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West gives Lincoln Center an opera for Christmas
A scene from “Mary,” an opera by Kanye West, featuring his Sunday Service choir, at Lincoln Center in New York, Dec. 22, 2019. The choir sang the hip-hop star’s hits and a handful of Christmas classics, all given the full gospel treatment for this 50-minute rendition of the Nativity story. The New York Times.

by Nancy Coleman

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- David Geffen Hall was nearly full Sunday evening for Kanye West’s “Mary,” the hip-hop star’s second venture into what he calls opera. But no one there seemed more enthralled with the performance than West himself.

Sitting downstage, bathed in golden light, he bopped his head and swayed in his seat as his Sunday Service choir sang his hits and a handful of Christmas classics, all given the full gospel treatment for this 50-minute rendition of the Nativity story.

But between the most stirring numbers, it was easy to get confused, caught in the chasm between a classical performance at Lincoln Center and an arena show. Was this a Kanye concert? A traditional opera? Was screaming “We love you, Kanye” in the darkness appropriate? (Yes, according to the tiny voice that hollered back from Kim Kardashian West’s box in the first tier: “Kanye’s my dad!”)

Like “Nebuchadnezzar,” West’s first opera, which premiered in Los Angeles last month, “Mary” consisted of Sunday Service tunes interspersed with West’s recitation of Bible verses. Like “Nebuchadnezzar,” it was directed by his longtime collaborator, the artist Vanessa Beecroft. And like “Nebuchadnezzar,” it was announced with just a few days’ notice — first its premiere in Miami on Dec. 8, and then this reprise at Lincoln Center. But there were some changes from Florida to New York: a full crop of what appeared to be grain sprouted from the stage, the costumes were significantly less reflective and no one entered on a speedboat.

Waiting outside before the show were some audience members who traveled internationally — Mexico City, Tel Aviv, Stockholm — and some who just took the 1 train; some who planned their trips intentionally around “Mary” and some who were in town by chance. There were longtime devotees and new admirers; fans focusing on West’s creative work rather than his recent political leanings; and some who were decidedly not fans at all. Here’s why they went.

Diane and Nicole Matthews
Diane Matthews was among the first ticket holders to gather at Geffen Hall on Sunday — although she knew the performance would probably fall outside her musical comfort zone.

“I’m not even a Kanye fan,” she said. “I’m a jazz fan.”

She’d been to the opera before — “Porgy and Bess” — but never to a Kanye concert. Her daughter was the opposite: Nicole Matthews has seen West live, but never a traditional opera.

They came to “Mary” by way of a family connection: Diane’s goddaughter is part of the Sunday Service choir.

“Her mom posted a video, she’s posted videos,” Diane said. “I don’t know, I just need to see for myself.”

Nicole first heard about Sunday Service when West brought the group to a Queens church in September. Her cousin was there, recording on her phone.

“I was like, I have to be a part of it,” Nicole said.

Sam and Alisa Scherban
Sam Scherban, 16, is a burgeoning Kanye opera expert. He watched the live streams of both operas West has put on so far: “Nebuchadnezzar” in Los Angeles and the premiere of “Mary” in Miami.

“It was bizarre,” he said of the first “Mary” performance, “but it was cool.”

But he still wasn’t really sure what “Mary” was going to be in person. That’s why Alisa Scherban, his mother, came along.

“It’s hard to get others to join him on this venture of not being sure what to expect,” Alisa Scherban said. “They’re all like, ‘I’m not spending money on that ticket. I don’t know what it is.’”

Chris Pearson
Chris Pearson was drawn to West’s opera out of curiosity. He knew the talk that “Mary” was generating. And West’s recent moves into gospel have drawn some controversy, he said.

“It’s a completely new person,” Pearson added.

He first heard about “Mary” through Instagram. Pearson had been to a West concert before, but watching videos of the opera online was something different.

“It was church, you know?” he said. “Instead of traditional church, it was New Age church.”

Max Shutze and Daniel Blaustein
Max Shutze remembers where he and Daniel Blaustein were in October, when West released “Jesus Is King”: in the same math class, where the two high school juniors listened to the album together.

Two months later, Shutze’s father gave him tickets to “Mary” as an early Christmas present. Blaustein, 16, tagged along. (He said his family wasn’t bothered by him spending the first night of Hanukkah at an opera about Jesus’ birth. They thought it was great, Blaustein said — “an awesome opportunity.”)

Shutze read up ahead of time on the opera and its story. He looked at photos on Instagram of West and the ensemble at the Miami premiere, dressed and painted entirely in silver. (At Lincoln Center, the group opted for more muted Yeezy-esque shades of brown.)

Blaustein was slightly less prepared.

“I saw the memes with the silver people,” he said. “It’s not that I’m not expecting much, but I don’t really know what to expect. I’m very open-minded.”

Cassin Parks
Cassin Parks, 19, has been a “huge fan” of West for years, she said. She gets an alert every time he posts on Twitter.

So when Parks saw his tweet Tuesday announcing the Lincoln Center show, she jumped on it, and drove up from Philadelphia on Sunday.

“I’ve never seen him before, and I figured he’s not really touring, so this is the best opportunity I’m going to get,” she said.

Parks went to an opera in Philadelphia once, when she was little, but didn’t remember what it was. She wasn’t quite certain what “Mary” would be, either.

“I know that some of his old music is in it, but he’s not the one performing it because he has that whole I-don’t-perform-my-old-music thing,” she said. “But I don’t know, I know that it’s like the Nativity story, right? That’s about it.”

But clarity wasn’t essential. Parks was mainly excited about one thing.

“It sounds crazy,” she said, “but just being in the same room as Kanye West.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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