Deciding that it needed a Mini Met, a chamber opera house aside from its huge mainstage, the Metropolitan Opera House rented the 280-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in 1973 and revived Four Saints in Three Acts and Dido and Aeneas. Nothing more was heard of that project until now. A commission by the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, Intimate Apparel, a world premiere opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and playwright Lynn Nottage, has taken the Newhouse stage. Based on Nottage’s 2004 New York Drama Critics Circle and the Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Award-winning play of the same name, the new opera has been in the works for ten years and was previewing in 2020 when the Pandemic shut down the theaters.
Intimate Apparel, the opera, is an impressive piece of work particularly in the Newhouse where no seat is more than a handful of rows away from the stage. Set in New York in 1905, Gordon’s lovely score played by two pianos with music direction by Steven Osgood has tinges of Debussy and Ravel in the first act and inspiration from Scott Joplin and George Gershwin in the second, which is perfectly appropriate to the time setting. Nottage’s libretto, by necessity cut down from her playscript, is faithful to her original with the addition of a chorus of eight which fills out the music and the cast. Directing his 11th opera and second world premiere after Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’ Two Boys, director Bartlett Sher has a strong grip on the singers all of whom have glorious voices. Michael Yeargan’s minimalist sets make use of a large revolving turntable allowing for quick transitions between the 22 scenes.
The story which deals with the little known topic of Black working women who came north to find well-paying jobs at the turn-of-the-last century is due to much research by Nottage who also attempted to recreate some family history which had been lost to time. Set in lower Manhattan, 35-year-old African American Esther Mills had come to New York 18 years before and has had a successful but lonely career sewing elaborate corsets and undergarments for women from white society ladies to prostitutes and entertainers. She has saved a good deal of money to enable her to open a beauty parlor for Black women where they will be pampered like in the white establishments.
To her surprise, she receives a letter from George Armstrong, a Barbados laborer working on the Panama Canal, whom she has never heard of but who knows her deacon’s son. As she can neither read nor write she enlists some of her clients to help answer him: rich, unhappy white society lady Mrs. Van Buren, and Mayme, a Black singer and part time prostitute, who are both thrilled to help. Her usually warm-hearted landlady Mrs. Dickson disapproves, having seen this sort of thing lead to trouble before. George finally proposes sight unseen and Esther, thinking it her last chance for marriage and finding him a gentleman from his letters, accepts through the mail. They marry at the end of Act I when he comes to New York.
Unfortunately, neither of them wrote their own letters and they are both different from what they expected. When George who is used to work is unable to get a job, things begin to get worse, leading to the inevitable tragic consequences. The story ends much as it began but things have changed. Along the way we meet Mr. Marks, the sensitive and artistic Orthodox Jew from whom Esther buys her fabric on Orchard Street and they develop feelings for each other that cannot go anywhere. This only makes Esther’s bitter and unfulfilling marriage all the more painful.
Intimate Apparel has been cast with powerful opera singers who can also act. As Esther, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown (alternating with Chabrelle Williams at matinees) exhibits a magnificent voice with a very high range. As she is onstage almost all of the time, Esther is a very large role and she is consistently fine throughout. Although it is not her fault, Esther is a very dour, retiring character so that she is difficult to warm up to. Both mezzo-sopranos Naomi Louisa O’Connell as the beautiful Mrs. Van Buren, ignored by her husband, and Krysty Swann as Mayme, the entertainer/prostitute who meets George without realizing he is Esther’s husband, are much more upbeat characters.
As George Armstrong, baritone Justin Austin shows a good deal of the emotion that the repressed Esther cannot show. Soprano Adrienne Danrich as the landlady Mrs. Dickson almost steals the show with her powerful aria “I don’t trust him.” Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis creates a very layered character in the Hasidic Mr. Marks, the most sensitive of the people Esther knows. While the eight member chorus could be used more often, they are excellent in what they are given to do which has been added to the original play.
Catherine Zuber’s elegant and beautiful costumes are a sight to behold, particular as they put most of the women in the most elaborate silk and satin corsets for much of the evening. Aside from Michael Yeargan’s settings, 59 Productions is responsible for the projections both stills and video of Old New York which could have been used even more than they are. The lighting by Jennifer Tipton creates a world of shadows which emphasized the rich looking costumes. The sound design by Marc Salzberg is excellent though as usual in opera sung in English the men are easier to understand than the women. Very useful are the supertitles on three walls which make the text more understandable with the women’s high tessitura.
The new opera, Intimate Apparel is a very impressive, accessible work. If it has a fault, it is completely humorless but then the original play did not include comic relief either. Unlike Ricky Ian Gordon’s last opera, the recent Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the music here is not only beautiful but suitable and appropriate as the singers and the music are one. Lynn Nottage’s libretto is a masterpiece of economy, though her play was too. Will the opera supersede the play? Probably not, but it should certainly do well in other intimate opera houses where its charms can be fully appreciated.
Intimate Apparel (through March 6, 2022)
Lincoln Center Theater
Originally commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-875-5456 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission