Ricky Ian Gordon: My Way of Enveloping a Story
For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.
For the past 20 years, Ricky Ian Gordon has been creating works for the stage—operas, musicals, or one-of a-kind music/theater hybrids—and getting them produced one after another, seemingly without a pause. But 14 months ago, fresh off from the PROTOTYPE production of Ellen West and with two new works about to open—Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with New York City Opera—plus a revival of The Grapes of Wrath at Aspen in the works, everything came to a screeching halt as the world went into lockdown due to the pandemic.
“They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel,” Ricky exclaimed when we spoke over Zoom. “Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.”
But since everything has been on hold for over a year now, he has taken a break from madly finishing new scores. Instead, he has focused mostly on other things—writing poetry, a candid essay about his teenage obsession with Joni Mitchell which was published in Spin, and he’s now furiously at work on a book-length memoir that will be published in 2022 by Farrar Straus & Giroux.
“I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance,” Gordon explained. “It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. … But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.”
I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while.
Ricky Ian Gordon
I’m the guy who writes hybrid.
Ricky Ian Gordon
It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space.
Ricky Ian Gordon
By the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn.
Ricky Ian Gordon
If I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day.
Ricky Ian Gordon
If you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories.
Ricky Ian Gordon
Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying.
Ricky Ian Gordon
There is no such thing as history or then and now.
Ricky Ian Gordon
The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent.
Ricky Ian Gordon
It’s somewhat surprising that Ricky Ian Gordon didn’t jump on the virtual music bandwagon, since for years he’s been involved in creating works for the stage that redefine possibilities and break boundaries. But he also excels at creating work that is emotionally direct and has an immediate impact with audiences, so it makes sense that he’d be skeptical about creating something designed to be experienced by isolated individuals in front of computer terminals. And what inspires him more than anything else is the narrative arc of a great story, whether it’s a John Steinbeck novel, passages from Marcel Proust, a poem by Frank Bidart about a patient of an early 20th century psychiatrist suffering from anorexia nervosa, or the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. While most of his stage works are based on events from the distant past, these stories are very much in the present for him.
“Is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then?” he asked at one point in our talk. “The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. … I never feel like I’m back in time. … I just feel like … I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.”
Thankfully, though he has had numerous productions put on hiatus, Ricky Ian Gordon has not suffered great hardship during the past year as have so many others who have lost loved ones or have gotten sick themselves. But he is also a war-scarred survivor of the AIDS crisis which claimed tons of people dear to him, most significantly his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, whose death inspired his deeply personal adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice and his poignant monodrama Green Sneakers. The lessons Gordon learned from that horrific time inform his outlook on where we as a society are right now.
“It was a very intense time,” he recalled. “Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying … We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this. … The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. … How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?”
Read the Full Transcript
Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: As wonderful as your website is, it was so sad to go on the home page and see that there are no upcoming performances. But, of course, that’s the case with so many of us in this very weird time that we’re living in. I thought that that was something to begin with, to meditate on that and what it means, this year of hiatus after a decade or more that’s been super active for you.
Ricky Ian Gordon: It’s really interesting, Frank, because I had this one thing. Julia Bullock did a concert with the San Francisco Symphony, and it ends with a big piece of mine called Litany. And it’s beautifully filmed. I have to say it’s a really good concert. Julia curated it. It’s beautiful. But it’s been an interesting year. I was previewing my opera, Intimate Apparel, at Lincoln Center, and we were supposed to open on March 23, and then we were going to open Garden of the Finzi-Contini with New York City Opera and the Yiddish Theater. Ellen West was going to have performances elsewhere. Grapes of Wrath was going to open in Aspen—Renee Fleming and Patrick Summers, their new thing.
So I came up here; I’m in the country now. I came up March 12. And after I did some re-writes to Intimate Apparel and then worked on the orchestrations for Finzi-Contini. Once I sussed out that this was going to be way more than a month—do you know what I mean, like you sort of got a sense of like this is gonna be a year—I decided I needed to turn in another direction. I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while. I just had done practically an opera a year. I started a writing group with poet and novelist friends of mine like Marie Howe, who was poet laureate in New York, Nick Flynn, Donna Masini, Victoria Redel, a bunch of really good writers. Actually Royce Vavrek, the librettist, is in it. I wanted to see what would happen if I concentrated solely on words for a while. By creating a writing group, I was creating an imperative. Right? Richard McCann was in it who just died. That was very sad.“I actually decided I’m going to take a break from notes for a little while.”
