The In-Person Off-Broadway Review: LCT’s Intimate Apparel, A New Opera
In the exciting collaborative action between Lincoln Center Theater and the Metropolitan Opera, Lynn Nottage’s 2003 play, Intimate Apparel, finds its passionate way to the stage, but not in its original spoken language form. This is a new operatic adaptation of the play, retelling the tender, intimate, longing story of a Black seamstress dreaming of love and marriage in New York City circa 1905. It’s exhilarating, in a way, to hear the emotionally charged plot thread its way through the well cut space, and even though I never saw the original play that this opera is based, the new formulation keeps its tight eye on the ordinary and the need, finding hope and the sweet aroma of engagement all wrapped up and revolving to the keys and melodies of two pianos, played beautifully by Nathaniel LaNasa and Brent Funderburk conducted by the talented Steven Osgood (Opera Philadelphia’s Breaking the Waves).
In this new perfectly sung opera, Ricky Ian Gordon’s (The House Without a Christmas Tree) music registers, not just because of the majestic voices bringing it to life by this impressive cast, but through the sound and simplicity of the arrangements and constructions presenting here. The piece unpacks itself lovingly, but it is the voices that find the flavor and its emotional core, even to this particular audience member who is not one of opera’s biggest of fans. I always when listening to opera have a hard time tuning in my sympathetic self to the sounds of that particular voice that is clearly, and most impressively being portrayed here. I can honor it, but it never inserts itself like a Rachel Bay Jones Broadway voice, full of roughness and edge. But that is just me, and has no reflection on the quality of the cut.
Kearstin Piper Brown (Atlanta Symphony’s Aida) as the central force, Esther, leads the cast forward through its romantic edged paces. Esther eeks out her bare bones existence in a Lower Manhattan boarding house, run by a sympathetic landlady, beautifully embodied by Adrienne Danrich (HERE’s Looking at You). Esther works hard, toiling away alone sewing fantastically created garments, designed most exquisitely by the Tony-winning costumer, Catherine Zuber (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge). Magic in fabric is created here for a wide range of women who inhabit her sorted world, made to make them feel more sensual and assured in themselves and their bodies. This is not something that fits into Esther’s own sense of self, but for her customers, who include the unhappily married wealthy married woman, Mrs. Van Buren, fantastically portrayed by Naomi Louisa O’Connell (West End’s Master Class), and the dream-filled prostitute Mayme, dynamically enlivened by the wonderful Krysty Swann (Met Opera’s Elektra), these garments bring out the best in them. And maybe a little something else too.
But in an attempt to find love and engagement, the illiterate and somewhat naive Esther, with the help of Mrs. Van Buren’s writing skills and Mayme’s sense of adventure, finds connection and romance with the handsome and charming (or so he seems) laborer, George Armstrong, strongly embodied by the captivating Justin Austin (Met’s Dead Man Walking) who is living and working equally hard on the far away Panama Canal. The letters are filled with wonderful excitement and romance from a far away enchanted locale, but like the fabricated fantasies that Esther creates with her conspirators, the letters bring forth a forgery and false sense of attachment, that, in essence, are destined to bring about an ending like every catfish story that we have ever seen played out before us. Naturally the correspondence leads to their meeting, and their eventual marriage, but more importantly, we watch and wait for the workman’s shoe to drop, which it does eventually, leading to betrayal and anger, all to the sounds of hypnotic operatic voices filling our senses with passion, loss, and pain.
Nottage (Clyde’s; MJ The Musical) finds an elegance in her poetic transfer of text to libretto, and director Bartlett Sher (LCT’s My Fair Lady) matches it with flourishes of simplicity that works wonders on the idea of intent and idealism. Sewing it all together with the clarity of sound, the piece easily fills the small Lincoln Center Theater with the “sweet smell of death” trimmed with emotional magic, to a degree. It stitches together the complicated ideals of race, gender, and class, all inside the luxuriant sounds of Gordon’s score played out with cunning sparsity on Michael Yeargan’s (LCT’s My Fair Lady) impressively symbolic set, with fine lighting by Jennifer Tipton (Broadway’s To Kill a Mockingbird) , sound by Marc Salzberg (LCT’s Oslo), and strong minded projections of sepia-toned “unidentified Negros, ca. 1905,” by 59 Productions (LCT’s JUNK). But I’m not quite sure it ever truly entered my soul, as maybe the play might have.
Brown and Swann sing with grace and power, as does the impressive Austin as the wayward and deceitful husband, but the most touching and engaging relationship is the one that barely gets to speak its name until the very end, even though the sparks fly almost immediately for us all to see. Lovingly portrayed by Arnold Livingston Geis (Long Beach Opera’s Candide), Mr. Marks, the quiet and caring Jewish fabric salesman, is the obvious unspoken love interest of the piece, with societal pressure and religion keeping it under lock and key. That is until that songbird can’t be caged any longer, and Esther must sing, almost surprisingly, “I love someone, didn’t know until now.” One can almost hear the crowd sigh with utter fulfillment, and in that moment, this new opera finally had meaning.
“All this wonder and waste,” sewn together, flavors Intimate Apparel, A New Opera with numerous different musical references, finding its solidness in its compositional structure and delivery. It does justice to the material, and the timeframe yet I wish the sound intuitively infused me with as much emotional resonance as the piece clearly intended to create. Ultimately, we can easily see that the final outfit is exquisitely well crafted and lovely to look at and listen to, but maybe it just wasn’t made to fit my theatrical frame.