Opera Fusion: New Works gives Lynn Nottage’s 'Intimate Apparel' an early tryout

The Pulitzer Prize-winner's popular play is becoming a chamber opera with a score by Ricky Ian Gordon.

click to enlarge Lynn Nottage and composer Ricky Ian Gordon have spent years working to adapt her play. - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Lynn Nottage and composer Ricky Ian Gordon have spent years working to adapt her play.
Intimate Apparel is one of Pulitzer Prize- winner Lynn Nottage’s most popular plays. Reflecting the cultural salad bowl of New York City in 1905, it concerns Esther Mills, a 35-year-old African-American seamstress living in a boarding house who creates exquisite lingerie for clients ranging from a wealthy white woman to an African-American prostitute. She buys fabric from an orthodox Romanian Jew and begins an unlikely correspondence with a man who works on the Panama Canal.

Premiering in 2003 at Baltimore’s Center Stage theater, it won the 2004 Steinberg New Play Award presented by the American Theatre Critics Association for plays produced outside of New York City. The drama has been staged by major companies and college programs throughout the country.

But as far back as 2004, Nottage told an interviewer that she thought it could work well as a chamber opera. More than a decade later, it is becoming one — with a score by Ricky Ian Gordon, whose own accomplishments include composing a well-received opera based on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

“I do think it’s the perfect form for an opera,” Nottage says during a phone interview from her Brooklyn home the morning after her new play Sweat opened in previews in New York. “When I wrote it, I heard two sopranos, two altos, a tenor and a baritone. And that’s pretty much how it turned out.”

On Nov. 14, Opera Fusion: New Works — a collaboration between the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music and the Cincinnati Opera — will present excerpts from the upcoming Intimate Apparel opera, planned for the prestigious Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works program. 

Opera Fusion presents excerpted works-in-progress, with cast members singing their roles without sets or costumes. It is an opportunity for composers and librettists (and the general public) to hear their new works performed live by CCM students, faculty members and Cincinnati Opera professionals. 

Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, its biggest success to date has been Fellow Travelers, which began in a 2013 workshop and played to sold-out houses this year when Cincinnati Opera premiered it. Intimate Apparel’s workshopping runs for 10 intensive days leading up to the public performance this week. 

The actual professionally staged performance might not take place for years, or it could take place much sooner. Gordon’s Morning Star was first workshopped by Opera Fusion in 2012; Cincinnati Opera staged the world premiere in 2015.

Gordon became a member of Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works initiative in 2007. He contacted Nottage, who says that she and Gordon spent almost a year and a half “dancing around,” trying to determine which play to set. “We both originally wanted to do Intimate Apparel,” she says, laughing. “It just took us a while to admit that.”

But, for Nottage, there was no question that Gordon’s musical language was ideal for her play, set in 1905 Manhattan. “Intimate Apparel is in that sweet spot of early 20th-century American music,” she says. “There are very few composers who can straddle the distance from the saloons to the boudoirs of the Upper East Side women (and also) to the boarding house.

“His musical vocabulary is quite complex and emotional. I love that he’s unafraid of beautiful melody.”  

Transforming the play’s honest, forthright language into an opera libretto, or text, was often painful for Nottage. “It’s hard to decide what darlings to kill,” she says. “You have to distill the language from what’s on the page to its essence, so that it still communicates the heart and soul of the character in a way that’s economical and spare.”

Gordon returned her first draft with the comment, “The music does 65 percent of the work, and you’re still doing 65 percent of the work.” 

Nottage followed Gordon’s suggestion to find the work’s operative ideas and then go from there. “She brought no ego to the table, and this is someone who’s won every playwriting award out there,” Gordon says. “She became a master of economy and found her librettist’s voice.”

At the same time, Nottage and Gordon opened the story to provide context for the scenes using a small chorus. The play opens with the seamstress, Esther, in her room after leaving a wedding party; in the opera, the audience sees the party going on.

Nottage defines herself as a storyteller, committed to telling about women of the African diaspora “that don’t find their way into the mainstream media,” as she said in a 2012 interview. Recognition for Nottage’s work includes a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2007 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for Ruined. 

Nottage’s innate musicality is a major force in her writing. “Before I start, I create a set list that I listen to while I’m writing,” she says. “For Intimate Apparel, I loaded Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, klezmer music and the American jazz performer and composer Reginald Robinson.”  

Nottage will be here for the Opera Fusion performance. The following day, the creative team and performers will travel to New York to perform twice, once for an invited audience and once for the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Peter Gelb, and André Bishop, head of Lincoln Center Theater.

Nottage’s pride in Intimate Apparel’s journey to the Met is grounded in her commitment to the accessibility of all her work. “It’s fabulous if it can be on the Met stage, but it’s also designed to enter into other spaces, and that’s deliberate. One thing that was important to us was that it have an audience beyond the one that typically goes to see opera.”

Nottage also expresses the hope that the sung words will be as effective as the original drama, written to honor her mother’s memory. “I wanted to create something she would find unabashedly beautiful and emotional, not cynical or gimmicky.”

A performance of excerpts from INTIMATE APPAREL will take place 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Cincinnati Club, 30 Garfield Place, Downtown. Free; but reservations required from Cincinnati Opera: 513-241-2742.

About The Author

Anne Arenstein

Anne Arenstein is a frequent contributor to CityBeat, focusing on the performing arts. She has written for the Enquirer, the Cincinnati Symphony, Santa Fe Opera and Cincinnati Opera, and conducted interviews for WVXU's Around Cincinnati. In 2009, Anne was named an NEA Fellow in Classical Music and Opera Journalism...
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