Editor's Note: This blog was originally written before the shutdown, in February 2020.
Lynn Nottage’s award-winning play Intimate Apparel tells the story of Esther, an African-American seamstress living in 1905 New York City. The work has been adapted into an opera, with Nottage writing the libretto and Ricky Ian Gordon the music. The opera is produced by Lincoln Center Theater and will premiere there at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, with performances starting February 27th. Bartlett Sher, LCT’s resident director, is staging the work, and we talked about it the other day in his office.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED WITH THIS PROJECT?
I’ve known Ricky and Lynn for a long time and I’ve always loved their work. I knew they were adapting Lynn’s Intimate Apparel and they had done a reading with the Met that I was fortunate to attend. We met after the reading and they invited me to join the team.
I argued forcefully to produce this in a small space -- not the Met or even the Beaumont. I thought it would be good to look at spaces where opera can happen on a chamber level, and also explore what it would be like to run it eight shows a week. Many opera houses going back centuries would produce chamber operas so there’s a tradition here. The Met hasn’t had that luxury, so it’s great that it can work with Lincoln Center Theater to commission new opera and seek out new ways of producing opera for new audiences. Opera is one of our great mediums of expression, but its been trapped in giant opera houses, so this is a way to create a new paradigm for how opera can be produced.
ONE OF THE CHALLENGES FACED IN RECENT COLLABORATIONS BETWEEN CONTEMPORARY PLAYWRIGHTS AND COMPOSERS FOR OPERA IS THAT THE COMPOSER TENDS TO RUN THE SHOW AND THE LIBRETTO ISN’T SUFFICIENTLY SOLID IN ITS STORYTELLING AND CHARACTERIZATIONS. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE MUSIC/LIBRETTO BALANCE WITH INTIMATE APPAREL?
We’re very fortunate because, in addition to being an extraordinary playwright, Lynn has a great understanding of music. The internal rhythm of her language is very musical, and her text works incredibly well as a libretto. The changes she has made from her play are subtle but effective. There’s a lot of language, but the libretto is constructed so that it moves swiftly and builds effortlessly. The libretto occasionally uses rhyme yet you can’t predict its placement – you can’t catch her at it. She knows how to use rhyme to lift the text. She’s as much a poet as a playwright.
I PLAN TO TALK TO YOU, AND RICKY IAN GORDON, LATER IN THE PROCESS ABOUT THE MUSIC OF INTIMATE APPAREL. HOW WOULD YOU BRIEFLY DESCRIBE IT NOW?
There’s ragtime and cakewalk at the back of the score but they are only starting points in this lush, evocative, and very moving music. This opera is a wonderful history piece, summoning up the conditions of love and work at a very particular era of 1905 in New York City, and Ricky’s music summons up the sounds of the era while also being contemporary to our day. His referencing of styles is complex and lovely.
A FEW YEARS AGO, YOU DID A PRODUCTION OF VERDI’S OTELLO AT THE MET. OTELLO OPENS BIG, WITH A STORM SCENE, AND BECOMES MORE AND MORE FOCUSED AS IT GOES. ON A SMALLER SCALE, INTIMATE APPAREL HAS A SIMILAR TRAJECTORY.
That’s one way to describe it. Another way is to say that the internal life of the story manifests itself more deeply as it goes along. As the twists and turns of plot pile up, you feel more deeply what Esther, the main character, is going through. There’s a very public opening scene, with a wedding, and we use the chorus throughout. This scene lays down a framework for the rest of the show as the score moves from public event to private utterance.
THIS OPERA EXPLORES MANY ISSUES ABOUT THE LIFE OF AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN IN THE EARLY-TWENTIETH CENTURY.
It’s a very touching story about what a black woman faced in 1905 in a large northern city. About the position a woman of color has – what authority and control and agency she has over her own life. Esther is 35 years old and has been supporting herself for a long time. Is marriage good for her? Is it the right thing? Will she remain alone? Does taking on a partner change her life and situation? The libretto asks difficult questions.
FOR ME, THE MORE INTIMATE THE STORY GETS THE MORE POLITICAL IT IS.
That’s good writing. Lynn is very skilled at balancing the political and the personal. Intimate Apparel renders human beings in their private moments but the political aspect never leaves the page.
YOU DIRECTED MANY OPERAS BOTH AT THE MET AND AROUND THE WORLD. DO YOU STAGE AN OPERA DIFFERENTLY THAN YOU STAGE A PLAY?
Rhythm, whether physical or verbal or musical, is the father of all drama. So when I stage a production I have to physicalize the rhythm of the piece. The difference between an opera and a play is the source of the rhythm. One comes through text and the other can be with the support of an orchestra or, in the case of Intimate Apparel, with the support of two pianos.
Singing has a significant effect on how I stage something. Some things are super-hard to sing so you can’t have a singer doing just anything physically while they are performing that part. But at the same time, I still have the responsibility to create a physical world, and circumstances that believably capture all the story and truth of 1905 in New York
But whether I’m staging a play or an opera I’m doing an exploration. The central job of what I do is to assemble the meaning, movement, music, and intention into one package where it’s revealing itself. I don’t want to give away too much yet about the specific staging of Intimate Apparel, but I will say that what people see on stage is going to be transforming all the time.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES ABOUT DOING THIS PIECE IN THE THRUST SPACE OF THE NEWHOUSE?
I love a thrust because it creates an automatic intimacy and everybody sees something different depending on where their seat is. The dynamics in a thrust are well suited to music and text. What I hope will be thrilling, with two pianos and 14 singers, is the proximity everyone will have to the sound and the physicality of this world of 1905 New York.
ONE OF THE MANY FASCINATING THINGS THIS STORY EXPLORES IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN AND AN ORTHODOX JEWISH MAN.
The story’s most intimate relationship is between the two people who could not ever end up in a relationship. They share a relationship to their work -- the fabric, the stitching, the artistry of it – but it’s a relationship that cannot extend further. The story gives us intimate apparel being crafted but human intimacy that must be hidden.
WHY DO YOU FEEL THIS RELATIONSHIP STILL SPEAKS TO US TODAY?
Because it addresses questions that haven’t gone away: Why can’t we get our relationships to work out? Why can’t we love who we want to love? How important is having an intimate relationship to having a full life? Do we have agency over our choices and can we act on them meaningfully without barriers of race or class or economic position? Is love for all?
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com