Before Lynn Nottage sits down to write a play, she makes a soundtrack – a playlist of music to help her find the meanings and sounds and feelings of a story. When she wrote the drama Intimate Apparel, for whose LCT opera version she has done the libretto and Ricky Ian Gordon the music, she listened to the work of Reginald Robinson, a contemporary African-American composer who composes ragtime.
“Before I began the play, I wrote to him and asked for some of his music,” Nottage told me recently. “He sent it and I was grateful.” To Nottage, ragtime represents cultural collisions that were taking place during the era Intimate Apparel is set: 1905 New York.
Nottage, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, said that Gordon’s music for their opera “beautifully evokes those cultural clashes. You hear ragtime and the percussive influence of African-American music overlaying the European waltz. You hear klezmer and the sounds of Jewish music from eastern Europe. All this music blends to form a beautiful tapestry that feels uniquely American and uniquely Ricky.”
Nottage sees parallels between the world of Intimate Apparel and the world of 2020 New York. “Like many big American cities,” Nottage observed, “New York is constantly regenerative. Every ten years or so you have a massive influx of immigrants from other countries and other parts of the United States. They change the texture of things in a wonderful way. Just think, for example, of how cuisine constantly evolves in New York. You have a profusion of Mexican restaurants, that are replaced by the Indian restaurants, that are replaced by Thai restaurants and then Senegalese restaurants. New York keeps shifting.”
In at least one central way, Nottage said, the New York of Intimate Apparel differed from the New York of today. “In the midst of the industrial age -- the late Gilded Age -- our notion of modern America was born. You feel this, I hope, from the very first scene of the opera, when Esther, the main character, is sitting at her room in a boarding house while a party is raging downstairs, a party filled with young women who have come to the big city and are hungry for new experiences.”
The opening party scene doesn’t exist in the play. What other changes did Nottage make for the opera? “In a general sense,” she replied, I augmented some of the storytelling and filled in a few holes in the play.” Specifically? “I don’t want to give too much away yet,” Nottage answered, “but I will say that we’ve taken Mayme, who is a prostitute and a saloon singer, out of her boudoir and into the saloon where she performs for an audience. I wasn’t able to do that in the play because of its strict conceit: each scene was a duet, and each scene took place over a bed. I was interested in how intimacy is shifted when there is a bed between two people. In the opera, not all the scenes take place in a boudoir. We had the freedom to expand the world, and as a result some of the scenes take place on the street, or in the saloon. And we’re now able to use an ensemble to convey the liveliness of this city of newcomers.”
Nottage spoke about the writing process of turning her play into an opera. “In doing the libretto, I was very mindful of what was absolutely necessary for the story. I stripped the play down to its essence, and then built out from that. There are still many lines that will be familiar to people who saw the play, and many moments remain the same, but the language of the piece is quite different.”
Nottage has written the book for the musical MJ, about Michael Jackson, that comes to Broadway this summer, and another project in the offing, with lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, called “Black Orpheus,” based on the classic 1959 movie. How would she contrast writing a libretto for an opera and a book for a musical?
Nottage said: “The processes are quite different, because the musicals I’ve written have been in collaboration with a lyricist. So there are two people who are the engineers of the story. We lean on each other in very specific ways. Being an opera librettist is more like being a playwright: In many ways I have sole control of the narrative.”
Nottage wants to make it clear to theatergoers that the new Intimate Apparel is an opera. “I fear that people will come thinking they are seeing a musical but they won’t be. This is a more traditional opera that’s meant to be accessible and emotional. It seems to me that the place where a lot of opera, not just contemporary, breaks down is in the narrative. The music can be extraordinarily beautiful but then you have these threadbare narratives that sometimes are ridiculous. We aim to change that.”
For Nottage, the overall experience of creating the Intimate Apparel opera has been pleasurable, Nottage said: “Ricky and I have been collaborating on this for what seems an impossible amount of time. I really love the work Ricky has done on this piece. We’re excited now to share it.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com