When the composer Ricky Ian Gordon saw Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” on Broadway in the early 1970s, it was unlike anything he’d watched on a stage.
“He was creating this musical theater that felt like foreign film to me,” Gordon said in a recent interview. “And I wanted to make something in the theater that felt like foreign movies.”
“That’s what ‘Follies’ was: a musical about broken lives and disappointment,” he continued, adding an expletive for emphasis. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Gordon, now 65, did go on to create art inspired by those subjects — in the process becoming considerably better known in the world of opera than theater.
In a coincidence caused by pandemic delays, not one but two of his operas are opening nearly simultaneously before this month is out, and both involve the darkness Gordon adored in “Follies.” “Intimate Apparel,” at Lincoln Center Theater, for which Lynn Nottage adapted her own play, deals with lies, deceptions and thwarted dreams in the story of a Black seamstress in 1905 New York. And “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” presented by New York City Opera, is based on a semi-autobiographical Giorgio Bassani novel about the fate of privileged members of the Jewish community in Ferrara, Italy, who were tragically blind to what awaited them during World War II.
It’s a highly unusual situation for a living composer: To have two of your operas playing at once in New York, your name usually has to be something like Puccini, whose “Tosca” and “La Bohème” are both running this January at the Metropolitan Opera.
“One new opera demands an enormous amount of attention, but two is downright invasive,” Gordon said. “It is incredibly stressful, no matter how often I meditate, but it is also enormously fulfilling, and thankfully, pride-building. It is also strange to be going back and forth between the Lower East Side in 1905 and Ferrara in 1945, but thank God for the IRT.”
To fully grasp Gordon’s career, it is important to travel back a little less far than that, to the years that bridged the turn of the 21st century, when it appeared as if he would be among a new generation of composers rejuvenating the American musical. Drawing inspiration from Ned Rorem and Alban Berg, Dmitri Shostakovich and Scott Joplin, he was often lumped in a similarly arty cohort that included fellow composers Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown.
Songs by all four were included on Audra McDonald’s debut solo album, “Way Back to Paradise,” a hybrid of musical theater, avant-pop and art song that came out in 1998 — and, in hindsight, announced a changing of the guard that ended up not happening, as more mainstream rock and pop styles conquered Broadway.
Gordon’s subtly lyrical harmonies slowly worked their way into your subconscious, and he suggested emotion rather than hitting the listener with it. That was not what musical theater wanted.
“They always called us ‘children of Sondheim,’ ” Gordon said. “He opened a door, but it wasn’t an open door — it was just the door for Sondheim to walk through.”
“People started saying that we didn’t write melodies and beats,” he added, then shot out a joking expletive, as if responding to the charge. “Every one of us writes melodies and writes rhythm, but in the language we grew up on and that we evolved out of.”
Born in 1956, Gordon was raised on Long Island; he was — as Donald Katz documented in “Home Fires,” a much-praised 1992 book about the Gordon family’s middle-class aspirations and frustrations — once in line to inherit his father’s electrical business. But he discovered opera when he was eight, stumbling onto The Victor Book of the Opera at a friend’s house.
“My memory of it is like a Harry Potter moment, like there was smoke and light behind this book,” he said.
He was also open to pop, and in his early teens became “transfixed, mesmerized, completely and overwhelmingly obsessed with Joni Mitchell,” as he put it in a story he wrote about her last year for Spin magazine. The story is drawn from a forthcoming memoir that grew out of a writing group Gordon started with some poets and novelists during the pandemic; self-examination is not new to him, and he is candid about his past struggles with alcoholism, drug addiction and eating disorders.
He initially enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University as a pianist, but ended up a composer, obsessed with bringing words to musical life. “If I’m setting a poem to music, I memorize it and I let it marinate and live inside of me,” he said. “I love singers, so I want to give them something to act. Even if it’s a song, it should be like a little mini opera.”
By the 1990s and early 2000s, he was straddling various forms and genres. He wrote the song cycle “Genius Child” for the soprano Harolyn Blackwell, and his first opera, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” a meditation informed by the AIDS epidemic, premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1996. But his work also appeared Off Broadway, including such musical-theater projects as “Dream True,” a collaboration with the writer and director Tina Landau, and the Proust-inspired show “My Life With Albertine,” which opened at Playwrights Horizons in 2003 with a then-unknown Kelli O’Hara in the title role.
