'Green Sneakers' debuts in Beaver Creek on July 15
In casting the baritone to star in his latest composition, Ricky Ian Gordon faced an interesting challenge.
He needed to find someone to play himself.
"Green Sneakers," set to debut Tuesday at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek, describes Gordon's final months with his lover, Jeffrey Grossi.
It puts to music a set of poems Gordon wrote after Grossi died of AIDS in the couple's Manhattan apartment.
In other words, this was deeply personal stuff, and Gordon wasn't about to entrust it to just anyone.
"It was going to have to be someone who had a direct connection with text and a very communicative not only voice, but stage comportment," Godon said. "One moment of off-ness could really upset this piece."
'Guided by truth'
He found what he was looking for in Jesse Blumberg. A 28-year-old baritone from Westfield, N.J., Blumberg had played a supporting role in Gordon's recent opera "The Grapes of Wrath."
Blumberg's performance struck a chord with Gordon.
"Just in watching him work, and watching him sing, he's completely guided by truth," Gordon said. "He doesn't get up there and fake anything. If he doesn't feel it, he doesn't do it. His sound is very easy to enter, it's opulent and beautiful but it's also sort of matter-of-fact."
About a year ago, Gordon e-mailed the lyrics to "Green Sneakers" to Blumberg and asked him, "Do you think you would feel comfortable with this story?"
Blumberg accepted the role.
"For me, from the beginning, I knew it was going to be an awesome responsibility to portray him and everything that he went through and his ordeal," Blumberg said. "But I was also honored that he was asking me."
Tapping into grief
Blumberg had plenty of singing experience. He had performed in "The Grapes of Wrath" at the Minnesota Opera and The Utah Symphony and Opera. His resume included a number of operas, recitals and concerts, and he held a master's degree in voice from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of music.
Still, playing Gordon would require stepping outside his comfort zone. He needed to tap into Gordon's grief and stay true to a real story.
Luckily, there was no guesswork in interpreting the lines because Blumberg could simply consult with his subject.
"I guess you see examples of that in movies that are made about real stories, where the actor goes to talk with the person the movie's about," Blumberg said. "And there is an element of that working with Ricky, because we'll be working on a song and I won't be entirely sure how I want to interpret a line in the poetry, or what sort of emotion is required for a particular word or line. It's a real luxury to be able to say, 'What exactly were you feeling in this moment?'"
Adding authenticity to the reherasals, the pair practiced the songs in Gordon's Upper West Side apartment, where many events in the songs transpired.
There were poignant moments. Once, they were working on a scene where Blumberg looks at an empty chair and sings a series of lines about Grossi, Gordon recalled.
"He's basically staring at this empty chair as if Jeffrey's sitting in it," he said. "It was so beautiful and so haunting and so eerie. First of all it felt like just by singing and staring at the chair he enlivened it and Jeffrey suddenly was sitting there, and we just had to stop. It was a moment when it just seemed like everyone was going to burst into tears."
A world premiere
Tuesday's performance will mark the world premiere of "Green Sneakers." The Miami String Quartet will accompany Blumberg as a projector displays images from the lyrics, like a pair of green sneakers in a closet.
Exactly what type of reception the piece will get is tough to predict. The composition is a bit edgier than your standard Beethoven or Brahms, and it's hard to say how conservative audience members will react to a story about a gay couple.
"I don't know if this is the way Ricky feels, but I think people need to be stretched and sometimes they don't realize it," said Blumberg, who is straight. "If there is homophobia in anyone in the audience, maybe telling this story will help work through that."
Whatever the reaction from audiences, the performance will be another landmark in Blumberg's career.
Already, the media has been starting to take notice of the baritone. A March 2007 article in The Baltimore Sun commented on Blumberg's performance in "The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland" at the Opera Viventa: "In the title role, Jesse Blumberg commanded the stage, physically and vocally. His virile baritone grabbed the melodic lines with remarkable dynamic force, lighting up the hall with his every appearance." Blumberg even got a shout-out in the blog "Barihunks," which claims to chronicle "The Sexiest Baritone Hunks from Opera."
Gordon says Jesse represents a new type of singer/actor.
"For a long time, opera singers, it felt very often like they were not in their bodies," he said. "They were like lumps that sang. And Jesse is part of a new generation of singers coming along who feel like they live in their bodies. They have an ease and a comfort when they sing and consequently, they are capable of projecting a kind of truth."
- Sarah Mausolf, VailDaily.com, 110 July 2008