Perspective | Will Beyoncé’s Act III be an opera? I say maybe!


Right now, I’m at home with a slight temperature and the new Beyoncé album. And maybe it’s just the Tylenol PM talking, but I’m having some fever-dreamy visions of the future.

Specifically, I’m pretty sure Beyoncé is going to write an opera. Please hear me out.

This isn’t my usual beat, so for regular readers who may have no idea what’s going on: Last week, Beyoncé, the world’s biggest entertainer, dealt a devastating blow to plans on Earth by releasing her very first country album. Or what everyone who isn’t Beyoncé is calling a country album.

And, indeed, “Cowboy Carter” is a veritable rodeo of familiar tropes, with all the sprawl and accessibility of a strip mall — and if you’re from Houston, you know that doesn’t equal an insult. Over the course of 27 tracks, Beyoncé summons a small pantheon of country legend co-signers (Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Linda Martell) and grants what amounts to tidal force to a new wave of Black country talents (including Tiera Kennedy, Tanner Adell and Brittney Spencer).

But at the center of this discourse-dominating experiment in musical reclamation is Beyoncé herself, and a sense that the flashy stylistic dalliance of “Cowboy” is just a disguise for a more definitive statement: Country music is American music, and American music is Black music.

“Cowboy Carter” also arrives as the second installment in the singer’s much-teased trilogy, which launched in 2022 with “Renaissance,” an album that similarly (if more casually) snatched back the reins of a now-global house music tradition that originally bloomed in the queer corners of Black nightlife.

Some have speculated that Act III of the trilogy will confront the history of rock and roll — a prime candidate for a righteous Beyoncing.

But I can’t help but think that opera offers just as big an opportunity for the queen of script-flipping to flip some serious script.

Many, I’m sure, will reflexively respond to this idea with a dismissal of the singer’s vocal bona fides — i.e. “She’s not an opera singer!” But while opera may not be Bey’s wheelhouse, per se, she would not be lost at sea. The singer has been baiting audiences for years with fleeting samples of her figuratively unsung mezzo-soprano.

There was that little interlude into “I Care” from “Homecoming” — the 2019 Netflix film documenting and dovetailing her Coachella performances — where she glides up to an attention-grabbing A. The same year, she posted a clip to Instagram of her adding some melismatic touches to some “Lion King” recordings. On “Cowboy,” there’s her surprise interpolation of an 18th-century Italian song (“Caro Mio Ben”) — one that survives as a staple of classical training. Never one to drop anything accidentally, it’s hard not to see these as seeds planted with characteristically precise intention.

So, without further ado, here are some stray inklings that have heaped into a full-blown hunch:

The power of three First, this whole model of a “three-act project” itself feels like something between a hint and a setup. Some of opera’s greatest heroines have stories that unfold over the course of three acts. Think Handel, Wagner and especially Puccini (“Tosca,” “Turandot” and “Madama Butterfly”). It’s a form with a built-in denouement, a reliable delivery into unpredictable predictability.

What’s in a name? Further, let’s say we take “Renaissance” way more literally as a first act in a three-part series — it would make perfectly sound music-historical sense for an additional two acts to land us squarely in the Classical. (I realize this model would make “Cowboy Carter” the metaphorical Baroque album, but we’re moving on.)

Debut, take two Way back in 2001, Beyoncé Knowles (as she was still known) made her acting debut as none other than Carmen in MTV’s “Carmen: A Hip-Hopera,” a dramatic adaptation of Bizet’s 1875 opera, transported by director Robert Townsend to present-day Philadelphia. (Also in the cast: Mos Def, Joy Bryant, Jermaine Dupri, Da Brat and Wyclef Jean.) Was it any good? Computer says no. But when has that ever gotten in the way of a reboot? (Plus, we love a redemption arc.)

There’s history here “Cowboy Carter” and its country lean were allegedly inspired by her 2016 performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks at the CMA Awards. In the Instagram post announcing the album, she writes, “it was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed … and it was very clear that I wasn’t.” Speculative concerns about whether Beyoncé could effectively fit the bill as an opera singer may be best confined to diaries, as she may have no choice but to respond: “The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.”

And a much bigger history Bey’s headlining spot at the Coachella Festival in 2018 — the first by a Black woman — drew comparisons to another historic outdoor concert: contralto Marian Anderson’s Easter Sunday performance in 1939, held on the National Mall for more than 75,000 people because no D.C. concert hall would allow her onstage. It’s easy to imagine Beyoncé extending the collagist historical approach of the “Renaissance” project into American classical music, where a rich legacy of Black musicianship is only beginning to emerge from obscurity through scholarship and performance, see: Mary Cardwell Dawson’s National Negro Opera Company, or the rediscovery and resurgence of music from composers including Florence Price, Julia Perry and Helen Hagan. Beyoncé’s work with Rhiannon Giddens — who plays banjo on “Texas Hold ‘Em” and recently started as artistic director of Silkroad — suggests her engagement with reclaimed musical traditions could already be picking up steam.

A winning ensemble One primary reason I suspect the “Renaissance” project could very well conclude with an operatic finale is a signature feature of the trilogy itself: Other voices. Whatever you may suspect of Beyoncé’s own potential operatic chops, she’s unquestionably one of the greatest synthesizers of young talent working today. The singer loves an ensemble cast, and Black women working in American classical music represent an especially rich reservoir of talent — especially undertapped since the pandemic. (Could this one of those things I summon through will? Like, if I speak aloud the notion of a Beyoncé album that assembles the forces of, say, Imani Winds, Nathalie Joachim, Jasmine Barnes, Jessie Montgomery and the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra can Beyoncé make it so? There is but one way to find out.)

Family business The fine arts are already an established Knowles family concern. Bey’s Grammy-winning sister Solange — whose practice has expanded into visual arts and dance — made her own history in 2022 as the first Black woman to compose music for the New York City Ballet, supplying the original score to Gianna Reisen’s “Play Time.” The musical output of the sisters, though distinct, has always been connected by a wink and a wave, but opera could represent a form big enough to accommodate two visionary Knowleses.

Because opera And last, opera strikes me as arguably the art form most suited (and scaled) to the everything-at-once artistic endeavors of Beyoncé — which routinely go out of their way to include dramatic visuals and grand spectacle, intricate choreography and finely constructed dramatic arcs. It’s hard to come up with another mainstream artist more concerned with world-building, more steeped in pageantry and hyper-activated camp, or more of a de facto diva, than Bey.

So there you have it, my tea leaf collection.

Pop may not be my department, and opera may not be Bey’s, but if the past ten years have shown us anything, it’s that Beyoncé is more about departures than departments, more concerned with defining genre than letting genre define her: “This ain’t a Country album,” she declared in the album announcement post on Instagram. “This is a “Beyoncé” album.”

If we are indeed standing on the precipice of Bey’s opera era, I count myself among the ready. And if you’re one of those who think she couldn’t pull it off: You must not know about her. (You must not know about her.)

Okay, I’m going back to bed.





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