An operatic overture would make any composer happy. He has two.
When composer Ricky Ian Gordon saw Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” on Broadway in the early 1970s, it was unlike anything he had seen on stage.
“He was creating this musical theater that felt like a foreign film to me,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “And I wanted to do something in the theater that felt like foreign films.”
“That’s what ‘Follies’ was: a musical about shattered lives and disappointment,” he continued, adding a swear word for emphasis. “I was like, ‘This is what I want to do’.”
Gordon, now 65, has continued to create art inspired by these subjects – becoming considerably better known in the world of opera than theater.
In a coincidence caused by pandemic delays, not one but two of his operas are opening almost simultaneously before the end of this month, and both involve the darkness Gordon adored in “Follies.” “Intimate Clothing”, at the Lincoln Center Theater, for which Lynn Nottage adapted her own play, deals with lies, deceptions and thwarted dreams in the story of a black seamstress in 1905 New York. And “The Garden of the Finzi-Contini”, presented by New York City Opera, is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Giorgio Bassani about the plight of privileged members of the Jewish community in Ferrara, Italy, who were tragically blind to what awaited them during World War II.
It’s a very unusual situation for a living composer: to have two of your operas playing at the same time in New York, your name usually has to be something like Puccini, of which “Tosca” and “La Bohème” are both on the list. displayed in January at the Metropolitan Opera.
“One new opera demands a lot of attention, but two are downright overwhelming,” Gordon said. “It’s incredibly stressful no matter how often I meditate, but it’s also hugely fulfilling and, thankfully, a source of pride. It’s also weird to go back and forth between the Lower East Side in 1905 and Ferrara in 1945, but thank goodness for the IRT.
To fully grasp Gordon’s career, it’s important to go back a bit less than that, to the years around the turn of the 21st century, when he appeared as if he were part of a new generation of composers rejuvenating comedy. American music. Drawing inspiration from Ned Rorem and Alban Berg, Dmitri Shostakovich and Scott Joplin, he was often lumped into an equally artistic cohort that included fellow composers Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown.
Songs from all four were included on Audra McDonald’s first solo album, “The Way Back to Heaven” a hybrid of musical theatre, avant-pop and art song that came out in 1998 – and, in hindsight, heralded a changing of the guard that ultimately didn’t happen, as rock styles and more traditional pop music has conquered Broadway.
Gordon’s subtly lyrical harmonies slowly worked their way into your subconscious, and he suggested emotion rather than hitting the listener with it. This was not what musical theater wanted.
“They always called us ‘the Sondheim kids,'” Gordon said. “He opened a door, but it wasn’t an open door – it was just the door Sondheim could walk through.”
“People started saying we don’t write melodies and beats,” he added, then jokingly swore, as if responding to the accusation. “Each of us writes melodies and writes beats, but in the language we grew up with and evolved from.”
Born in 1956, Gordon grew up on Long Island; he was – as Donald Katz documented in “Home Fires,” a much-loved 1992 book about the middle-class aspirations and frustrations of the Gordon family – once in line to inherit the electric company from his father. But he discovered opera at the age of eight, coming across The Book Victor of the Opera at a friend’s house.
“My memory is like a Harry Potter moment, like there’s smoke and light behind that book,” he said.
He was also open to pop, and in his early teens became “transfixed, mesmerized, utterly and massively obsessed with Joni Mitchell”, as he put it in a story he wrote about her l last year for Rotating Magazine. The story is taken from an upcoming memoir that grew out of a writing group Gordon started with poets and novelists during the pandemic; self-examination is not new to him and he is candid about his past struggles with alcoholism, drug addiction and eating disorders.
He first enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University as a pianist, but eventually became a composer, obsessed with bringing music to life. “If I put a poem to music, I memorize it and let it marinate and live in me,” he said. “I like singers, so I want to give them something to play. Even if it’s a song, it should be like a little mini opera.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, it straddled various forms and genres. He wrote the song cycle “Child of Genius” for soprano Harolyn Blackwell, and her first opera, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” a meditation informed by the AIDS epidemic, premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 1996. But her work has also appeared Off Broadway, including such musical theater projects as “Dream True”, a collaboration with writer and director Tina Landau, and the Proust-inspired show “My life with Albertine”, which opened at Playwrights Horizons in 2003 with a then-unknown Kelli O’Hara in the title role.
