Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
At long last, the composer has two operas currently running in NYC
Opera deals in intense emotions. As an impressionable child coming of age on Long Island in the '60s in the wake of three adventurous older sisters (Donald Katz's 1992 book Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America recounts their saga), Ricky Ian Gordon felt compelled to keep pace. Where his sisters pursued sex, drugs and folk rock in Greenwich Village, his holy grail was opera. By age 11 the aspiring composer was heading into the city every weekend to line up for standing room at the Metropolitan and New York City Opera.
Opera is big on destiny, so it's fitting that Gordon has not one but two major new works running at his favorite childhood haunts. Intimate Apparel, based on Lynn Nottage's 2003 play about Esther, a lonely African-American seamstress searching for love and fulfillment in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, was co-commissioned by Lincoln Center Theater and the Metropolitan Opera and is playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through March 6. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, inspired by Giorgio Bassani's semi-autobiographical 1962 novel about a privileged Italian-Jewish family who believe they won't be impacted by the rise of the Nazis, is coproduced by New York City Opera and National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and running at the Museum of Jewish Heritage through Sunday. TDF Stages spoke with the refreshingly candid Gordon about why he chose opera over musical theatre, what it's like collaborating with a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and why Intimate Apparel is "the most rehearsed opera in the history of humanity."
Sandy MacDonald: You've been transfixed by opera since childhood. How have you fed your monomania over the years?
Ricky Ian Gordon: At first it was all records and scores. I collected pirated tapes of all the new operas: Ned Rorem's Miss Julie, Lee Hoiby's Natalia Petrovna, Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber… I was crazy! That was all I was interested in. And for me to be doing what I'm doing with my life? I'm probably the only [opera] composer in history who has had two world premieres going on at the same time in New York City. It makes perfect sense: I'm the one that it should be happening to, because I haven't thought about anything else since I was eight.
MacDonald: You started out composing primarily for musical theatre. I gather you didn't find it as rewarding?
Gordon: I ventured into musical theatre on the heels of people like Marc Blitzstein and Gian Carlo Menotti and Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim. But that was no longer what musical theatre was, so I was in the wrong place. If musical theatre ever wanted me to do what I do again, I would happily join it, but I don't want to do half the shit that they do. And frankly, if my work can be so derided in that forum, I'm not interested.
MacDonald: In reviewing your musical My Life with Albertine in 2003, John Simon had little to say beyond pointing out that newcomer Kelli O'Hara "has great red hair."
Gordon: That was a sickening time in my life. And you know what? I'm glad, because it got me the fuck out of there, and that's what needed to happen.
MacDonald: The Met and Lincoln Center started co-commissioning work in 2006. Were you in that first round?
Gordon: Not until The Grapes of Wrath was produced at Minnesota Opera in 2007—suddenly I had the commission. At first, they didn't include me, and I just hated them. I'm very uncensored today. I don't care! I'm feeling naughty.
MacDonald: Are there any plans to bring The Grapes of Wrath to New York at some point?
Gordon: It's funny, I wrote this letter to Peter Gelb [General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera] because now I feel like he is my friend. I was like, "Peter, why isn't the Met doing The Grapes of Wrath?" I mean, there is nothing happening in the world that that piece isn't about. But I don't hold out hope for anything anymore. I'm a cynical, bitter old crone! I just feel like whatever happens, it'd be nice if it was done there before I was dead.
MacDonald: But you've persisted, obviously! Was Lynn Nottage the first writer you thought of when you got the commission?
Gordon: I was supposed to write my Met piece with Michael Korie, the librettist for The Grapes of Wrath and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. We were going to do a piece about Adèle Hugo, inspired by the film The Story of Adèle H. We have this gorgeous, illustrated treatment. But he and I had said yes to too many things. I love him, but I fired him. Then I was basically up shit's creek. I had a Met commission with no project and no librettist!
I don't know why this instinct came to me about Lynn. I just went and read all of her work. And, of course, Intimate Apparel is a stunning play. So, I Facebooked her. She wrote back: "Actually, I sort of think Intimate Apparel is an opera." Bingo!
Of course the Met and Lincoln Center were very excited about Lynn Nottage—she's [affecting a Long Island accent] "high glamour." We had this meeting and Lynn had a thousand ideas—she's brilliant. Then it took a long time because it's one thing if you're just writing a libretto, but if you're adapting your own play… To whittle down something you've written and thought about every word for, to trust that the music is going to tell as much of the story—it's a lot!
MacDonald: Because of the pandemic, Intimate Apparel was forced to close during previews in March 2020. During the 18-month shutdown, did you tinker with it further?
Gordon: Tinker? We've been tinkering for years! When you write a new opera, usually you get a dress rehearsal and then three or four performances—that's the case with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. With Intimate Apparel I got to watch it with an audience for almost two weeks [before the shutdown]. When we closed, I thought, wow, what a luxury! I totally rewrote the piece. And then we got back to Lincoln Center and had another month of rehearsals and previews. So, anyone who sees Intimate Apparel now is seeing the most rehearsed opera in the history of humanity! That's why it's so tight and so together and everything seems motivated. The piece feels like a well-oiled machine. The tinkering never stopped.
MacDonald: I read somewhere that when you're writing a role, you have a specific singer's voice in mind.
Gordon: I know voices at this point. I have a lot of great voices in my head. Who does Kearstin Piper Brown, who plays the seamstress Esther, sound like? A young Leontyne Price.
MacDonald: It's a role that's so subdued, but she's got a kind of banked fire.
Gordon: And when she lets it out at the end for "I've got all your letters here"? Get out! Get out of the way! It's balls-to-the-wall singing.
MacDonald: You also have a powerhouse in Justin Austin as George, the Barbadian laborer who courts Esther by mail.
Gordon: Justin was in a masterclass I did in St. Louis. I gave him a few tips, right? He sang this one song of mine, "When Sue Wears Red," and I was like, that guy is going to be a star. I wanted Justin to do the role. And this is so not PC (I'm going to be canceled for saying this), but when we were doing the workshop, I was like: "Justin, you know, if you do George, you have to be hot." He's hot now. He started working out.
If he wasn't my friend, I couldn't say that because he'd go to the general manager and no one would ever let me write again. But I don't subscribe to that. It's like, I'm sorry, we're all friends, and we're trying to get what we need from each other. There's nothing wrong with saying to a singer, "Let's talk about how you should look in this piece." We're trying to make things seem real and natural, so I'm going to say what I need to say.
MacDonald: All the lines of the songs feel very natural. There are no crazy, out-of-place adjectives or prepositions.
Gordon: That's what I work harder on than anything: prosody—the way words are said. I say them to myself over and over again. I don't work harder on anything.
MacDonald: It works so beautifully in this plain, pared-down setting.
Gordon: Opera is the best art form because it involves everyone: great set designers, lighting designers, costume designers. When opera comes together, it's every art at once. It's like they say when you start to meditate: A lot of times you'll have one god experience, but it will be so powerful it'll keep you on the path. Every once in a while, I find one great opera experience and it does just enough to refresh the I-want-to-do-this-more-than-anything-else-in-my-life gene.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Top image: Kearstin Piper Brown and Justin Austin as Esther and George in Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.