I started writing every week. At one point, I wrote a big piece on Joni Mitchell. And I sent it to my friend, Bob Guccione [Jr.] who’s Robert Guccione’s son, and he works at Spin magazine, and his girlfriend Liza Lentini; I sent it to both of them. Not to publish it, just to say I thought you guys might think this is fun. And it got published in Spin. Then they took a poem of mine. Just for the fun of it, I sent it to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; he’s the president. I met him through Frank Bidart, because we all sat next to each other at the Pulitzer dinner when Frank won the Pulitzer.
So he wrote me back a great note where he said, “I feel like there’s something here. And what I would suggest is you just keep generating material. Don’t revise. Don’t edit. Just keep writing.” He wanted to send me John Giorno’s new memoir that they had just published. When I was almost done with the John Giorno book, I wrote to Jonathan again just to talk about what I felt about the book he had sent me, and just for the hell of it, I sent him two more sections. And by the way, Frank, all of this was because in February, right at the beginning of the month, I read my horoscope and it said this is like the best month of your entire life. So I just said I’m gonna be brave. So anyway, the second time I sent Jonathan more stuff; I got a book contract.
RIG: So it’s amazing, because it means from now until December—I have to come back into the city in December because then we start rehearsals for Intimate Apparel and Finzi-Contini—basically I told them I’m working on a book. And it’s really nice. I’ve written some music, like I wrote a song cycle for Erin Morley, Huit Chansons de Fleur. And Blythe Gaissert is putting out a new CD called Home and I wrote my own piece on it called “Jerry Hammer,” which is my lyric and music. This was an unbelievably interesting and productive time only because I turned in another direction. And I think part of doing that was because I couldn’t get behind writing music and anything that relies on performance during a period when there was not going to be any performance. It just felt like the wrong direction. And also the whole Zoom music thing, like operas on Zoom, just doesn’t interest me that much. I actually think the Julia Bullock / San Francisco Symphony thing was astonishingly effective. I also think my friend Ted Sperling who did the MasterVoices—they’re doing Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns in sections, really imaginative. But, in general, music on Zoom—not that interested. I’m interested in live performance.
FJO: There are all these people who have been adapting work for presentation. And obviously some companies are playing video recordings of work. PROTOTYPE did that early on. But then there’s all this new work that’s getting created. So I thought maybe a piece like Ellen West because it’s two characters; it’s very intimate. Or, going back a little further, Coffin in Egypt is essentially a monologue that has these other characters who don’t sing, who kind of flit around because the original it’s based on is exclusively a monologue…
RIG: It’s a one-person play.
RIG: And then it has the gospel singers.
FJO: That could maybe work as Zoom thing, and I thought going all the way going back, Orpheus & Euridice probably could work as a Zoom.
RIG: Yes. And Green Sneakers. I think Kevin Newbury and Michael Kelly are trying to do that with Boston Opera. So that might happen. And maybe then I’ll feel different. Like maybe if I’m participating in it, but in general, it sort of felt like a dead zone to me. But we’re all fickle, and if suddenly it was a form that was about my work, then I’m sure I’d turn around on it, ‘cause I’m 12-years-old inside.
FJO: [laughs] Well, it’s interesting because what this thing has done is it’s redefined what opera can be yet again. In a way, you’re the perfect person for this because of your whole career: There are some works that get called operas. There are some works that are called musicals. There are some works that get called song cycles. But it’s not really all that clear cut in a way.“I’m the guy who writes hybrid.”
RIG: No. It’s not. And, in a way, I feel like that’s my contribution. I’m the guy who writes hybrid. And the truth is, Frank, it’s not because I intend to, it’s because that’s how they come to me. Even when I write a song cycle. You look at something like Only Heaven. It has a dramatic arc. We write what we write. Then I have pieces like Grapes of Wrath and 27 that are big operas. Or 27 is sort of big like Albert Herring is big. But well no, much bigger orchestration. But yeah. I think I’d be very eligible for this form, although I really am looking forward to live theater again.
FJO: It’s very nice to hear you say that those two pieces that were put on hiatus are both going back into production.
RIG: Oh yeah. They didn’t even take down the set of Intimate Apparel.
RIG: For like a year! Michael Yeargan’s set is there. Cathy Zuber’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lights, everything’s in place, you know. We just have to get back in the theater. We’ll open the theater again.
FJO: That’s amazing. But let’s go deeper talking about these hybrids.
FJO: Grapes of Wrath is definitely undeniably the big, grand opera. It’s three hours plus, it’s a big piece, but then, on the other hand, you have a musical theater piece that’s based on Marcel Proust.
RIG: Yes, I love that piece.
FJO: I do, too. Beautiful writing.
RIG: Oh, thank you.
FJO: But it begs the question: How is it that these two great works of literature, A la recherche du temps perdu and The Grapes of Wrath—one of them inspires a musical and the other inspires a grand opera?
