Editor's Note: This blog was originally written before the shutdown, in February 2020.
Set in 1905 New York, Lynn Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel tells in part the story of an African-American seamstress named Esther and an Orthodox Jewish fabric salesman named Mr. Marks. That Ricky Ian Gordon should become the composer of this story’s opera version is beautifully appropriate. Gordon has written Morning Star, an opera about Jewish garment workers in early 20th-century New York. He has set to music dozens of poems by the Langston Hughes. Gordon is descended from Polish and Russian and Rumanian Jews and, he told me the other afternoon, “I have always been drawn to the world of African-American music and art.”
And yet Gordon’s coming to Intimate Apparel, whose libretto is by Nottage, took some time. “I’d gotten this commission from the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theater,” Gordon said. “I was going to do a piece about Adele Hugo, the daughter of Victor Hugo.” Adele’s is a story about obsession that Gordon knew on account of an obsession of his own: with foreign films, including those by Bergman and Truffaut – the latter directed the 1975 film The Story of Adele H.
Gordon’s Adele project didn’t pan out, so he cast about for another subject. “I’d won an Obie in 2006 for my song cycle ‘Orpheus & Euridice.’ Lynn was on the committee. I decided to read all her plays, and I was especially touched by Intimate Apparel. I Facebook-ed her, asking if she wanted to do the commission with me. She said, ‘There’s this play of mine, Intimate Apparel, that I think is an opera.’ I said, ‘Great!’ and off we went.” (The eventual result, now in rehearsal, is a production of Lincoln Center Theater.)
One of the first and crucial questions that emerged in the collaboration was how to open the play up. “Lynn is very smart,” Gordon said, “and with the help of Paul Cremo, the dramaturg at the Met, she figured it out. We now open with a nice big ensemble scene: a party in the parlor of Mrs. Dickson, who runs the boarding house where Esther lives and works.”
If Nottage had to decide how to shape the opera’s story, Gordon had to set about crafting its musical contours. “When I knew we would be doing the piece in a small theater, I decided not to focus on the piece as if it were a chamber opera. Chamber operas can be beautiful, but I’m a pianist, my style is very pianistic, and I wanted to stick with that. So we’re performing the opera with two-piano accompaniment. With pianos you can still get a rich, symphonic sound.” Gordon added that “there will probably be two versions of the opera eventually. A full-orchestra version and this two-piano version.”
Another reason Gordon composed with two pianos in mind: “I didn’t want to have an orchestra hidden away somewhere. We see the pianists for the whole show. It feels like a salon.”
Or a parlor. “The characters in the story,” Gordon explained, “would probably hear music most often played by a piano, in a parlor or in another setting. So by using pianos we get the world correct.”
Although Gordon’s music nods to the era – ragtime and cakewalk, for example – it is not pastiche. “The flavor of a time period is important for telling a story,” he said, “but I assume that the music is always going to end up sounding like me. I have faith in that.” Gordon continued, “Generally my sound as a composer includes lushness but the amount of lushness depends on the piece.” Describing his recent opera Ellen West, which concerns a woman’s body image and is based on poetry by Frank Bidart, Gordon said, “That work has a string quartet, with added bass and piano, and two voices. The piece is lush emotionally but the sound is more austere.”
Contrast the relatively compact nature of Ellen West with the expansiveness of Gordon’s opera The Grapes of Wrath, which premiered at Minnesota Opera in 2007 and has been performed to acclaim across the country. (The libretto was written by Michael Korie, who has done the lyrics for another new LCT production, Flying Over Sunset.) Writing in The New Yorker of Grapes, Alex Ross said that Gordon “fills his score with beautifully turned genre pieces” and that “you couldn’t ask for a more comfortably appointed evening of vintage musical Americana.”
Gordon’s work reflects not only profound knowledge of American music but also deep affection for American singers. “I’ve been obsessed with opera since I was eight years old,” he said. “When I was writing Intimate Apparel I was hearing many of my favorite singers. I’m writing Mrs Dickson and I’m hearing Jessye Norman. I’m writing Esther and I’m thinking of Leontyne Price.”
Gordon shares his composition process with singers in spirit but with his dog, Lucy, in fact. Lucy is around nine years old. Gordon and his partner rescued her on January 1, 2014. Gordon commented: “Right away when I met Lucy she came next to me, put her head on my lap, and, if any other dogs came near, she growled.” Further proof of this human-canine bond: “One of my sisters got sick around the time Lucy came into my life. I took Lucy to see her. Lucy got right into bed with her. Which was a comfort – my sister died a few weeks later.”
Lucy and Gordon are so attached that it’s a wonder he could ever work without her. “She is such a part of my process now. As a composer, you get so into your head and you can get lost in time. The fact that this little creature comes up to you and stands, waiting, conveying, “I have to pee,” or whatever: it grounds you.”
Gordon related many personal aspects of both his composition process in general and Intimate Apparel in particular. One that stuck with me involved his dad. “At one point,” Gordon said, “Mr. Marks sings about his father’s clothing. His father’s suit is steeped in family history and in tradition. For my part, I wear my father’s Masonic ring – I never take it off. And for good luck on the opening night of my operas I wear my dad’s gold watch. I’ll wear it again for the opening here at Lincoln Center Theater of Intimate Apparel.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com