OUSSAMA ZAHR catches up with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, who is at a career peak, with a trio of new operas in the works.
Photos: Gregory Downer
© Gregory Downer 2013
"It's called flying by the seat of your pants!" Ricky Ian Gordon is writing three operas at the same time, a proposition so ridiculous that he has to laugh. It's mid-June, two days before he's due to fly to Houston Grand Opera for a workshop, and he's invited me over for tea and a guided tour of the works in question — A Coffin in Egypt, which will have its world premiere in Houston in March and a second run at Opera Philadelphia in June; Twenty-Seven, for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, also in June; and Intimate Apparel, which Lynn Nottage is adapting from her acclaimed play. Intimate Apparel is being developed for a possible premiere sometime in the distant future as part of the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater's joint commissioning program.
The three scores couldn't be more different. A Coffin in Egypt, set in 1970s small-town Texas, has the resplendent, open sound of the American West in its veins. Twenty-Seven takes listeners into the world of Gertrude Stein's famous salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris; it's fast and flirty, embodying the urbane characters of Stein's historic gatherings, where Fitzgerald, Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway were regulars. A delightful Joplinesque rag characterizes Intimate Apparel, a story about a black seamstress's ambitions in turn-of-the-century Manhattan; at the time of our meeting, Nottage had just finished a draft of Act I. It's hard not to marvel at Gordon's ability to shift tone from opera to opera to opera, but his answer is simple: "You have to meet the piece."
Gordon's exhilaratingly chaotic schedule can be attributed to exactly one thing — the success of The Grapes of Wrath, an opera in three acts based on Steinbeck's novel, which made its debut at Minnesota Opera in 2007. "The Grapes of Wrath really put me on the operatic map in a much bigger way," says the fifty-seven-year-old composer. "I knew it was such a gamble when I wrote it, because I knew if this goes well, it could be a really good thing. And if it goes badly, it could be a really difficult thing, because it's too beloved a book. And it went well." Gordon's follow-up opera, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis — based on the 1962 novel by Giorgio Bassani, with a libretto by Gordon's Grapes collaborator, Michael Korie — was announced for Minnesota but is now being shopped around to other companies.
The Grapes of Wrath was Gordon's first full-length opera. Nowadays, opera composers don't get many opportunities to matter, so if they strike out with their first two stage works (as, say, Verdi did), there's no guarantee that a third chance is forthcoming. Indeed, many of today's most successful practitioners of the art — Philip Glass, John Adams, Jake Heggie — distilled the essence of their style into their first opera, which has come in some ways to represent each one's oeuvre. A big, bright, beautiful work, Grapes has many of the qualities you'd expect from an acclaimed opera in a tonal palette — abundant melody, shining orchestrations — but it is Gordon's lyrical exuberance that stands out as uniquely his own. Where other composers find so much shadow in their subjects, Gordon discovers only more light.
It's easy to assume that Gordon arrived inevitably at his distinctive style — one that seems effortlessly to combine Broadway clarity, art-song melodies and jazzy flourishes with a sophisticated approach to harmony — but the polish of the music belies the struggle to create it. "You live with a lot of self-doubt," he says. "My sister and I recently came back from the country. She painted for a week, and I wrote for a week. We were talking about this, and she was saying how as a painter, you have to make friends with the way you paint. As a composer, you have to make friends with the way you write music.
"The twentieth century is littered with a lot of composers who were terrorized out of writing what they heard — out of writing in what may have been their authentic voice. There was such a critical backlash against composers that if they heard tonal music, they might as well have just given up. I mean, you could still write what you write, but having a career was practically impossible. You were laughed off the map. Well, luckily we're living in a pluralistic environment now. That doesn't mean that critics don't still favor music that is not tonal. And you can still be terrorized, but there are just as many people that will like your work now. There's just too much out there. Everyone can't be George Benjamin, everyone can't be Thomas Adès, and luckily we all get to be who we are."
With his driving caps, fedoras and energetic conversation, Gordon could be mistaken for an artistic eccentric. He's a big poetry junkie, reciting his favorite lines of Auden from memory; he enjoys numerology; and if you happen to call him at his cabin in upstate New York, he'll describe to you the scene of a kayaker on the lake, just because it's beautiful. But he's also quite business-savvy. He understands that recordings are crucial to market his works (rather than to generate profit in and of themselves), and that composing chamber-sized pieces means they'll be taken up by conservatories and modestly endowed companies. Despite (or because of) the difficulties he has encountered in his life — growing up with a volatile father; a dark struggle with drugs and alcoholism twenty-five years ago; the death of his lover Jeffrey Michael Grossi, from AIDS, in 1996; his mother's death last summer — he carries a lot of positivity inside of him. He's constantly moving forward, not because he's afraid of looking back (just the opposite: he's written two song cycles about Grossi) but because he's happy to be living in the present.
