A blanket of sin shrouded Miami during Art Basel. So none other than Kanye West stood up and introduced some good, God-fearing operatics to cast out the evil.
Fans flocked to Miami Marine Stadium this past Sunday to close out Art Week with the debut performance of West’s second opera, Mary. The announcement of the high-profile show was made only a little more than 72 hours before it happened, but the short notice didn’t stop Yeezy die-hards from trekking across the Rickenbacker Causeway to get a glimpse of what West was up to now.
Mary, which was produced in collaboration with the Miami music festival III Points, follows the debut of West's first opera, Nebuchadnezzar, last month at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. The legendarily self-aggrandizing artist is now in what many observers call his “religious phase” following recent public remarks and the release of his Jesus Is King album in October. The title of his previous opera references Nebuchadnezzar, the seventh-century BCE era king of Babylon who's referenced heavily in the Book of Daniel.
Asked for his thoughts on Kanye's obvious turn toward God, one attendee told New Times: “I was a little confused... to be honest. I just don’t know where he’s at mentally."
“It’s nothing that wasn’t expected," another audience member said. "He’s always been a spiritual man; it led him to a better path. I guess it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for me."
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The doors were set to open at 1:30 p.m. (but wound up being closer to 2 p.m.) and showtime was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. (but commenced closer to 4 p.m.). Miamians' infamous tardiness seemed to evaporate for Mary, because a lengthy line had already formed in the pavilion area well before 1:30. Attendees were clothed in the likes of Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and an on-the-nose “Kanye 2020” tank top. It seemed fairly obvious that people weren’t really here for a grand spiritual awakening but to avoid a nasty case of FOMO, which is to be expected for a last-minute, mysterious Kanye West live show during Miami Art Week.
“I am just here for the experience,”one attendee said. "It’s a spectacle, and I want to be a part of it.”
The tone and demeanor of the audience was humble and patient. No one rushed the gates to get a good seat or to bum-rush the nearest Yeezy merch booth (not that there was one). This unnatural calm might have been because the event sold only bottled water or due to the mystery surrounding what Mary and West had in store.
Once attendees could access the bleachers and beach area, they were welcomed with the sight of a sand-covered, floating stage holding several miniature sand dunes, along with a humble mound of speakers flanking each side of the stage. The crowd soon became eager for answers and grew antsy with anticipation.
Though the concept of operas are new to West, delays in showtime are not. It seemed clear that by 2:50, the opera would not begin at 3. Thirty minutes later, three far-off boats carried West's Sunday Service Choir — the singers and band that accompany his Sunday Services programs. Wearing silver face paint and matching metallic garb, an armada of performers soon descended upon the crowd.
Many guests began excitedly glancing at the programs they received upon entry. The pamphlets helpfully listed the titles and songs of Mary's 12 parts. Suddenly, a forceful hymn rang out through the speakers, and the sounds of gospel music followed a soulful "Mary, Mary, Mary." West narrated from the side of the stage as his matching silver attire and makeup camouflaged him among the rest of the choir. He read from the Book of Luke and told the story of Mary throughout the 45-minute show. The artist could have easily been overlooked among the dozens of choir singers crowded together on the tiny patch of sand.
The religious overtures often fell flat with a crowd, which offered “amens” and “hallelujahs” with their tongues firmly in cheek. However, the pure vocal strength of the Sunday Service cannot be understated. Despite occasional feedback from the speakers, the choir, combined with West's charisma as a narrator, delivered a production that at the very least demands respect.
Scene 4 — “Pregnant Mary returns home to Joseph” — provided one of the more fan-friendly scenes: It featured a choral arrangement of West’s Graduation cut “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” The new spin on an old classic made the crowd anticipate the arrival of a proper Kanye West performance, and phones soon emerged en masse to record every moment. Scene 8 — “The Shepherds Find Jesus and Rejoice” — contrasted nicely with a rendition of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.”
During Scene 10 — again, of a 45-minute opera — the crowd began to dissipate. It appeared as though people were realizing their chances of hearing favorites like “Runaway” and “Heartless” were dwindling to nil.
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After the final scene, the choir and West took a hearty bow. With a wave and a smile, the God-fearing rapper — along with a few members of the choir — stepped onto a speedboat before departing for an undisclosed location.
In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the author depicts a scene of a poor and dying man who is both singing hymns in one breath while cursing God in the next; Miami's reaction to the spiritual footprint that was supposed to be left upon the city from Mary felt analogous. Regardless of whether attendees at Miami Marine Stadium felt the Holy Spirt this past Sunday, the production was phenomenal. The floating stage, which has been used at the 56-year-old venue in years past, was itself an achievement for a stadium that's been weathered by the sands of time. Mary was also a triumphant closing note for III Points following a stellar week of programming for the festival's Art Basel event series.
In a sense, Mary was the only way Miami Art Week 2019 could have ended. The production was bold, audacious, and surprising. Though most attendees probably expected a grand Kanye-being-Kanye type of show, the boastful creative followed the ethos of Art Basel: Like the $120,000 banana work of so-called art that was sold and later eaten this past weekend, Mary continued to stir the pot of controversy and fuel the fiery conversation about Art Basel's identity and impact on Miami and the larger art world.
Haters will always hate, but it's impossible to deny Mary was a one-of-a-kind occasion.