RIG: I was asked to write The Grapes of Wrath for Minnesota Opera. So they immediately approached me about doing an opera of that piece of literature. So there was never a question about what the approach would be other than at one point we talked about it being a two-night operatic experience. Because the story was so big to tell, spreading it out over two or even three evenings. I loved the idea. But then My Life with Albertine came about because of Charlie Prince, Hal Prince’s son. He’s a conductor, and we worked together on my first opera, Tibetan Book of the Dead. And Charlie had conducted The Dead with Richard Nelson, the playwright.
Richard wanted to create a piece out of A la recherche, just using the Albertine sections, which is really The Captive. So they approached me about doing a musical of My Life with Albertine. So that’s the form it took. But Richard is a lot like me. He’s sort of a soul mate in terms of the plays he creates, the theatrical experiences he creates; they are the world of Richard Nelson. If you went to see any of the Apple family plays, or the Gabriel plays, or even his Uncle Vanya, it was like Uncle Vanya by Richard Nelson. I mean you were in this tiny space. You had to lean forward, and no one ever spoke above the level that you would if you were sitting at a table. It was so intimate. And that’s Richard’s aesthetic, so in a way, My Life with Albertine was this very sort of intimate re-telling. To me it was just such a beautiful little piece. It was really just a meditation on one section of Proust. You know, there’s so much story to tell there. No one’s ever succeeded in telling the whole story. You can’t tell that whole story.
FJO: Well seven operas maybe, or seven musicals.
RIG: Right. Which I’d love to do. I could work on Proust my whole life. That would be fine. But those forms came about because of the exigencies—what you’re offered. And then as soon as Richard and I started writing that, Tim Sanford heard some of the music and said, we want to open the New Playwrights Horizons with this, which was both good and bad frankly, because it was like opening a huge, new theater that no one had tried out before. We’re opening in the winter. No one knows how to make the heat any lower. It’s a new musical in a theater that’s 90 degrees. It’s sort of like would Antony and Cleopatra have gone better if it didn’t open the new Met? Nobody knows how to use the house yet. It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space. You know: you live, you learn. And one day, Richard and I will do that again. This fantasy I have: Grapes of Wrath has never been done in the form it was done in Minnesota Opera. Simply put, that was 2007; by 2008 nobody had money anymore.
FJO: Right.It’s better to open a house on Madame Butterfly than on a brand new opera that is going to ask new things of this space.
RIG: Nobody could ever afford to do what we did in 2007. But when we did the final room run of Grapes of Wrath at Minnesota Opera, it was amazing. I don’t care if I wrote it. I’m just telling you it was amazing; it was shattering. The people that were watching, there was something about being in a rehearsal room with a piece that big happening right in front of you that was so astounding and someday I want to do, like I was thinking—it could be like the Armory. Right? Or just a huge rehearsal room. Someone would have to give me a million dollars to do it, and sort of accept how many people can sit in the rehearsal room every night. But I want to do it with just two pianists and the entire piece, because that’s something very few people, Frank, ever get to experience is the immediacy of what happens in a rehearsal room, which no matter what is gained when you bring it onto a stage and into a theater, something is always lost. And it makes me sad sometimes that most of an audience never gets to see what happens in that rehearsal room: the room run—it’s astonishing. And they never get to see that.
FJO: It’s so interesting to hear you say that because now we’re in this era and even further removed. The wall of the stage prevents you from seeing things, the proscenium that separates the audience from the cast, but now we have the internet that separates us all. It connects us all, but it’s this wall between everything we experience because nobody can safely experience things in the corporeal world yet. When I think about a piece like Grapes of Wrath—I was listening to it again this weekend, and I thought: Wow, this is so from the before the coronavirus era. It’s so—
FJO: I’m thinking to myself: when can something like this ever happen again? How long is it going to take for us to be able to do something like this again?
RIG: That’s the thing: I don’t know. And of course, I have a new opera commission for Opera Theater of St. Louis, and I’m excited about it, and we have to be careful about things like: chorus, amount of orchestra, all of it, you know. You can’t be Wagner or Strauss anymore for a long time. Not that it’s a bad thing because it engages your imagination. I mean, like Stravinsky said, sometimes the best thing to happen to your imagination are limitations. So this piece for St. Louis, I’m looking forward to. But boy, will I be excited to do Grapes of Wrath again the way it was intended to be done!
FJO: But what’s so interesting though, is like right leading up to the pandemic, your pieces were all these smaller, more intimate pieces. Even, to some extent, Intimate Apparel is relatively small.
