LaRob Rafael (left) and Steve Wallace Credit: Courtesy Hearing in Color

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Composer and tenor Steve Wallace says the first time he heard the Nas song “Undying Love,” the final track on the rapper’s 1999 album I Am . . ., “I immediately saw it as a verismo one-act with chamber orchestra, but I stored it away for a later time.”

It wasn’t until 2014, when Wallace was rehearsing the role of Turiddu in Mascagni’s verismo opera Cavalleria Rusticana, that he sat down and wrote the one-act he had imagined. 

Nas’s “Undying Love” is the rhymed and tightly wound story of a man who returns from a weekend in Vegas with a surprise engagement ring only to find his intended in their bed with another man. He has a gun; soon they’re all dead.

Cavalleria Rusticana, and Pagliacci, the opera it’s frequently paired with in performance, are both stories of love betrayed, ending in death. These domestic crimes-of-passion plots were part of a late 19th-century shift in which Italian opera turned from tales of gods and kings to dramas about ordinary people.

Verismo meant the realistic (if melodramatic) portrayal of life as the audience knew it.

This week, Wallace’s opera, also titled Undying Love, will premiere in a single, semi-staged performance at the Austin neighborhood’s Kehrein Center for the Arts. It’s a project of Hearing in Color, a Chicago organization founded and led by another classically trained singer, bass-baritone LaRob K. Rafael, with a mission to present music that’s historically been excluded from the classical repertoire. WFMT is a partner in the production.

Undying Love
Fri 11/12, 7 PM, Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington, hearingincolor.org, $20.

Wallace grew up in south-side and south-suburban Chicago (his early training included the Merit School of Music), but he’s been based in New York since, where he’s had a prolific, multifaceted career. Initially working mostly in hip-hop and R&B, but unable to shake the opera bug (“I’d catch myself singing Rodolfo in the shower”), he returned to Chicago long enough to pick up a master’s in voice at the DePaul University School of Music, where, in 2011, he met Rafael, then an undergrad.

Rafael, a former Lyric Opera arts administrator, is now a host on WFMT. He launched Hearing in Color in 2017, after realizing “there was so much music I just wasn’t taught in school.”

“For the sake of learning about Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert, I missed out on the opportunity to study intensively the work of William Grant Still, or Margaret Bonds, or Florence Price,” Rafael says. Researching on his own, “I was finding all this music. My question was, why is no one performing this?”

Hearing in Color began as volunteer coffee shop recitals by friends that Rafael recruited. “It started with Black art songs, and then there were Latinx art songs, and then there were kundiman, which are Filipino art songs,” he says. “All of this music that’s so often been overlooked, because white male European is the standard in classical music.”  

And, while there have been recent calls for a “more expansive” story to be told on the operatic stage, Rafael says, they’ve typically been answered with “expansive stories being told through the lens of whiteness.”

“To see this kind of story being told, inspired by something so heavily entrenched in Black culture as hip-hop, but told through the milieu of opera and performed by Black singers, by a Black orchestral ensemble, and produced by a Black-led company, is something we don’t get to experience often. What can we do to address the inequities in opera? I think this is what we can do.”

Cavalleria Rusticana ends with a duel; Pagliacci with a knifing. Wallace, who wrote his own libretto (without incorporating any of Nas’s lines), and moved the setting to 1960s Queens, says the Undying Love opera is about “the human experience.”

The nuance of Nas’s story is that these are the options the protagonist is presented with, Rafael says. “The real villains are the societal pressures that make an individual believe they have no other choice but to go to the absolute extreme.”  

The opera has a four-person cast, including soprano Whitney Morrison as the girlfriend and baritone Brian Major as the protagonist. Chicago chamber ensemble D-Composed will play the score Wallace describes as Romantic and polystylistic.

Because a lack of recordings is a barrier to accessing music, most of Hearing in Color’s performances are recorded and available to the public on the organization’s website. Undying Love is an exception: the performance will be recorded for possible future broadcast on WFMT,  and, eventually, a possible ticketed Hearing in Color video stream.