Our executive editor John Guare sat down with Ricky Ian Gordon, the composer of Intimate Apparel and other celebrated operas and musicals, including Orpheus and Euridice, The Grapes of Wrath , 27, Morning Star, and My Life with Albertine, to talk about craft and Ricky’s unusual life.
JG How did you come to make an opera of Intimate Apparel?
RIG I was commissioned by the Met and Lincoln Center Theater. It was 2007, and it was right after Grapes of Wrath had opened in Minnesota. I wrote that with Michael Korie, so I just assumed he and I would do our next piece. My first idea was Adele Hugo—from Truffaut’s film The Story of Adele H. Michael and I started working on that, but as exigencies in each of our lives happened it turned out that we couldn’t work on that piece together, and I was suddenly left without a collaborator. I didn’t really know Lynn Nottage, but she was on a committee that awarded me an Obie. I read all of her plays, and everything about Intimate Apparel resonated with me.
JG The libretto seems to be a distillation of the play. Did the two of you work very closely on that?
RIG Yes, Lynn had never written an opera libretto. And, of course, the first draft had too many words. But with each draft I got Lynn to trust a little more that a lot of the drama in an opera happens in the music.
JG Did you play her music as you went along?
RIG Yes. It was really exciting and fun. Lynn is a superb collaborator. She was always open to what I needed or what I didn’t need, and we had a dramaturg at the Met, Paul Cremo, work with us to further distill the play. It’s always scary for a composer to look at a page and know there might be a problem. If you see too many words on a page, you don’t see music; you just see obligation. There’s something about the way words are spaced out on a page that says possibility or not possibility. Lynn managed to put words on the page that said possibility.
JG Do you write on the piano? RIG Basically, when I write now everything is mock-orchestrated on my computer. For the first workshop, I brought my computer to the Met and we hooked it up to speakers. I conducted, and the singers sang along with the tracks on the computer. JG What are the sounds on the computer?
RIG Sampled sounds—piano, strings, reeds. It’s very lush. When André Bishop and Peter Gelb first heard the opera, I made them come over to my apartment and they sat on a piano bench in front of my computer, and I sang the score for them. It used to be that I could play and sing all my operas just sitting down at the piano, but with Grapes of Wrath my style expanded, and now it’s bigger than my two hands.
JG When I met you, I knew all about you because of this remarkable book, Home Fires , by Don Katz. Katz covered five decades of a “nondescript” American family—just nice people who live in Oceanside, New York. This family was your family. I bring the book up because Intimate Apparel takes a woman who would otherwise be invisible and gives her her full due. Home Fires was a revelation of the chaos, the anguish, and the glory that come out in an American family. What was it like having your life exposed like that?
RIG My friend Doug Kennedy, who is Robert Kennedy’s youngest son, read the book and said, “How could you let your family be exploited in that way?” I jokingly said, “Doug, some people crave exploitation.” On a certain level I didn’t mean that, but there was also something flattering about the attention. It was exciting, and it was painful, too. We all told Don things we didn’t tell each other, especially my dad. When Home Fires came out, it was right at the time my sister Susan was finishing rehab in Boston. She wrote an article for the Boston Globe about her rehab, and then she wrote a memoir. It was harder for my sisters, because they have more life on the planet than I do, and some of the very painful things that happened to them were deeply described in that book.
JG How did your father and mother react to all this?
RIG My dad would not read it. He didn’t read anything. My sister wrote three memoirs; he never read any of them. Don lost his dad at fifty, so in many ways I think he sort of fell in love with my father. They really bonded. Not that Don glorified my father, but he saw something in my father that we didn’t see. My father was tough and really violent. I think he was so afraid of being exposed.
There’s something about the way words are spaced out on a page that says possibility or not possibility. Lynn managed to put words on the page that said possibility.
JG Did your father tell Don things he didn’t tell you?
RIG Absolutely. For one thing, he never talked about his time in World War II with us. Our relationship with my dad was difficult. We were somehow excruciating reflections of him, and so we had difficult relationships with him. When he got older he cried and told my mother, “I feel like I missed my children’s lives.” She wisely said, “You have them now.” So there was reconciliation. But the damage was done, and we were injured and in therapy for four hundred years. It was very complex. It was everything. It was flattering. It was exciting. It was upsetting.
JG You also wrote something autobiographical?
RIG Yes, Sycamore Trees, which we did at the Signature Theatre in Virginia. It was completely about my family. It took years to write. It was so cathartic. For some reason, the thing that allowed me to finish it was that in 1996 my lover, Jeffrey, died of AIDS, and his death came on the heels of me losing, basically, my whole community. I had worked for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and I was really active. When Jeffrey died, I literally fell apart for five years.
JG Who wrote the libretto for Sycamore Trees ?
RIG I wrote it, and I worked with a woman named Nina Mankin, who came on as a dramaturg. But then Nina helped me; we actually wrote a lot of it together, and then I wrote all the lyrics and the score. It was amazing.
JG Was it an opera or a musical?
RIG It was a musical, but it definitely pushed the boundaries in terms of the score, which was complex, and there was a lot of singing. I have a term for my work; I call them “operacals.” I’m a hybrid.
JG Do you have other new work?
RIG Right now, I have three new operas this year. I spent three years setting Frank Bidart’s poem “Ellen West” to music. It’s a poem written in two voices, a doctor and a woman with an eating disorder. It’s a very long narrative poem with a story, and I set it to music. That premiered in Saratoga last summer. Next it goes to Prototype, which is Beth Morrison’s annual contemporaryopera festival. They do new operas all over the city. Then I wrote an opera of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Really, Home Fires came out before I did anything. All I did was have a big fight with Stephen Sondheim.
