Ricky Ian Gordon headed downtown where his “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” was being premiered by the New York City Opera on Jan. 27. When not absorbed with that, he walked from his Upper West Side home to Lincoln Center, where previews were being staged of his “Intimate Apparel” ahead of opening night a few days later.
In a likely unprecedented confluence, the 65-year-old composer had two operas launch in a five-night span.
“It’s not that it’s easy, but it seems to be the way my life goes these days,” he said, sitting in the living room of his apartment. “When pieces are very different, it feels like separate compartments in your brain.”
Disparate styles, too, “Intimate,” scored for two pianos, has been staged breezily on a turntable, while “Finzi” was played by a 15-piece orchestra with a more tempered pace.
Heralded by singers, Gordon composed “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” for the Houston Grand Opera in 1996. His other works include “The Grapes of Wrath” (Minnesota Opera in 2007), “Rappahannock County” (Virginia Arts Festival in 2011), “27” (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2014), “Morning Star” (Cincinnati Opera in 2015) and “The House Without a Christmas Tree” (Houston in 2017).
“Finzi” is a collaboration with librettist Michael Korie, based on Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel about Italian Jews in Ferrara as lives were increasingly disrupted by Mussolini’s fascists. The story was adapted into a movie by Vittorio De Sica and winner of the 1972 Academy Award for best foreign language film.
Minnesota announced in 2008 that “Finzi” would premiere during the 2010-11 season.
“The whole world still had money,” Gordon said.
Then the Great Recession hit. Initially postponed for two seasons, the work was jettisoned by the company in 2012.
“Everybody’s money was gone, and all the endowments of all the arts institutions crashed,” Gordon said. “Here we were with this grand opera.”
“Finzi” remained without a destination until the winter of 2018-19, when the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene presented a translated version of “Fiddler on the Roof” that became a hit at the Museum of the Jewish Heritage. City Opera followed at the museum with Ted Rosenthal’s jazz opera “Dear Erich.”
“They said: This was a big success. Is there anything else you think you could bring us?” City Opera general director Michael Capasso recalled. “The next day, by chance I had a prescheduled meeting with Michael Korie, and he comes in and puts this score on my desk. I said: Yes, we want to do it. I love this story. I know it well.”
Gordon and Korie had written “Finzi” for a large orchestra and reduced the instruments for City Opera, though they plan to expand it. Gordon did much of the initial composition during a fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy.
While the opera was shelved, Korie expanded the role of Giorgio, the protagonist based on the book’s narrator, in light of parallels Korie drew between Italy then and contemporary America.
“I felt that what I thought could never happen here in the United States was happening, that the country was changing before our eyes,” Korie said.
While Giorgio’s impervious father sings “Italy is not yet Germany... come what may, we will ride out the storm,” his son responds: “How much is too much?/How far is too far?/How late is too late/Till the nation you were/Is no longer the one where you are?”
“Finzi” was given eight performances earlier this month and is under discussion for possible productions at Ferrara’s Teatro Comunale, Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice and the English National Opera. It includes a memorable pastiche song, “To College Days,” likely to have a life on its own.
“Intimate Apparel” runs through March 6 and was commissioned jointly by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater in 2011. Based on Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play with a libretto by the playwright, it is set on New York’s Lower East Side in 1905.
“A Black whorehouse, an Orthodox Jewish tailor,” Gordon said. “They’re such different worlds and they’re such different operas.”
Initially hired by the Met in 2007 to collaborate with Korie, Gordon at some point concluded the writer didn’t have sufficient time. He used Facebook messenger in 2011 to contact Nottage, whom he had met once at a coffee shop with Korie.
“We circled many different ideas before we both discovered that we mutually wanted to do an adaptation of `Intimate Apparel,'″ said Nottage, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “And once we landed on that, the process began to move very quickly.”
She termed herself then “a neophyte librettist” who had to learn and “in some instances to get out of the way, to allow the robustness of the music to take us through the journey.”
After presenting the first half of “Intimate Apparel” to Met and LCT leaders, they decided the work leant itself to chamber music. Gordon orchestrated for two pianos, and LCT announced in May 2019 that “Intimate Apparel” would start previews the following Feb. 27, with an opening night on March 23.
It never made it.
Performances were suspended on March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut theaters for 1 1/2 years. Gordon went to his house upstate and rewrote, making changes up until the production was frozen ahead of critics previews, nips here, transpositions there.
“It’s never done — until I’m dead,” he said.
Given time to assess following the openings, he had one final point.
”`Intimate Apparel,′ was a new way of making an opera, with enough rehearsal, enough time to revise, and enough time to watch the piece and see what it needed,” he wrote in an email. ”`The Garden of the Finzi- Continis’ was done the old way: one dress rehearsal, and bam, you are open and being reviewed. I will never do it again. It is barbaric.”