RIG: It’s two pianos. I did that purposefully, because it’s totally affordable, and it fits in the Lincoln Center Theater, and you see the orchestra. But if we took it to another opera company, it would be a pleasure to orchestrate and easy, because once you’ve written for two piano staffs, two grand staffs, pretty much all the information is there. So that would be a fun thing to do. But yes, it’s completely intimate.
FJO: So this fake duality between musicals and operas. Since you’ve done both, and you’ve had your feet in both worlds, are there meaningful differences between them? Or is it a continuum? Is it an either/or?
RIG: There’s a difference. And besides the obvious difference, Frank, in that in general, a musical operates scene-song, scene-song. Even when you sort of adjust the context. Like for example, Richard Nelson, in My Life with Albertine, created the context of a man putting on a show in a living room. And that show is called My Life with Albertine, so that it has a reason to exist. Because Richard has to find the truth, and the truth can’t be that someone just sings out of nowhere. It has to be: I wrote this for you in order to tell my story today. Nevertheless, there are scenes and songs. Right? The best way to illustrate this is when we first wrote Grapes of Wrath, there were scenes. There was dialogue, and we went to workshop Act I at Minnesota Opera, and, Frank, this isn’t true universally, but it can be often true that opera singers act with their voices. They act when they sing.
When you ask them to speak, and I’m not gonna make excuses or apologize for saying this, often there is no air in the balloon. And it’s because they are trained to act with their voices, not when they talk. And it’s not a skill many singers have. I wish I could say that conservatories train singers to be actors, but it’s woefully underdone. And so if you do a musical with opera singers, there’s every possibility that the acting will not be as good as if you have Kelly O’Hara or Victoria Clark or Audra McDonald—people who absolutely know what they’re doing on every front. I ended up setting all the dialogue to music which was supposed to be spoken for Grapes of Wrath. Suddenly, it was energized, and suddenly those scenes took off.
Thank God we did a workshop of Act I, and found out we have to set that to music. Those lines absolutely lose all of their energy the second they’re spoken by opera singers. And meanwhile, what’s great is the singers we had in the production were incredible actors. It’s not to say that opera singers can’t act, but the way they act is through their instrument. But it isn’t about talking.
FJO: On the flip side of this then, the pluses with working in musical theater is you get folks who can act and sing. But maybe the minus is they can’t sing anything, or is that not true?
RIG: They can’t, well, yeah, that of course, when you’re working in opera, you’re working with a whole different vocal capacity. Right? That’s what’s exciting about opera, is the voice. That’s what drew me to opera. The voice. Voices. Also, just to say, you will never have the forces you have with opera. Like, for example, it’s probably not gonna happen very often that Stephen Sondheim’s musicals are gonna happen as they originally happened with the original orchestrations. I’m not sure, but I think that might be dead on Broadway. You will get it, for example, when the Kennedy Center did the festival of his works. That was a festival, so each one of those musicals had a few performances so then you have the original orchestrations. But every time you see it, like by the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn. You know every time you see them, they’re smaller. Right? In opera, you can at least have more. I have figured out how to do small things, but I know for example when I do my new opera for Opera Theater of St. Louis, I will at least have 49 pieces.“By the next time you see Pacific Overtures, it might be for like kazoo and French horn.”
I did this musical about my family at the Signature Theater. It was called Sycamore Trees. That was a musical about close ups. The acting in that musical had to be like Bergman. And Tina Landau’s direction was so detailed and nuanced. And James Schuette’s sets. And that is something that could only be done with singing actors of the highest caliber who can handle a ten-minute monologue that ends in sobbing. I’ve studied acting, so I like to ask as much of the artists as possible. If it’s an opera singer, I mean Stephanie Blythe, when we did the dress rehearsal of 27 said, “This is the hardest role I’ve ever done. It’s the biggest role I’ve ever done.” She never leaves the stage for 90 minutes. So, you know, it’s not like Fricka: you come out sing your butt off, and then you’re off the stage. She’s there all night, so it asks a lot. But I love the idea of seeing artists go beyond where they’ve gone, because that’s what I’m doing. I’m going beyond where I’ve ever been every time I write something new. I mean, Jennifer Zetlan in Ellen West. Hello. That was intense!
FJO: What’s interesting, though, is a piece like Ellen West is really kind of both worlds in a way. Because it really requires acting and singing. It’s got a smaller pit group. It’s not a grand opera. It’s very intimate. Obviously soundworldwise, I hate to play this binary game, but it’s more coming from the world of opera than the world of musicals.
