February 19, 2013
Was it the cold, the lack of accessibility, or ennui after over three decades of AIDS epidemic? Despite a preview in The San Francisco Examiner and an Arts Pick in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle, only 100 or so people ventured to the unheated Southside Theater at Fort Mason for the West Coast premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “mini-opera,” Green Sneakers. Given that the staged and choreographed (John de los Santos) 19-part song cycle performed by baritone Jesse Blumberg and the Del Sol String Quartet is one of the only operas/choreographed song cycles that deals directly with AIDS, the turnout was surprising. I would have thought that an extremely personal and deeply moving work — Green Sneakers next goes to Lincoln Center — by a composer who is writing for the Metropolitan Opera, who had other operas premiered by Houston Grand Opera (David Gockley) and Minnesota Opera, and who won a host of awards for his merging of classical and Broadway mediums, would have created more of a buzz.
Regardless, Green Sneakers is a major achievement. Unflinching in its self-examination, its 17 songs and two instrumental sections chronicle the decline and death of Gordon’s partner, Jeffrey Grossi, of AIDS. The narrative begins after a rising and falling instrumental prelude whose minor key transitions set the tone of introspection, sorrow, and despair. Gordon, sung by Blumberg, immediately castigates himself for his impatience during his lover’s decline, and then alights upon the green sneakers in Grossi’s closet. It is these sneakers, more than the Buddha or any other object that remains behind, that become a metaphor for his departed lover’s essence.
On the theater’s small stage — producer Michael Colbruno had originally hoped to present the work at ODC’s larger and far more accessible performing space — a desk and chair were arranged on the left close to the apron, and a mostly empty chair on the right. Between them the quartet was seated and behind them, an upright piano. Nothing else was needed; the music and Blumberg’s riveting presence filled the space.
The story line continues with Grossi’s arrival in Houston for the opening night of the opera that Gordon “wrote for him to help him die.” Immediately, words and music mirror the shock in Gordon’s eyes at the additional weight his lover has lost in two weeks. There is need for a cart to wheel him around, his extreme reaction to cigarette smoke and fragrances, and the desperate search for stylish clothes right before opening night lead up to the painful reality: Incessant, unstoppable coughing fits render impossible Grossi’s attendance at the opera.
Thanks to Gordon’s integrity, neither narrative nor music ever descends into bathos or, even worse, guilt-inducing political polemic. Instead, Gordon stays with the story, and his feelings. Imagine what it was like when his opera, Tibetan Book of the Dead, which he wrote for his lover, next opened in Philadelphia, and an even weaker Grossi actually made it to the opening. The cast, never having met him, left their dressing rooms, ascended to his seat, and circled him “like a stone garden.” Grossi cried and they followed. I don’t know about you, but as someone who not only lived through the epidemic, but also took an active part in healing work and education, I’m sobbing as I type these words.
If audience members were not audibly crying here and elsewhere, it was due in large part to Blumberg’s superb restraint, relaxed mastery, and physical fluidity. Although he curiously chose to sing in operatic English rather than with a Long Island accent — Gordon was born in Oceanside, one town from where I was raised — Blumberg’s portrayal was so engrossing, so complete, and so honest that mute silence was appreciation enough.
It would have been so easy for Blumberg to have added a pathetic tremble to his admirably steady, strong and handsome baritone, or to have played the long-suffering martyr. Instead, he played it straight, as it were, because that was all that was required. For this we must also credit Santos’ tasteful direction and choreography, which allowed Gordon’s heart to speak directly through his music without additional baggage.
Nor did the quartet, which played beautifully after a few rocky opening measures, simply sit in place and perform. Occasionally they rose as narrative demanded. At one point, cellist Kathryn Bates Williams helped support Blumberg; on another occasion, several quartet members moved the upright piano forward so that Blumberg could play a few lines as he sang. Faces as well as notes reflected a sympathetic identification, again without going overboard. Only the jarring sound of Kate Stenberg’s mute as it crashed twice to the floor marred the performance. Perhaps she can clip a cup holder or similar receptacle to her music stand when the piece goes to Lincoln Center.
You might expect, given Gordon’s Broadway connections — his songs have been performed and/or recorded by Audra MacDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, and Betty Buckley as well as Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Nathan Gunn, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson — that he would go for the big gesture. Instead, the vocal line is so much like narrative speech, and the quartet’s role so emotionally supportive, that my companion for the evening thought that the “accompaniment” didn’t play a central role in the proceedings. A revisit to the opera via its 2009 recording with Blumberg and the Miami String Quartet suggests instead that the quartet’s lines are as essential as the protagonists’ breath.
Until a DVD becomes available, West Coast music lovers who did not attend will have to make do with the recording. As with the music of Jake Heggie, who also moves between the musical comedy and classical worlds, Green Sneakers will expose you to but one aspect of the work of a gifted composer whose oeuvre deserves appreciation and respect.