bible nobody uses (mainly because of things like spelling “show” as “shew”). It was pretty clear he liked it because it sounds more dramatic and austere and he thought it might lend the thing some depth, but his stumbles throughout the reading recalled his recent musical miscues.

Ultimately, by the end of the short-ish show, the audience was left with far more questions than answers, questions like, “Who is this for?” “What is Kanye trying to say?” and “Why did it need to be in this particular format, when Kanye has already proved so much more adept at getting his point across musically in the past without needing to dress it up so much?” Nebuchadnezzar wound up being less of an opera and more the generalized idea of what opera is in public perception from Looney Tunes and the like, slathered over an overdone church play in an attempt to make it all look fancier and more appetizing than it was.

As to what Kanye was trying to say, one thing is clear: He’s Nebuchadnezzar in this narrative, a king twice afflicted with madness for lack of faithfulness, but in usual Kanye fashion, he misses a lot of points. Namely: That Nebuchadnezzar was also a tyrant who rarely learned from his mistakes. Kanye’s identification with the title role runs deeper than even he knows.

Why did it need to be an opera? Because, like many of Kanye’s more recent works, he needs his audience to believe it’s more than what it is. By calling it an “opera,” he gets to be “deep;” it’s the same principle behind calling Jesus Is King a gospel album. Kanye’s target audience is no more people who attend operas than it is people who go to church every Sunday.