RIG: Absolutely. The vocal demands of Ellen West are not there, not for musical theater singers. No. You have to be an opera singer. Even Nathan’s role as the doctor is demanding. And Jennifer’s role is really demanding vocally. And emotionally. When we rehearsed, there’s a reason why we had a director who was a woman and a conductor who was a woman. It was a lot for Jennifer to come to terms with in terms of the questions that piece asks just textually. We had to have a room that was very buffeted because it was a lot for her emotionally. Even when we first did it, in Saratoga, Jennifer wanted to get very thin. She felt right being on a somewhat limited diet and she got very thin, but at certain points, it was like: honey, you gotta eat. If you’re gonna sing that Callas section, you need some red meat today. But she’s a very committed performer. She’s like Robert de Niro in Raging Bull. She’s serious.
FJO: So she totally became that character. Oh wow.
RIG: She never balked when Emma asked her to take off all her clothes at the end, and just be completely naked. There wasn’t even a raised eyebrow. It was just: I will do whatever this piece demands. For me, it’s one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever seen. It’s so naked—literally and figuratively. It was such a beautiful performance, don’t you think? And Nathan too, even when Nathan’s sitting there just crying when she’s on the train, just his silent performance half the time. I was really proud of that piece. That poem lived inside of me for a decade before I finally set it.
FJO: If there’s a through line between everything, it seems like you are as immersed in literature as you are in music. Great literature has been your fuel, your muse, all along. You know, whether it’s Proust, Steinbeck, early on poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, or the life of Gertrude Stein—all these literary people are your fuel.“If I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day.”
RIG: Yes, there’s no doubt. It starts with literature for me. Only because, when I was a little boy, my older sister Susan—who was a pretty well-known journalist and memoirist, her name was Susan Lydon—would read to me Edna St. Vincent Millay to put me to sleep. Things like the famous Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, which begins “Son, said my mother when I was knee high, you’ve need of clothes to cover you and not a rag have I. There’s nothing in the house to make a boy breeches.” So poetry became balm for me. And it also became how I ordered the world in my head. And it also became where I go in my deepest moments, like when grief is unbearable, it’s poets. Only poetry that helps. Meanwhile, if I could turn back the clocks, when I had all kinds of problems growing up including drug problems and alcohol problems and ADD, and if I could go back and have another life, I would be reading 24 hours a day. I don’t consider myself well read at all. I just consider myself someone for whom reading is very impactful.
FJO: And you obviously take what you read and turn it into your own art. I mean that’s like the ultimate thank you to the book, the ultimate praise that you find a way to internalize this stuff and let it speak to you and, in a way, speak your own voice through it.
RIG: It begins when I memorize a poem; I’m entering it into my hard drive to make me deeper or smarter. Knowing that poem lives in me, makes me like myself better. Setting it to music is a way of making love to it. And showing you the sex act. Do you know what I mean? It’s like I offer it to you with everything I can possibly give it, and you know, and that and all of it, it’s funny, one of the chapters I’m writing, I’m writing right now about the creation of 27.
So there’s this day, Frank, our very first day of rehearsals, where there’s Stephanie and Elizabeth—Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral—in the middle of the room, and the three men who at this moment are playing the paintings. They suddenly come forward and sing “Have You Visited Rue de Fleurus.” And I just cried. I was like: Wow, we really are bringing this and those people to life. Like if you see this opera, you’re getting a good taste of Gertrude and Alice, and Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, and Man Ray, and Leo Stein, and the paintings, and Picasso, and Matisse, and I just felt like yes. It is that thing of you stay in a room by yourself for five years, or four years, or three years, but by the end, you have really made something. You’ve created community. You have honored and exalted the writers you love. You have honored and exalted the singers standing in front of you who have something to sing, and the players who have something to play, and the conductor, and the designer. All because you were in that room by yourself for a little while, sometimes with another writer, but still you’re in the room by yourself, you know. It creates this incredible community, and it brings something to life in the most profound way. That’s what’s addictive. You know. That’s the crack of writing.
FJO: You’ve collaborated with some of the top librettists in our field. You worked with Michael Korie on Grapes of Wrath. You’ve worked with Royce Vavrek on both 27 and the Christmas opera…
RIG: And don’t forget, Michael Korie also did Finzi-Contini.
RIG: And Mark Campbell—
FJO: —All top people. But you’ve also written your own words. I’ll go all the way back. The very first piece of yours I ever heard was Water Music.
RIG: That’s my text.
FJO: Yeah, which is gorgeous.
RIG: I love that piece.
FJO: And gorgeous music. So you’re a writer as well, but when you work with a writer, you obviously you have to give that part of it up and let that person in, so I’m wondering how that affects your work, the music you write. Does it pull you in different directions than you would have had you written your own words? What is that like for you creatively? That tension of working with another writer?
