New York City Opera 2018-19 Review: Stonewall

Unifying the Many Voices of Stonewall’s Historical Uprising in NYC

By Jennifer Pyron
(Photo credit: Sarah Shatz)

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the 75th year of New York City Opera (NYCO), general director Michael Capasso debuted the world premiere of the LGBTQI+ focused new opera by Iain Bell and Mark Campbell, “Stonewall” on June 21, 2019. Currently the only opera company that houses a series supporting Pride Month, NYCO establishes a unique opportunity for audiences abound to explore lesser-known stories on a grand scale.

Based in NYC, the librettist Mark Campbell tells the story of an array of individuals that seek more from life while on their journey of self-discovery. And it may be hard to imagine NYC in 1969, unless one experienced it themselves. Therefore, here are a few facts, shared by director Leonard Foglia in the NYCO program, that shed light on this time:

  • Homosexuals, if found out, could be kicked out of the military with a dishonorable discharge and stripped of all benefits guaranteed by the GI Bill of Rights
  • An adult could be put in jail for up to 20 years for having sex with another consenting adult
  • It was illegal in New York to be wearing less than three articles of clothing attributed to your gender
  • The law classified homosexuals as criminals
  • The scientific community deemed homosexuality an illness
  • The religious community condemned Lesbians and gay men as sinners

Collectively exposing a list of wrongs that an LGBTQI+ individual sought to make right during this time is helpful, when one seeks to fully grasp the sense of urgency that spiked on June 28th, 1969. And it is within this clearly focused message, that embraces the originality of each individual role that fought for the truth in the past, creates a modern spark of new energy that carries hope for more understanding into the future.

Reviewing the Panoply of Characters

Together, Bell and Campbell successfully tell the courageous story behind a community of voices that unite during the Stonewall’s uprising. With a masterful combination of modern classical music, that supports an efficient and effective libretto, one might consider this new work to be a game changer in the age of modern opera.

“Stonewall” transforms and inspires modern opera-goers, based on its ability to simply and beautifully communicate an honest story with relatable characters. Bell’s proficient and adept connection to the human voice is apparent all throughout. He develops cinematic responses within a technicolor landscape that simultaneously entertains and informs the audience. No character goes unnoticed in his recipe geared towards crafting the perfect moments of intimate atmospheric bliss, most especially experienced in the final scene where a chorus divinely delivers the uprising’s universal message of love, acceptance and hope for the future.

The synopsis begins by taking place in various locations around NY, in a single day snapshot. Mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez introduced herself first, as Maggie, a butch lesbian who works at the hardware store of her Irish-American father in Inwood. 

Wearing a black leather jacket, white shirt and black jeans, Chavez looked appropriately streetwear chic. However, when on the train heading to Stonewall, she faces an ignorant straphanger that forces her to react in self-defense towards his verbal abuse and unnecessary physical rage. This pivotal moment foreshadowed the internal power that develops over time for Maggie and all other characters webbed together, as the night progressed.

Overall, Chavez defined her character’s mission as a justice seeker with ease and fortitude. Her voice catalytically sparked the beginning of the Stonewall uprising, as she clearly supports personal empowerment for her fellow LGBTQI+ companions. And while Maggie fades into the Stonewall backdrop, Carlos comes into light.

A Dominican-American English school teacher at a Catholic High School on the Upper West Side, Brian James Myer personified his character, Carlos, as teacher-by-day, fun-loving dancer by night. Seeking solace in his charismatic dance moves and never overreaching to express himself, Myer portrayed Carlos with a mix of conviction meets fantasy-world in a relatable way.

Expressing an undeniable yearning for wanting to escape to the carefree atmosphere of Stonewall is a collective discovery as one continues to navigate the journey of each character in Campbell’s synopsis. Especially when one is introduced to Andy.

Exuding a cat-like coolness, Andrew Bidlack, as Andy, saunters around a bench area in Christopher Park and playfully eyes a man across the way that looks interested. Internally plagued with doubt and contemplation about whether or not he is being duped by a cop, Bidlack, convincingly told the story of a kid looking for love, who finds it on the Stonewall dance floor. This is also where one meets Troy, while in the park area nearby Andy.

A straight go-go boy at the club, hustler and drug addict, Troy is seen hastily flipping through a black-book while at a payphone. He phones Edward, a closeted financial advisor from Greenwich, Connecticut with a wife and kids, and threatens to blackmail him for money by exposing his closeted sexual identity to his wife, kids and boss.

Both Joseph Beutel, as Troy, and Justin Ryan, as Edward, channeled the most internal aggression seen in any of the characters of this entire story. Beutel displayed a desperately dominating drug-addict that dispels the hate he feels towards himself onto Ryan, who continues to sheepishly live a shame-ridden false life. Both continue to quarrel within their own minds and sadly display a lack of self-compassion that could ease their own pains.

Campbell then shifts focus to a girl sitting on a park bench named Leah. Initially coming across as a mindless babbler, Leah tells her life story as a Jewish lesbian who was forced to undergo aversion therapy by her parents. One particular phrase in her story stands out when she says:

“To ‘cure’ me.
Pills—many, many pills,
Electric buzzy things,
Even exorcism.
And we’re Jewish.
Nothing took.
Nothing took.”

Jessica Fishenfeld, as Leah, sang with enthusiasm while delving into who she is and what she likes. Leaving no detail off the table, Fishenfeld’s fun and spunky personality balanced the weight of her character’s tragic past life.

Also turning away from a life that does not fit her, is the character of Renata. An African-American city clerk named Maynard by day and drag queen by night, she proves to be an entertaining mix to the story. Tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts, as Renata, was seen being dressed by her “sister,” Valerie, performed by Rocky Eugenio Sellers. Both reveled in the beauty and magic of proudly being transvestite.

Also celebrating herself in this moment is Sarah, a transgender hippie woman, who is honoring the one-year anniversary of her transition. Liz Bouk, as Sarah, voiced a compelling and beautifully transformative story. He effortlessly drew listeners into a personal realm that explores the unknown with courage, self-love and compassion. Unfortunately, not all characters can relate to this evolved state of mind and Campbell shifts the story again to focus on the lives of Sal and Larry.

Shedding Light on What Must Change

Both Michael Corvino, as Sal, a manager at the club with connections to the Mafia and Marc Heller, as Larry, a deputy police officer inspector, showcased a like-minded mentality of ignorance and hate. Campbell intelligently crafts both of these roles with a likeness to modern day cultures that still refuse to let go of old patterns and shameful mindsets.

One might have found it easy to look at these characters with disgust in the story, however what might be even more disturbing is that both characters may not be far off from what might still exist today, 50 years later, in 2019. And while Campbell’s story praises the uprising of a community in support of positive change, it also puts the spotlight on how much change still needs to be made.


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