That show, alas, didn’t go well, though Ben Brantley praised the score’s “beautiful, complex melodies” in his review for The New York Times.
Gordon was proud of “My Life With Albertine” and his failure hurt him deeply. “I thought I had to face the facts: musical theater right now is not where I’m going to flourish,” he said. “I had written to all these opera companies that I wanted to do opera, so the next thing I did was ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with Minnesota Opera. was where I could do what I was doing. Now I’m at Lincoln Center, where they usually do musicals, but I do my opera here.
Gordon was, indeed, chatting happily in an empty room at the Lincoln Center Theater, where “Intimate Apparel” – which was well in preview when the first pandemic lockdown arrived, and now opens on January 31 – had just come from complete a rehearsal in the Espace Mitzi E. Newhouse.
Suddenly voices were heard from a monitor: A matinee of the musical ‘Flying Over Sunset’ had begun at the Vivian Beaumont Theater above. Coincidentally, the lyrics for this show were written by Michel Korie, Gordon’s librettist on ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and now ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’, which City Opera presents with the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, from January 27.
Doing “Intimate Apparel” at the Lincoln Center Theater was a no-brainer. It is part of the company’s joint commissioning program with the Met, and other works from this program that have reached the stage, such as Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” and the recent “Eurydice” by Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl, have been produced at the opera.
“It was definitely time for the Lincoln Center Theater to enjoy one of these shows,” Paul Cremo, the Met’s playwright, said in an interview. “We thought with the intimacy of the room, it would really benefit from that space, where some viewers are only two meters away from the characters. And Ricky wrote a wonderful orchestration for two pianos.
While Gordon was working on a small scale, for only a few instruments, Nottage was commissioned to expand her playing, which consists mostly of two-person interactions, into a libretto that would bring together larger groups of characters and use a chorus. . (Bartlett Sher conducts.)
“I shared with Ricky what I was listening to and we talked a lot about what the texture and feel of the piece should be,” Nottage said. “He is very deeply invested in American music and, in particular, ragtime. What it does really beautifully is weave all of these traditional shapes together without it looking like pastiche. He has been a really lovely guide throughout this process. (The couple got on so well that they are now working on a commission from the Opera Theater of St. Louis with Nottage’s daughter, Ruby Aiyo Gerber.)
The musical style of “Le Jardin des Finzi-Contini” draws from another well. “It’s my Italian opera,” Gordon said. “I just thought about getting into the head of Puccini, Verdi, Bellini. It’s very different from ‘Intimate Apparel’, which is very American.
A major difference is the size: the “Finzi-Continis” score was arranged for a 15-piece orchestra for the City Opera run and can be extended to larger ensembles, especially since it is planned to produce in Italy.
“It’s absolutely, unapologetically melodic, just beautiful sweeping melodies,” said Michael Capasso, the general manager of the City Opera, who is mounting the production with Richard Stafford.
Gordon’s two projects exemplify both the composer’s ecumenical tastes and his versatility. “Ricky sounds like Ricky,” Korie said in an interview, “but he’s not afraid to do what classic opera composers have done, or what Rodgers and Hammerstein have been doing for years, and what theater composers still do, that is, they allow themselves to immerse themselves in the sounds of other characters, other times, other places.
“Finzi-Continis” stays true to its original desire to do something in the theater that resembles foreign films: Gordon has long been a fan of Vittorio De Sica. Oscar-winning film versionfrom 1970. But seeing him again a few years ago particularly touched him.
“I think there was something about the juxtaposition of personal pain and universal pain – I suddenly understood what made this story so tragic,” he said. “I couldn’t even stand it.”
So he called Korie to offer him to adapt Bassani’s book.
It’s no coincidence that “Intimate Apparel” and “Finzi-Continis” are set in the past, as most of Gordon’s work is. “In a way, I’m a memoirist,” he said. “I very often write from a place of sorrow.”
Yet when asked via email about what she thought was her signature style, Kelli O’Hara unexpectedly replied, “Joy. I don’t think the subjects are always happy, but the music is the healer. Then yes. Joy.”
And, indeed, Gordon laughed when he said, “I’m lucky to be activated by my misfortune rather than paralyzed.” I could never sit still because I never felt like I did enough, I never felt important enough. It caused me enormous pain but it made me never stop writing. And I’m glad I wasn’t you.