RIG: That’s a great question, Frank. Each piece with a different writer is a different universe. So I just worked with Lynn Nottage. And we’re doing another opera together for St. Louis. Lynn’s world is totally unique in terms of the way she shapes a plot. And the detail of character. Intimate Apparel—it’s the play she wrote for her mother, after her mother died. You feel that intimacy. She’s an amazing storyteller. Michael Korie is a wordsmith. I haven’t worked with anyone truly who can take a scene, an existent scene for example, the whole opening scene of The Grapes of Wrath where Steinbeck is telling you how the dustbowl was born. For Michael to take that whole chapter and whittle it down to “the last time there was rain” is such a particular gift. And no one does it like him. That’s all I can say. Each of these writers has their own genius. That’s Michael’s genius. Royce is this explosion of energy. Of these four writers, the one I’m most like is Royce. Royce and I never grew up. We both are obsessive, crazy nuts who when you put us in a room together can’t shut up and we’re talking about all of our favorite movies, and all of our favorite actors, and we’re just like this. It’s like we bring out the toys and we’re playing together. So I think that 27 and The House Without a Christmas Tree have a kind of youthful sweetness to them that Royce brings out in me. He brings out the child in me.
Michael Korie is very profound. Lynn is this deep storyteller, and then Mark Campbell. Mark and I both started out doing musicals. I met Mark when I first got to New York and his writing partner was Stephen Hoffman, and they were writing musicals together. We were both in the ASCAP workshop. Charles Strouse and Steven Schwartz ran it. So when we wrote Rapahannock County, it was like we were just dipping into our musical comedy whore selves. It’s like such a different world working with all of them. The piece I’m doing with Lynn now is very exciting because we’re working with her daughter, Ruby. Ruby just graduated from Brown, and she’s a poet. So Ruby’s gonna be working with Lynn on the lyrical writing, and it’s a piece called This House. About a house in Harlem.
FJO: I’m curious from the other angle, because you talk about working with Lynn, with Intimate Apparel, that work existed as a play before it became an opera. Similarly, Frank Bidart’s poem was a poem before it became your opera together.
FJO: I wonder, just as these other people may influence the direction your music takes, what does your music do to them in terms of how it turns their words around? How is the libretto for Intimate Apparel different as a sung libretto than the original play was? What has transformed there?“If you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories.”
RIG: Well, that’s a great question because that took three years, Frank, because first of all, we had the dramaturge at the Met is a friend of mine. His name is Paul Cremo. And I’ve known Paul since he was at SONY with Peter Gelb, and Paul commissioned me to write a song for Kristin Chenowith for her first album. Anyway, Lynn did three different librettos because she had to learn that the music is as much a storyteller in an opera as the words are. So, for example, her first libretto was too close to the play. Including it had too much text. So it was like, Lynn, this’ll be as long as Robert Wilson’s Ka Mountain. But then, the next version was much leaner, and then finally the third version was Intimate Apparel boiled down to a stock. And that’s what Lynn learned, because that’s the hard thing to learn. As the playwright, you’re really attached to your words. But if you want to be a librettist, you have to be attached to the events and the stories. And you have to decide: which part of the words do you need to tell the story, but where can you leave the composer space to tell, for example, the intricate inner life of the story? There’s so much you don’t need to say because the music’s gonna say it. So that’s what took Lynn the longest with Intimate Apparel, but what’s amazing about Lynn is she isn’t bringing much ego to it. She doesn’t balk or defend her work. She just goes back to the drawing board, because she wants it to be right. And she wants it to be good. And that’s probably why she has two Pulitzer prizes and a MacArthur, and anything else you can possibly win as a playwright, is she works really hard and she listens. And she’s a really easy, good collaborator. Really all these people are. They’re good collaborators. You want to be in the room with them.
FJO: When you write your own lyrics, when there’s no collaborator, as it were…how is that a different experience? What do you lose? What do you gain? How is that a different experience creatively?
RIG: You don’t lose anything. You really gain. There’s a kind of fear related to that event that’s very different. Like I can tell you, Green Sneakers called to me. I had written those poems, and ten years later, I was doing Grapes of Wrath in Utah. The second production of it. And I would meditate for an hour every morning, and Genie Zuckerman and Lynn Mazza had asked me if I would be the composer-in-residence at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival and do a ten-minute string quartet for the Miami String Quartet. But I was meditating one morning, and I saw Green Sneakers. I saw the piece in my head. But those poems were written in such extreme pain and grief, and they seemed cut out of stone to me. I can’t judge whether these texts are good or bad. They were exactly what was happening at that moment.
