Guggenheim Works & Process Presents ‘Intimate Apparel’

By Jennifer Pyron

Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” began previews last week in the lead up to its opening at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on Monday, March 23rd.

In anticipation of this work’s arrival, the Guggenheim Works and Process presented highlights of Gordon and Nottage’s individual processes while creating this work, and also brought attention to the importance of collaboration in the opera world and how to effectively increase inclusivity in opera houses.

Adapted from Nottage’s critically acclaimed play, this new opera portrays the life of Esther, a single African-American woman who is on the journey of her lifetime to discover her own voice and a deeper understanding of love. It is Nottage’s first opera libretto and when asked about the process of adapting her play to an opera, she eloquently described her emotional journey. 

“This is a play that I love very much and that I wrote just after my mother died. I poured all of my soul and my emotions into it and I thought it was going to be very difficult to revisit it but it wasn’t because I feel like its perfect form is an opera,” said Nottage.

Nottage also noted that when she first sent the play’s opera adapted libretto to Gordon, it was a total duration of five and a half hours. After going back and forth with Gordon, Nottage was struck with Gordon’s suggestion to trust the music as her faithful guide in the collaboration process instead of merely leaning on the language of the exposition.  Once she adopted this method she then found it easier to allow the music to tell her what people were feeling in an expansive way, thus alleviating her need to control the libretto. 

As far as his inspiration for ht work, Gordon mentioned how his father was obsessed with the 1973 con movie “The Sting.” In this movie, Marvin Hamlisch arranges Scott Joplin’s music and creates a ragtime rebirth. It is because of this early musical influence that Gordon was able to then piece together music that conveyed the 1905 time period for “Intimate Apparel.”

He also described how he went to BAMF in Canada and wrote a 10-minute cakewalk that he thought would be used as the opening of the opera because it felt like it was already part of the piece’s musical aesthetic. When describing his musical wheel-house, Gordon spoke of how he was drawn to arranging and composing material that reflected his innate appreciation and love of Americana music. 

The premiere will not take place in a space conventionally known for opera, but the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater was picked precisely because of this.

“Part of the reason why we chose the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater is because of its accessibility. One of the things about grand opera houses is that there isn’t a lot of diversity in the audiences and I felt I didn’t want to create an opera that doesn’t speak to audience members that look like myself,” Nottage said. “I think that it will be a lot easier in this smaller space and with affordable ticket prices for more people to come. With this opera, we are also thinking about the future of opera and how to be more inclusive”

The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater also inspired Gordon to use two pianos as the main orchestration.

“A chamber orchestration would make the music sound small, whereas if you use two pianos, they create a lot of sound which ultimately will sound more symphonic and more authentic to what I initially wrote when I first heard this opera in my head,” he added before noting that a more orchestrated version of the opera may be created for larger spaces and recordings. However, this initial version is key to understanding the harmonious relationship between the music and the libretto.

Another significant part of how Gordon’s music displays this balance is by his use of a chorus. 

“The characters and story are so strong that for me it is easy to enter the hearts of all the characters and to then add all of the other voices, it creates more cinematic transitions,” said Gordon.

“INtimate Apparel” will be directed by Bartlett Sher and stars Dominic Armstrong, Justin Austin, Errin Duane Brooks, Helena Brown, Kearstin Piper Brown, Chanáe Curtis, and Adrienne Danrich.