Famed composer Ricky Ian Gordon takes center stage at the Pittsburgh Opera
Ricky Ian Gordon, the award-winning gay composer, will be in attendance in Pittsburgh this month when the Pittsburgh Opera celebrates his life and music in two concerts and a main stage production of The Grapes of Wrath opera.

Born and raised in New York, Gordon has gained prominence as not only a premier composer but also a celebrated song writer and poet, and the Pittsburgh Opera is eager to share a glimpse of his extraordinary talent when they present three distinct opportunities to hear Gordon's music.

Gordon is no stranger to Pittsburgh. While studying composition and piano at Carnegie Mellon University, he quickly became a leading writer of vocal music that spans all genres of music and theater.

Often referred to as an heir to Stephen Sondheim, Gordon has the ability to take poetry and art and tell the same story through music. In a way, his work has merged the worlds of Broadway and opera. Much of this is due to his initial success in the theater and cabaret scene of New York.

Today, Gordon has one of the largest published songbooks in print, and he has composed a variety of successful operas and dramatic works.

On Nov. 1, the Pittsburgh Opera will present two works by Gordon in "A Double Bill: Orpheus and Euridice and Green Sneakers at their new theater on Liberty Avenue.

Orpheus and Euridice retells the story of the Orpheus legend. Written for piano, clarinet and soprano, Gordon uses the clarinet as the voice of Orpheus and a soprano as the voice of Euridice.

The second piece, Green Sneakers, is written for baritone, string quartet and empty chair. The title of the piece is a poignant reference to a gift that Gordon gave to his dying partner, Jeffrey Grossi.

As is evident in many of his productions, Gordon's life is the impetus for much of his work. The 1996 death of his partner from AIDS was the force behind both of these works. Orpheus' lament and the empty chair in Green Sneakers are both moving references to Grossi.

On Nov. 19 the Pittsburgh Opera will also perform Bright Eyed Joy: The Songs of Ricky Ian Gordon in their new theater. Featuring Pittsburgh Opera resident artists and Gordon on the piano, the concert will include songs from Gordon's world famous songbook. Pittsburgh artists will perform his songs, which have been sung by some of the world's leading vocalists.

Both evenings will offer patrons the opportunity to meet Gordon and ask any questions about his work.

Beth Parker, best known as Pittsburgh's Opera Lady, is excited about Pittsburgh audiences having the chance to meet and share so much of Gordon's work.

"For anyone that wonders if opera is really for them," Parker says,. "this is a great stepping stone and the perfect opportunity for someone to come to the opera for the first time."

Beginning Nov. 15, Pittsburgh audiences will have the opportunity to experience more of Gordon's work in the main stage opera production of The Grapes of Wrath at the Benedum Center.

Based on the iconic novel from John Steinbeck, the opera follows the Jode family as they struggle through the Great Depression and travel to California in hopes of finding work in the fruit fields.

Parker feels the opera The Grapes of Wrath is much more about hope than about desperation.

"This is a moving and inspirational opera," Parker says. "With the bank foreclosures and economic problems of today, the problems presented in this production are even more fitting and truly representative of today's political climate and culture. The opera offers us all hope that there are still good people in the world who are willing to help."

The Grapes of Wrath predominately features a local cast and, according to Parker, has a different look than most operas.

"This is really a Broadway/opera fusion," she says. "The structure of the show is much more like a Broadway show without the dialogue. Overall, it is just a beautiful production"

While none of Gordon's Pittsburgh works have any direct GLBT themes, Parker feels it is still very fitting for gay audiences.

Parker says, "Ricky Ian Gordon's concert comes from his connection to the gay community, the love and loss of his partner and his beginnings in the cabaret world. In addition, much of his work in The Grapes of Wrath is connected to the idea of social justice, discovering whether or not a society truly cares about its people or just certain groups. I think this is a natural fit for the LGBT community."

Parker has a distinct passion for the opera and her enthusiasm is addictive. While many people are unsure about attending an opera, Parker believes the works of Ricky Ian Gordon are a good way to begin.

"Wear what you want, come as you are, and remember that everybody is always welcome at the Pittsburgh Opera."

A Double Bill: Orpheus and Euridice and Green Sneakers will be performed Nov. 1 at 8pm; Bright Eyed Joy: The Songs of Ricky Ian Gordon will be performed Nov. 19 at 7pm at Pittsburgh Opera in the Strip, 2425 Liberty Avenue; The Grapes of Wrath will run Nov. 15, 18, 21 and 23 at the Benedum Center. For more information on these shows or to ask questions of The Opera Lady, visit www.pittsburghopera.org .
- John D. Pine, Pittsburgh's Out Magazine, November 2008