I went to Ucross in Wyoming, which is an artist colony I go to write a lot. I was writing the music there, and I would wake up at four o’clock in the morning sweating, and have to go to my studio at four in the morning because my fear was that I was gonna destroy my text or get the tone wrong. Because that piece, the text is so intimate, the balance of getting the tone of it right so that it’s not mawkish, and also so that it’s not unbearable for an audience. It’s why there are so many interludes and the strings play such a big part in the telling of the story. Because I really felt like I had to constantly be letting the story breathe. And the audience breathe. So that was a very scary piece to write.
But then opening night of that piece, that was an amazing night. We did the dress rehearsal in Colorado, in Vail. And the critic, his name was Wes Blomster, and he came to the dress rehearsal, and it was just him. And we did the piece and he was really shaking and sobbing. Like I just had to hold him. The next night, at the world premiere, it was sort of the same thing, and then he wrote that beautiful review. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it was: “Gordon creates masterpiece with Green Sneakers.” He compares it to Das Lied von der Erde and I knew I had really made something from my loins. You know what I mean? It felt just created from the bottom of me. And in some ways it felt inarguable, so nothing is lost. If anything is lost, it might be two or three pounds of flesh. It’s sort of similar with Orpheus & Euridice because Orpheus & Euridice is just me telling the story of Jeffrey and I through the myth. But then Green Sneakers is like the bald, unencumbered story. Just like this is how it happened. Now I’m writing a memoir, and I get to fill in some of those details, too.
FJO: So you wrote the text before you wrote a note of music.
RIG: Oh, I wrote the text like a decade before. I wrote the text almost immediately after Jeffrey died. I was staring at his sneakers in the closet. And the only thing I wrote at a different time was the epilogue which is a poem called “Sleep.” I wrote that poem for him for his birthday, his last birthday when he was alive. I never really dreamed that it would be part of an opera that ends with me telling Jeffrey to sleep. It was so intense. It was like writing the opera Tibetan Book of the Dead which I wrote to help him die. Everything in my life at that moment turned around. There’s a lot I got to do with my work at a certain time in my life that I don’t know many people get to do, like write an opera to help your lover die. Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying and memorial services. The AIDS Quilt Songbook ended up with me coming out and saying my “I Never Knew,” which was like I knew when I dreamed of holding all these men that there would be so little time for that embrace. It was a very intense time.Because the AIDS crisis was in the center of my life, I was constantly writing for people who were dying.
Ellen West is also a text I discovered at that moment right after Jeffrey died. I’m sure what drew me to it is its ferocity. Yes, I struggled all my life with eating disorders and took speed to starve myself. But what’s more important is I’ve never read anything where anyone gets to the bottom of an eating disorder in the way he does in that poem. In the last letter, right before she kills herself, when she writes to her friend who’s still in the hospital, and she says, ”Dearest, I remember how at 18 on hikes with friends, when they rested sitting down to joke or talk, I circled around them. Afraid to hike ahead alone, yet afraid to rest for I was not yet truly thin.” I mean, that’s just, that’s it. I cannot rest until I’m perfect. I cannot rest until I’m thin. I cannot rest until I’ve written something beautiful. I cannot rest until dot, dot, dot. And that is the story of obsession. It’s the story of eating disorders. It’s the story of my life in a nutshell.
FJO: Well it’s so interesting that you tell your story through all of these other stories. There was this historic Ellen West. It was based on a case history. And Albertine is a fictitious creation of Marcel Proust, but probably has models in his life. But these are all stories of another era, yet you as somebody writing them now, you can’t but help but bring an element of now into the past. I’m curious about what attracts you to these older stories. Sycamore Trees is probably the most contemporary story, but it’s your own story.
FJO: It’s your own autobiography, but all these other stories happened maybe 50 to a hundred years ago or maybe you know, earlier. Orpheus and Euridice is a Greek myth going back millennia. How do you deal with the present creeping into the past in these pieces? And is that part of the point?
RIG: The question is, is Grapes of Wrath any less resonant now than it was then? The entire world is one big refugee crisis. One big drought. One big food shortage. One big government saying: it’s not my fault. The Grapes of Wrath could have been written yesterday! When we wrote 27 about Gertrude and Alice, what was the zeitgeist? Gay marriage. And this is like the original gay marriage. These two women were calling themselves husband and wife before World War I. It all feels like it’s happening now. Orpheus and Euridice, I’m not telling it as a Greek myth. I’m telling it as my story. Euridice is not bitten by a snake. She gets a mysterious virus that robs her from Orpheus incrementally. I was watching everyone I knew in the world, including my own lover, die one inch at a time.“There is no such thing as history or then and now.”