JG A fight with Steve?
RIG Oh, you know, it’s so funny to talk about it now, John, because I was a kid. I was twenty-two. When I was about seventeen I was invited to the cast party of Pacific Overtures, at Steve’s house, by my friend Kim Miyori, who was in the show. The moment I arrived, I was scared. I guzzled a huge glass of scotch and then puked all over the place. Kim had to leave the party and get me back to Long Island. (The beginning of my story!) Years later, I recounted that story for Steve and I told him how I loved Merrily We Roll Along and I wrote a funny letter, so he invited me to his house. We were sitting on his terrace drinking. I was drinking plenty of wine, and he was drinking kirs. And at one point I asked him, “Whatever happened with Merrily We Roll Along ?”But I asked it in this presumptuous way that was, like, ‘Oh, give me the inside scoop.’ I knew nothing. I was barely a composer yet. Steve asked, “When did you see it?” I said, “The first preview.” He freaked. We just basically screamed at each other. I was screaming, “You’re not my father.” Then we were in the street yelling at each other and I saw a limo and said, “There’s your car.” He said, “That’s not my car.” It was horrible— having your full-on hero scream at you in the street. It was horrible. It was like having my ideal father figure loathe me. It was a long time before I could think about the incident with any understanding of what had transpired, which was that he was very hurt about what happened with Merrily We Roll Along and I was almost salacious in the way that I asked about it. Now I know what it’s like to write something, and love it, and feel great about it, and have it be trashed by the critics or have the first production not quite get the piece. I pressed the excruciating-pain button, and I reaped the rewards.
JG Have you made up?
RIG Oh, yes. For years I would have dreams about him. Then I heard that Steve had had a heart attack. I made him a watercolor called Stephen Sondheim in Yellow Healing Light . It was Stephen rising out of the ocean with rays of light. I brought it to the hospital and left it for him with the nurse. I never heard from him, so I wrote and asked if he’d got the painting. When he said no, I did the whole painting again and sent it to him. I must have apologized to him four hundred times. I’m sure there’s a part of him that will never forgive me (Laughs), but what can you do? I was a kid. I was insensitive. I had no experience. I was a burgeoning alcoholic and drug addict. I had no boundaries. Reflection is reflection, and we make amends the best way we can.
JG When did your love for opera begin?
RIG When I was eight, I became obsessed with opera. My piano teacher gave me a book called The Victor Book of the Opera. Then I started going to the Met and to City Opera every Saturday. When I was twelve, I ran away from home. There was a horrible snowstorm in New York in 1968, one of the biggest snowstorms we’ve ever had, and I ran away because I had a ticket to see Roberta Peters in Lucia at the Met. I did get to the city, but I couldn’t get home, and I called my sister crying, and a friend of hers had to come and get me and take me to her house until the Long Island Railroad was running again. (Laughs)
JG When did your formal training as a musician begin?
RIG I started piano lessons when I was five.
JG Did you play by ear?
RIG I played by ear, but then I started taking lessons. In the middle of my senior year of high school, I got into Carnegie Mellon as a pianist. I was obsessed with three pieces: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14, Ned Rorem’s Song Cycle Ariel, and Steve Sondheim’s Follies. Soon after I got there, I had a revelation: my main reason for being a pianist was that my hands helped me explore the ideas of all the composers I loved. I thought, Maybe I’m a composer. So I went to the composition department and said, “What do I have to do to get into the composition department?” They said, “Write music.” On a vacation from Carnegie Mellon, I wrote a hundred pages of music and was accepted into the composition department. Then, after being a composer for a year—I was really a speed freak then—I decided I wanted to be an actor. I quit school and came to New York, and basically bottomed out for about ten years, until I was thirty-three. Then I got sober and everything changed, almost immediately.
JG You didn’t write during that time?
RIG I did write. I wrote all the time. But you know what Faye Dunaway says in Barfly when she goes, “Look, I drink. And when I drink, I move in the wrong direction.” That was me. I wrote, and even though people were singing my stuff I could never in a million years have finished an opera. It takes a lot of time and a lot of concentration to do what I do now. You can’t go out drinking every night. After I had thirty days in A.A., Terry McCarthy brought me over to Adam Guettel’s house to record some of my songs. Adam liked my music, and said, “I’m about to do a benefit for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and I want to present four composers. Would you be one of them?” I didn’t even know who he was, but I was flattered. So he presents me last at his loft, which seated, like, five thousand people. When I was done playing, Mary Rodgers and Sheldon Harnick and all these people were asking me, “Who are you? How come we don’t know who you are?” I couldn’t really tell them I was sort of hiding under a rock with various substances!
JG What was the piece you wrote for it?
RIG There was a soprano, who was singing at the Met at the time, named Patricia Schuman. She was incredible. She was Peter Brook’s Carmen, the first Carmen.
JG She was the best. I remember her rolling the cigar on her thigh.
RIG I wrote her a cycle using poems by May Sarton, Stevie Smith, e. e. cummings, and Frank O’Hara. The cycle was called I Was Thinking of You. Because of that poem by Frank O’Hara: “Did you see me walking by the Buick repairs?/I was thinking of you.” Within a couple of weeks, I had a full-on publishing contract with Rodgers & Hammerstein, where for four years they paid for me to live and write, and then, soon after, I had a recording contract with RCA for a huge cycle that I wrote for Harolyn Blackwell called Genius Child. It all happened immediately. J
G Does your life surprise you?
RIG Yes, it does—a lot, John. I am who I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do in the world. And, you know, that could not have happened if I hadn’t got sober. Frankly, my biggest fear about my own drug and alcohol abuse wasn’t dying but that I wouldn’t fulfill my dreams.