Will Liverman Comes Home
World-class baritone performs on a stage he once watched from the audience.
Will Liverman is standing on the stage at Harrison Opera House. It’s quiet and cool. Lights dim. Seats empty. He’s feeling awed.
At 28, he has performed in major cities. He’s bowed to thundering ovations, been heralded as a voice to watch, overcome racial barriers to land plum roles in a predominantly white profession.
But he hasn’t been to the Harrison since he was a teenager at the Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts, sitting wide-eyed in those front rows he’s staring at right now.
Liverman isn’t sweating his starring role in The Barber of Seville, a popular comedic opera playing at the Harrison in November. He’s been Figaro before – so often that the character feels like part of him.
Still, this will be Liverman’s first professional performance in his hometown. Born in Norfolk and raised in the Great Neck area of Virginia Beach, for him this place is loaded with family, friends and memories. Even with no one in those seats yet, he says, “I feel a little nerves just standing here. I never thought I’d be on this stage. Wow.”
Despite his accomplishments and critical acclaim – “mellow-voiced and charismatic,” said The New York Times, “noble sound and bearing,” said Opera News – Liverman comes across as a regular guy. He holds doors for women. Laughs easily. Pokes fun at himself.
“Oh no!” he responds when asked to belt out a few bars. “I was afraid you’d ask that. I haven’t warmed up. I’ll probably sound terrible.”
Gamely, he plants his feet on the stage boards, opens his throat and sets his baritone free. It soars to the rafters. No microphone. Impossibly big for his compact frame. Italian lyrics riding rich, deep notes.
An earlier thought is instantly erased.
Liverman is not a regular guy.
Languages. Liverman wishes he’d studied more of them in school. Opera – a centuries-old theatrical tradition rooted in Europe – calls not just for singing but also for acting. Most operas are in Italian, German or French (with English subtitles for American audiences), and it’s hard to perform convincingly if you don’t truly understand what the words mean or how to pronounce them.
“You don’t have to be fluent, but it sure helps,” Liverman says. “There’s a connection with the language – the emotion – that you just don’t get when you’re reading it word by word.”
He’s been focusing on his German. Opera is so culturally important in Germany it’s subsidized by the government – making it a land of opportunity for performers. But you can’t fudge on the accent there.
Liverman works on his during downtime in his apartment in Chicago. “I pretty much walk around talking to myself in German,” he says.
The musical stuff, however, comes naturally. His mother, Terry Liverman, is a talent herself, an evangelist who’s done gospel tours in Europe. His father, Willie Liverman, was a music major. His parents thought piano would be his thing. He’d started plunking on a Fisher-Price at age 3.
“But when his piano teacher suggested he audition for the Governor’s School, he said he wanted to sing,” Terry Liverman says. “So he went there and sang The Star-Spangled Banner. And he got in.”
The Governor’s School is a nurturing place, a free, public institution dedicated to identifying gifted young artists and developing their crafts. Students attend their regular high schools in the morning – Will went to Cox – then head to downtown Norfolk for specialized afternoon classes.
“I can’t give enough credit to the Governor’s School,” he says. “I went in there thinking I wanted to sing gospel or maybe R&B. But they exposed me to opera.”
Tickets to the Harrison were part of the curriculum. His first time in the audience – watching Richard Wagner’s The Valkyrie – Liverman fell asleep.
“It was a really long – like five hours. But I was still amazed. The costumes, the set, the singers with no amplification – just using their natural voices to express themselves. And the music, the orchestration. I remember waking up to a theme song I’d always heard in cartoons. I had no idea it actually came from an opera. I was like, ‘Whoa. This is awesome.’ ”
Liverman attended Wheaton College in Illinois, got his master’s degree in music from The Juilliard School in New York and completed a three-year apprenticeship at an opera company in Chicago.
He stayed in the Windy City and became a Cubs fan. “My apartment’s near the stadium and it gets pretty rowdy. But it’s really about being near a major, central airport. I didn’t realize I’d be flying so much. Things can get busy really fast in this career.”
In his career anyway. Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, England, Dallas, Las Vegas. Liverman has played roles from Yardbird’s Dizzy Gillespie to The Rape of Lucretia’s Tarquinius. He’s won awards in national and international vocal competitions. He just wrapped up a role in Seattle.
It can get lonely. Liverman is a freelancer working short-term contracts, going wherever the roles lead.
“On one hand, you can’t believe anyone is actually paying you to do something you love so much. But you do sacrifice your personal life, for sure. I’m not in any one place long enough to have a relationship. No sense of stability. I guess I’m still trying to find my balance.”
Looking around the shadows of the Harrison, he’s glad this role has brought him here. He’s been hanging out at the Oceanfront. Eating his mom’s cooking. Making the rounds of relatives and friends. “It’s good to be home,” he says quietly.
Backstage, Will Liverman is remem-bered. In the wigs and makeup shop, Jim McGough, who’s been at the Harrison for 18 years, gives him a hug. “You were one of our Governor’s School kids! A triumphal return!”
Dave Smith, a production and technical director, leads Liverman through the Harrison’s maze of hallways, a quick tour just for bearings. Costume shop. Props. In a cavernous room, he points out an old stage and gives some history.
“The blacks sat over there and the whites over there,” he says. “Segregation.”
While those days are long gone for the audience, struggles remain on stage. Black opera singers like Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson helped open doors, but patrons skew white and older. Some still aren’t comfortable watching romantic scenes with interracial casts. Skin color can limit roles.
“Some opera companies worry more about that than others,” Liverman says. “They want to match up the cast. Things are way better than they were 20 or 30 years ago, but there’s still work to be done.”
Black opera singers remain rare enough that strangers are surprised to learn Liverman’s line of work. “When I tell someone what I do it usually opens a floodgate of questions. Actually, I love that. I think it’s funny.”
He’d like to see more blacks in the audience. More younger people, too. But he’s grateful to the devotees who return time and again. “An opera remains fresh even if you’ve seen it before. Every director has a different vision. Different casts bring something new. That’s the reason the opera has existed for so long. It’s live theater.”
This audience, for The Barber of Seville, will be sprinkled with familiar faces. “Everyone we know wants to come,” his mom says. “We’re so proud of him. He’s worked so hard.”
Liverman knows it all started with a gift. An instrument he can’t touch or see, but only he can play. “My voice – I don’t know where it came from. I only know it has to sound good to the last person in the highest seat who’s bought a ticket.”