And Albertine is a story about obsession. And it’s also, like Ellen West, a story about gender fluidity because Albertine sleeps with men, she sleeps with women and that’s what drives him crazy. He feels like he can’t get a grip on her. I totally relate to that. There’s a whole chapter in my book called “Obsessions.” I feel like I just went from one obsession to another in my life. Until I finally settled down here hopefully for a little while. So the stories never feel historical to me. I never feel like I’m back in time. I feel like I’m just entering them. You know that thing Stravinsky said, “I am the vessel through which passed Le Sacre.” I just feel like I’m entering them, and I’m making myself available for those stories. Then I feel like they sort of explode through me. There is no such thing as history or then and now. There’s only the current moment and what seems to be my way of enveloping that story.
FJO: Talking about how you can’t but pay attention to the present even when you’re trying to focus on the past, seeing Ellen West feels like a long time ago now. But it was just last year. So much has happened in the world since then, but even before the pandemic hit, we were at this incredible moment of reckoning with the whole MeToo movement. It was hard to see Ellen West without seeing it through that prism. And it was interesting to hear you say you had to have a woman conductor and you had to have a woman director, because there’s no way this piece could be seen as the male writing the case history is the one who gets to tell the story. It’s clearly her story and in the opera becomes her story.
RIG: The thing is that it isn’t the male gaze, okay, the male gaze of it being Dr. Binswanger. Right? When Frank wrote that poem, he wrote it because in reading the case history, he felt like ultimately Ellen was unable to tell her story. She was a poet who was completely hamstrung by the style of poetry of the times she was growing up in. She could write romantic poetry about mountains and sunsets, but she couldn’t write: “I love sweets. Heaven would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream.” She couldn’t write about it. So, as a poet, he tried to enter her, to give her voice. So in some ways, it, it gives her something she never had. You could say, “But is it the right voice? Are those the right words?” But it’s an attempt to animate someone who was heretofore disanimate. You know, inanimate.
FJO: Similarly A Coffin in Egypt—look at our world now, the post-George Floyd world, that piece has even more resonance now perhaps.
RIG: Oh, it does. It definitely does. And that’s why I’d love to do it again. It was disappointing for me. I was glad we did it in Lincoln Center for the American Songbook series, but it didn’t really work for me. It’s a piece of theater. It was okay, and I love Flicka, but it needs a stage, and I hope one day New York gets to see it as a production.
FJO: You do these productions—whether they’re big, they’re small—they always involve a lot of people. But you’ve also done solo work. You did those wonderful albums singing and playing the piano. Your songs are great.
RIG: Oh, thank you.
FJO: And you’ve written a lot of really fabulous solo piano music. So there are things that you can do without any collaboration whatsoever. It’s just you.
RIG: Yes. I like it. And that’s why I’ve been loving writing this book. If you live a life of collaboration, Frank, it’s nice to take time off from it. It’s nice to only be talking with yourself. It really is. Those albums where I sang those songs, which by the way, I didn’t record those albums in order to say, “Look at me. I’m Nina Simone.” You know what I mean? I really did it because I heard so many performances of my work that were off. It seemed like the pianist didn’t understand, and the singer didn’t understand. And I thought if I made these CDs, you can listen to those CDs and get the tradition of what I do. And I was satisfied with them. I’m grateful for the fact that I can play and sing. You know, sometimes I can play really hard things and sing at the same time. That just happens to be something I can do. I’m glad. Who knows how long my voice will last. So I’m really glad I made those albums for that, because how many records do you have of that with composers recording their own work in that way?
FJO: Well, they definitely deliver emotionally, which is the core of this work I think.
RIG: Thank you. It is the core of this work.
FJO: So we’re all in these cocoons, and you’re writing this book, but then life returns to “normal.” Whatever normal means. Or maybe this is normal, and we return to abnormal. Or do we? What are the lessons we’ve learned from this? How is this gonna affect your work going forward?“The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent.”
RIG: I really think it’s gonna be interesting, Frank, I don’t know if there’s every gonna be business as usual again. This wasn’t something New Yorkers experienced; this is something the whole world experienced. We have all been through something together. I think we’re gonna be changed. There’s a kind of humanism that I think’s gonna grow out of all of this. We live in a very divided country right now, but I just can’t imagine we’re not all gonna be affected by this, and frankly, in a positive way. We’ve all had a lot of time to think. Maybe it’s just gonna be that we’re gonna be grateful to be together and kinder. The role of art in society and the role of the artist in society may in fact be more balanced when we return to normal, because death is way more clearly imminent. So it can’t be that an artist is a superstar that people worship and that critics turn them into gods; it can’t be like this. There’s too much; it’s so clear we all die. How do you incorporate that into a new world where at any moment you could get a pandemic and everyone could be killed? What does art mean then?