In New York recently, I had an amazing experience with Ricky Ian Gordon, an extraordinary composer who has written for the theater (My Life with Albertine, Dream True) and for the opera (his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath recently premiered at Minnesota Opera).
Sitting in the apartment he shares with his boyfriend, Kevin, Gordon was talking about his upcoming trip to Berkeley — he performs alongside fellow composer Jake Heggie and Alameda’s resident opera star, Frederica von Stade, on Sunday, April 29, as part of the Cal Performances season — and he brought up a poem by James Schuyler called “Virginia Woolf” that he had set to music and that will be performed on Sunday.
Being a man of music, just talking about the song was insufficient, so he got up and sat at his spinet piano and indicated that I should sit next to him. Then he played the song and sang it full out.
The experience of sitting next to a composer performing his own work is mesmerizing, and the song itself, full of the intricate, haunting melodies Gordon is famous for, is spectacular. If Sunday’s version is anything like Gordon’s, the audience at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus should be blown away.
Gordon says his half of the concert will be typically him, which is to say, a little bit of a lot of things.
He’ll be joined by Heggie on a four-hand piano piece, “Ring-a-Ding-Ding,” followed by vocal performances by von Stade and others of songs with texts by Emily Dickinson, James Agee, Stanley Kunitz, Edna St. Vincent Milay and others.
There won’t be anything from his well-received The Grapes of Wrath (libretto by Michael Korie), although that epic endeavor will arise again in Utah next month and in Pittsburgh and Houston in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
So how does a composer like Gordon, with feet in both worlds, decide if something is musical theater or opera?
“There’s nothing I can’t do in the theater, but I do feel often like there’s this thing you face with musicals: the critics,” Gordon says. “You’re writing for critics who don’t know how to write or talk about music. I often feel musically misunderstood in the theater.”
There were parts of The Grapes of Wrath, Gordon says, that sounded like musical theater, but musical theater along the lines of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess or Weill’s Street Scene.
“My vocabulary includes music in the American vernacular,” Gordon says. “There are moments when it sort of explodes in operatic texture, while other moments could feel like a musical. Then you’re back into an aria. The truth is, that is so my aesthetic. To me, that’s me doing what I do. I had room to spread out in this opera and just be so Ricky. That’s what was totally fun about it.”
Just because he’s found success in the modern opera world (the Metropolitan Opera has even been sniffing around), Gordon insists he has not forsaken the world of musical theater.
He and Korie (also the lyricist for the Broadway hit Grey Gardens) are working with playwright Craig Lucas on a commission for the Signature Theatre about a major choreographer at the end of his life trying to come to terms with who he has been as a human being and an artist.
He’s also working with the director/writer Tina Landau on spiffing up an old project, “States of Independence,” and creating another opera, Morning Star, with William Hoffman.
“Yeah, I have a lot coming up,” Gordon says. “I’m going to sort of do it all.”
Theater in Song: Music by Jake Heggie and Ricky Ian Gordon is at 3 p.m. April 29 in Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus near Bancroft Way at College Avenue. Tickets are $62. Call (510) 642-9988 or visit www.calperformances.net.