Lynn Nottage and Ricky Ian Gordon Turn ‘Intimates’ into Opera

On March 4, 2022, Lynn Ratingtwice Pulitzer Prize Winner and associate professor at Theater program to School of Artsjoined composer Ricky Ian Gordon for a lively and illuminating online discussion about their experiences transforming Nottage’s 2003 piece, intimate clothes, in opera. Moderated by drama teacher SoA Christian Parkerthe conversation ranged from musical influences, to the collaborative process, to forming an “opera that can go anywhere”.

Esther’s story

intimate clothes started with a family photo, Nottage said. Kept in the pages of a magazine, where her grandmother often put keepsakes, Nottage came across an image of her great-grandmother, which had been used as a passport photo.

“I knew very little about my great-grandmother other than the fact that she was a seamstress,” Nottage said, “and made intimate apparel. She had come to New York alone at the turn of the last century when she was 18, and soon after began corresponding with a man in Panama, with whom she had bonded through his church. .

This man will eventually cross a continent to become Nottage’s great-grandfather. “I found myself with all these questions, and no one to answer them. So the only thing I could do was go to the public library and do some research,” Nottage said.

She researched for a year, finding that, aside from a few periodicals, “the black women who came to New York at the turn of the 20and century were invisible. It was hard to find their stories.

Woven nottage intimate clothes of his research, his family heritage and his personal experiences. This is the story of Esther, a single black woman who earns her independent living by sewing women’s underwear and corsets in New York in 1905. She is a gifted seamstress, with no shortage of friends. – there’s the seductive Mayme, a black singer, pianist and sex worker, and the kind Mr. Marks, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant from whom she buys her fabrics.

Yet Esther longs for love and companionship. When George, a mysterious man from Panama, begins to write her letters, she enters their correspondence with high hopes for the future. But when George arrives in New York to marry her, their union does not go as either of them expected.

A trash can of American music

intimate clothes became a popular hit; for two years it was the most produced play in the United States. “I never imagined it would find another form,” Nottage said, “until Ricky Ian Gordon, this wonderful composer, approached me and said, do you want to write an opera?”

“I’m basically American music trash,” Gordon joked, as he spoke of finding out intimate clothes. “It plays to those strengths – New York’s Lower East Side, and coming out of ragtime, it was a perfect piece for me.”

Nottage and Gordon performed excerpts from the show, starting with the opium rag, sung by the radiant and charismatic Mayme from the floor of the saloon where she works. The music of the piece is hypnotic and sensual, combined with operatic vocal techniques. Similar inflections of ragtime and early jazz appear elsewhere in the opera, such as a street choral interlude, where vendors, customers and workers bustle about. The result is a deeply contemporary and deeply American opera.

“We were interested in the fact that intimate clothes takes place at the birth of modern America,” Nottage said, “when you had a confluence of all these cultures entering into dialogue for the first time. It must have felt like a collision of cultures – African, American and Jewish immigrant.

A transformative piece to write

Nottage wrote the opera’s libretto, a process Gordon described as “reducing the play to stock. They were beautiful words to put to music – a wonderful story, amazing characters, a transformative piece to write.

intimate clothes is orchestrated for two pianos rather than a full orchestra, to better fit the intimate size of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, where the opera was staged. The two pianos are visible, each on a mezzanine upstairs to the left and right. “It adds to the feeling that it’s happening in a bar or a saloon,” Gordon said.

“We wanted to make opera accessible,” Nottage added. “Very often, because of the stage at the Metropolitan Opera, the grandeur of these shows and the price of tickets, a lot of people don’t feel welcome on the other side of the threshold.”

In early conversations, they realized “we don’t want to build an opera like that,” Nottage said. “We want an opera that can go anywhere, that is nimble, that can go to a small theater or a big opera house. But everyone will feel invited to see it.

Vivid, complex and fully realized characters

The characters in intimate clothes are vivid, complex, fully realized – which is not often the case with characters in an opera. A number of factors contributed to this unique psychological depth.

“One of the things I loved about creating this opera was that we had the opportunity to dive deep into the rehearsal process and develop the characters in unusual ways,” Nottage said.

Typically in opera, Gordon explained, “you basically get two dress rehearsals and then open up for critics from around the world.” Corn intimate clothes rehearsed for a month, allowing the team to get inside the characters and the music. The difference is palpable.

Nottage played a clip of Dear George, a romantic and expressive piece in which George responds to one of Esther’s letters, his hopeful voice hovering over gentle swells of choral phrases like waves under a ship. When George arrives in New York, however, the romance dies down; it is clear that he is not what he claimed to be.

Nottage noted that intimate clothes the public perceived George as something of a villain. Still, George struggles and has faced one disappointment after another. Revisiting his sources allowed Nottage to elaborate on George’s subjectivity, inviting the audience to have greater empathy for him.

Production was halted for two years due to COVID. The performers didn’t even take things out of their dressing rooms. “Two years later, when we returned to the theater, everything was intact,” Nottage said. “As great expectationssaid Gordon.

Nottage and Gordon explained how the time spent gave them the opportunity to refine the opera even further. “I’m so happy that we had all this space to revisit the room. I feel like it’s stronger as a result,” Nottage said.


Emily Johnson is an MFA student in the Fiction Concentration of the School of the Arts Writing Program.

About Madeline J. Carter

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