That show, alas, did not go over well, even if Ben Brantley praised the score’s “lovely, intricately layered melodies” in his review for The New York Times.
Gordon was proud of “My Life With Albertine” and its failure hurt him deeply. “I thought I needed to face facts: The musical theater right now is not where I am going to flower,” he said. “I had written to all these opera companies that I wanted to do opera, so the next thing I did was ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ with Minnesota Opera. Suddenly, I felt this was where I could do what I do. Now I’m at Lincoln Center, where musicals are usually done, but I’m doing my opera here.”
Gordon was, indeed, happily chatting away in an empty room at Lincoln Center Theater, where “Intimate Apparel” — which was well into previews when the first pandemic lockdown came, and now opens Jan. 31 — had just wrapped up a rehearsal in the Mitzi E. Newhouse space.
Suddenly, voices piped in from a monitor: A matinee of the musical “Flying Over Sunset” had begun at the Vivian Beaumont Theater above. Coincidentally, that show’s lyrics were written by Michael Korie, Gordon’s librettist on “The Grapes of Wrath” and now “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” which City Opera is presenting with the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, starting Jan. 27.
Doing “Intimate Apparel” at Lincoln Center Theater was not a given. It is part of the company’s joint commissioning program with the Met, and the other works from that program that have reached the stage, like Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” and the recent “Eurydice” by Matthew Aucoin and Sarah Ruhl, have been produced at the opera house.
“It was really time for Lincoln Center Theater to get the benefit of one of these shows,” Paul Cremo, the Met’s dramaturg, said in an interview. “We thought that with the intimacy of the play, it would really benefit from that space, where some audience members are just six feet away from the characters. And Ricky wrote a beautiful orchestration for two pianos.”
While Gordon was working on a small scale, for just a couple of instruments, Nottage was tasked with expanding her play, which consists mostly of two-person interactions, into a libretto that would bring together larger groups of characters and make use of a chorus. (Bartlett Sher directs.)
“I shared with Ricky what I was listening to and we spoke a lot about what the texture and the feel of the piece should be,” Nottage said. “He’s very deeply invested in Americana music and, in particular, ragtime. What he does really beautifully is weave all of these traditional forms together without it feeling like pastiche. He was a really lovely guide through this process.” (The pair got along so well that they are now at work on a commission from Opera Theater of St. Louis with Nottage’s daughter, Ruby Aiyo Gerber.)
The musical style of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” draws from a different well. “It’s my Italian opera,” Gordon said. “I just thought of putting myself in the head of Puccini, Verdi, Bellini. It’s very different from ‘Intimate Apparel,’ which is very American.”
One major difference is size: The “Finzi-Continis” score has been arranged for a 15-piece orchestra for the City Opera run and can be expanded for larger ensembles, especially as there are tentative plans to produce it in Italy.
“It’s absolutely, unabashedly melodic, just beautiful sweeping melodies,” said Michael Capasso, the general director of City Opera, who is staging the production with Richard Stafford.
The two Gordon projects illustrate both the composer’s ecumenical tastes and his versatility. “Ricky sounds like Ricky,” Korie said in an interview, “but he’s not afraid to do what classical opera composers did, or what Rodgers and Hammerstein did for years, and what composers in theater still do, which is they allow themselves to immerse themselves in the sounds of other characters, other times, other places.”
“Finzi-Continis” keeps with his early desire to make something in the theater that felt like foreign movies: Gordon has long been a fan of Vittorio De Sica’s Academy Award-winning film version, from 1970. But rewatching it a few years ago hit him especially hard.
“I think there was something about the juxtaposition of personal pain and universal pain — I suddenly saw what made that story so tragic,” he said. “I couldn’t even endure it.”
So he called Korie to suggest they adapt Bassani’s book.
It’s not a coincidence that both “Intimate Apparel” and “Finzi-Continis” are set in the past, because most of Gordon’s work is. “In some way I’m a memorialist,” he said. “I very often write from a place of grief.”
Yet, asked by email what she thought was his signature style, Kelli O’Hara unexpectedly answered: “Joy. I don’t think the subject matters are always joyous, but the music-making is the healer. So yes. Joy.”
And, indeed, Gordon chuckled when he said: “I’m lucky that I’m activated by my unhappiness rather than paralyzed. I’ve never been able to sit still because I never felt like I had done enough, I never felt important enough. It has caused me enormous pain but it made me never stop writing. And I’m glad I didn’t shut up.”