When Adrian Dunn says he started his company "to show the world that opera could be commercial again by emphasizing socially relevant messages," he doesn't mean simply re-casting the hits of the genre. It's old hat to emphasize the race relations in Verdi's Othello, the gender roles in Carmen or the poverty in La Bohème so that kids these days can find their own touchstones in the same old music. Instead, Dunn adds to a wave of musical re-invention by fusing Western European tradition with hip-hop. He founded Hoperaworld three years ago in Chicago, and after presenting pieces of his production Chronicles of a Fallen Hero in venues around the windy city, he brings the whole show — including a cast, crew and artistic staff, totaling about 20 people — back to his hometown, Cleveland Heights, for its premiere performances this week.
Chronicles of a Fallen Hero has its antecedents in Beyoncé's re-telling of the Carmen story, mostly in R&B, but with passing allusions to Bizet's iconic tunes and in R. Kelly's serialized R&B drama Trapped in the Closet. But Dunn brings his classically trained voice and sensibility to the mix. He grew up in Cleveland Heights, studied voice at the Cleveland Music School Settlement and, in his first year at Cleveland Heights High, was in "all the choirs." He joined the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus, studied at Interlochen and took lessons with Beverley Rinaldi at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Then he headed off to the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University where he majored in opera. There, he and his roommate Justin Robinson, a jazz major, started working on musical drama that integrated elements of jazz and hip-hop with opera. Chronicles is the result.
"It's about a young African-American male growing up on the south side of Chicago, very loosely based on Othello," explains Dunn. "The main character, Obadiah King, is dealing with common life issues in that poor neighborhood: unsupportive parents, not succeeding so much in the educational system, dealing with personal issues, loosing his best friend. It's his story about how he manages that terrain and his triumph over his circumstances and over death."
.Part of the fusion of traditions is that, while Chronicles has a rapper narrating and performing a role, it uses a four-piece band and a small string section instead of samples. He's borrowing from both hip-hop and opera traditions, and violating them too.
"It's absolutely not traditional," he says. "That is the point."