Ricky Ian Gordon: Lost Loves
April 1, 2011, the Dresser literally dashed out of her home leaving dinner uncooked so she could catch Orpheus and Euridice and then Green Sneakers, two operas by Ricky Ian Gordon running in the first UrbanArias Festival. Because UrbanArias is presenting these short operas (both are about an hour long) as separate shows, April 1 was the only occasion to see these companionable stories in one visit to Arlington, Virginia's Artisphere. While the Dresser should have been checking regularly on the UrbanArias schedule since she was truly blown away when she saw their stellar program of pocket operas back in January this year, if she hadn't gotten a late afternoon invitation to Green Sneakers from her friend Charles Downey, she would have sorely missed this rare opportunity to hear more of this prolific composer's work under such excellent circumstances.
Why does the Dresser say excellent circumstances? Because UrbanArias Executive Director Robert Wood knows how to get the right artists to his forum and while he works minimally with sets, number of performers, and, so far, duration of each opera, it all adds up to what the Dresser calls a maximum success factor. The only piece Wood (he has built his resume as an opera conductor) needs help with is publicity so he can increase his audience count.
Despite the fact that both operas involve a pair of lovers, these lyrical song cycles each feature one lone singer. In Orpheus and Euridice, the impressive coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral sings Euridice to clarinetist Todd Palmer's non-speaking role as Orpheus. This opera was commissioned by and for Todd Palmer and he is awesome in this literally and figuratively moving role. He travels the staging arena like a dancer with measured control. The Dresser cannot imagine a better singer than Futral who has the ability to sing as if she were an answering clarinet. Vocal gymnastics are clearly her forte and Gordon, without imitating 19th century techniques, gives his soprano musical challenges that show off her abilities. In Green Sneakers, baritone Ian Greenlaw ably brings the spirit of the missing partner into the room. His voice is rich with emotion, but his acting is what certainly convinced the Dresser of his prowess.
Kevin Newbury directs both of these operas and will be premiering with Virginia Opera on April 12, 2011, Gordon's Rappahannock County, a civil war story written in collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell. (Campbell wrote libretti for John Musto's Later the Same Evening: an opera inspired by five paintings of Edward Hopper and Volpone.) In both UrbanArias operas, Newbury does a good job in placing the musicians (Orpheus includes a piano--played by Melvin Chen while Sneakers offers a string quartet) and singers on stage and getting the singers to use the staging area they are given--a black box theater, meaning a plain staging area within a more-or-less square room with black walls and a flat floor.
The Orpheus and Euridice set places the action in a waiting room station in the present time. We see Euridice in a modern day trench coat with her roller bag luggage. When she removes her coat and shoes, she becomes the mythological goddess in a golden satin gown. Green Sneakers is the recent past, set in the opera composer's living room. The composer character is Ricky Ian Gordon. The main furnishings are an easy chair, a wooden chair displaying the green sneakers, and a large area rug.
Newbury attempts to tie together these operas with two props: a suitcase and a boom box. In theory, the repetition of props helps tie together these two disparate love stories where one of the partner dies. What makes them unlike each other is that one is a mythological story (Orpheus and Euridice) while the other is about the relationship Ricky Ian Gordon had with his partner who died from A.I.D.S (Green Sneakers). In practical application, the use of these props are a subtle point not likely to get much notice since few audience members would see these two operas in close enough proximity to notice these details. Since the boom box was never turned on during Orpheus, the Dresser wondered what that prop was for. In Green Sneakers, the composer character lies belly down on the rug and mimes use of the boom box. The Dresser wonders if Newbury ever considered a more radical prop sharing between the two operas, such as putting the green sneakers that belonged to the composer's dead lover on the feet of Euridice.
The Dresser found Gordon's text for Green Sneakers moving without being sentimental or self-pitying. In the closing text, the composer says he and his partner never saw a meadow together, never saw sheep but that he sees a vast scene as he watches his dying partner sleep and then the composer realizes that together they had a "universe of moments." In "Farewell to the Body," Barbara Moore confronts death head on with a similar honesty that looks at the terrible loss and finds both distance and closeness in what death leaves to the living.
FAREWELL TO THE BODY (an excerpt)
We try to think about it but find
that impossible, suspended in its smoke
and water--leaching to two small windows,
cloudy at best, twitching in their silver jelly
like fish. Through which we wink, send a
love beam--and my eye
falls on the tree, in a burst of applause,
under which you stand
Come closer. I see you
pressed to the pane, which melts,
whereupon you enter, all sparks and pearwood,
which can't be exactly recorded. Meanwhile
the tree, a burst of invisible leaves,
scratches on the tinfoil of the retina,
scratches in a perfect cornucopia,
emblazoned, etched, mottled, quivering,
transparent to the last green flaw.
The colors drip into your bones. Not
into your brain waving far up on its stalk,
but into the chalk and salt of your bones,
that barrow, ancient, porous, serious,
fresh beyond all argument.
Something sad, something sacred about the body
from which all arguments rise. Once
I left a peach on the kitchen counter for a week,
watching the transformations: the way it
teemed, sank, soaked toward center--grew a blue
powder all over, then a black, dense, velvety--
then collapsed into a kind of bud
or navel turned inside out. Then leaked all its juice
forever, in a sticky trail on the formica.
Maybe this was blasphemous, but I
thought about my mother's body
slipped into the ground in Vermont
six years earlier, and wondered if by now
it looked like the peach. If it
had soaked up all the mud and gravel,
poured out of itself in a long, forgetful tongue;
become a sluice, a runnel, a cycle
of vapors, sunk into a silvery
coalseam or underground river...
... A sparrow lights
in my ribcase, whistles in the gap,
and I understand that this is my body,
the one window I can't look in ...
by Barbara Moore
from Farewell to the Body
Copyright © 1990 Barbara Moore