In Intimate Apparel, the new opera by Lynn Nottage and Ricky Ian Gordon in the Newhouse, Justin Austin plays George Armstrong, a native of Barbados who works on the Panama Canal and dreams of coming to early-20th-century New York to meet a seamstress called Esther. How did Austin, who was born in Germany to opera-singer parents and attended first the High School of Performing Arts near Lincoln Center and later the Manhattan School of Music, go about creating a character so seemingly different from himself?
“I did research,” Austin told me the other day in one of LCT’s rehearsal rooms, a space, it turns out, where he did a workshop of the Intimate Apparel opera a few years back. “One of the things I researched was the Panama Canal” – a herculean undertaking by the United States between 1904 and 1914, built on back-breaking labor. “I learned that there were people who spent their whole lives working on the canal, and many people who died during its construction.”
In these punishing conditions, George distracted himself, Austin explained, “by starting a pen-pal relationship with Esther. He didn’t even know how to write. But he had to get his mind off his work.”
Austin furthered his work on the character by hiring a coach from Barbados. The coach, Austin said, helped him to develop “a relationship with the accent and the culture, not just of Barbados in general but specifically of the northern part of Barbados, in Saint Lucy, where George is from.”
Austin, who recently covered the lead role of Charles in the Metropolitan Opera’s acclaimed production of Fire Shut Up in My Bones and who will make his formal Met debut this spring in Brett Dean’s Hamlet, only displays George’s Barbadian side directly in the second half of Intimate Apparel. “In the first half,” Austin explained, “we see him through his letters to Esther and I sing in straightforward English. In the second half, I sing in this thick Barbadian accent. I’ve never had to sing English in what, for me, is such a heavily affected way.”
Performing George is a challenge not only in terms of accent but also in terms of vocal range. “I have a few moments where a low-A needs to be present,” said Austin, who has a beautiful baritone voice. “At the same time, there are five high Gs and there’s an A-flat in there. Two-show days are difficult because those high notes are times two. And they have to be sparkly and shiny because all audiences deserve our best.”
In the Newhouse, those audiences are on three sides of the performers. How does Austin feel about that? “You don’t feel an urge to micro-manage the audience’s perspective as you would in a proscenium. And realism is something that we can explore more deeply in a non-proscenium space.” Whether in a proscenium or thrust arrangement, Austin said that “I keep in mind what one of my teachers always said: ‘An important part of singing technique is to never try to make anything happen but to let it happen.’ Don’t force it.”
Achieving that goal, Austin added, is helped by the cast and creative team of Intimate Apparel: “They make it easy for us to gather our focus each night very quickly. Lynn’s setting of her great play is tremendous and from Bart” – Bartlett Sher, the director of the production – “I have learned so much.”
But Austin said that his debt of longest standing is to Ricky Ian Gordon. “We knew each other because I had been in his opera Ellen West, And he suggested me for George. I’m grateful.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.