At the moment, that means plenty of commissions, and with the continued success of Grapes, it's easy to understand why he's writing works on American themes. Gordon followed Steinbeck's classic about Okies in the Dust Bowl with the Civil War song cycle Rappahannock County (2011), for Virginia Arts Festival, and now A Coffin in Egypt, after Horton Foote's play of the same name. When I point this out, he gently corrects me. "Well, first of all, you just named three pieces I was asked to write. That's really important. I did not pick Grapes of Wrath," he says. "I picked the idea for Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I picked the idea for Twenty-Seven, the Gertrude Stein piece. So a lot of times, I'm trying to do sort of my thing. A lot of these American pieces are brought to me because I'm an American composer, and people want me to write stories of my own world."
For many listeners, an "American sound" is synonymous with the open, forthright music of Aaron Copland. "I'm sure I was definitely accessing my inner Copland when I wrote The Grapes of Wrath," Gordon says with a big smile. "But everyone who is American is accessing their inner Copland. I mean, music doesn't just come out from under a rock. We're influenced by what we hear and by what we listen to."
It doesn't get much more American than the work of Horton Foote, the "Chekhov of the small town," who won two Academy Awards for his quiet, deeply humane screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. Like much of Foote's work, A Coffin in Egypt takes place in a Texas town so utterly forgotten it might as well be imaginary.
"I think Ricky writes in that idiom that evokes American memory," says HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers. Coffin is basically a one-woman show, with a libretto adapted by Leonard Foglia, about a wealthy, ninety-year-old widow, a beauty in her day, who plays and replays her life's disappointments — most notably, her husband's infidelities — over the course of a seventy-minute one-act opera. "It struck me that it would appeal to Ricky," says Summers, "and that his musical language would bring a scope to this that it needed — that the role of the music in this piece had to play the role of memory in many ways. It had to be a narrative device, and he's really done it. He's achieved a very, very touching, intimate, beautiful piece."
The role of the elegant, aggrieved Myrtle Bledsoe is taken by Frederica von Stade, who has peeked out of retirement especially to play the part. "It's really interesting getting to know his idiom, because it's very different," she says. "You learn a tune, and you say, 'Oh, yeah, I've got that.' But then you see what's going on around you. And he's very clever with rhythms and repeating themes. It's really been a wonderful process to learn it." Her two favorite moments are the arias "The open prairie" and "Red." "It's just a spectacular melody, just spectacular," she says of the latter.
A week after the Coffin workshop, Gordon e-mails me excitedly to let me know that von Stade was "a dream," that the brand-new Wallis Annenberg Center in Los Angeles has signed on to present the piece along with Houston and Opera Philadelphia, and that he stopped over in St. Louis on his way back to New York to play the beginnings of Twenty-Seven for OTSL's James Robinson and Timothy O'Leary.
"I feel like my world is opening up," says Gordon. "I had never worked with Patrick Summers. Flicka and I did one song together in a concert. And Lenny Foglia. It's just something that's happening in my life lately — like Ron Daniels [who will direct Gordon's Morning Star at Cincinnati Opera] suddenly coming in, out of nowhere. James Robinson. When Opera Theatre of Saint Louis got in touch with me, I said, 'Jim, I've wanted to work with you for so long!' I'm so glad that that's what's happening lately. I'm working with a lot of people I've wanted to work with. They're good. They're interesting. They're insightful. They're stimulating, and it's a really nice moment in my life.
"Grapes of Wrath was such a big piece of work that it just felt like, okay, now once this is in the world and enough people like it or don't like it, I can sort of let go of that a little bit now. The whole notion of how my work is viewed or critiqued, it just feels like I'm here to stay until not. Until further notice. I'm going to do my work — just like everyone else who did their work. I mean, it's not a mystery how criticized Philip Glass was until they stopped criticizing him. And then his work just entered the canon, and he's just recognized. People do their work, and everybody hates them until they get sick of hating them, and then they just have to accept that they're there." He pauses for a moment. "You know what I mean? I'm not going anywhere."
OUSSAMA ZAHR is an editor at Mediander. He also contributes opera reviews to The New Yorker's Goings On About Town section.
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