Sculpted in Song
Jeffrey Michael Grossi died on August 1, 1996 of AIDS. In response, his partner Ricky Ian Gordon wrote 16 poems about their time together and a pair of green sneakers they’d bought at the end of Jeffrey’s life.
Jeffrey had traveled to Houston to hear the premier of an opera Gordon had written for him–The Tibetan Book of the Dead–to help him achieve the goal of dying as a Buddhist and to inundate their lives with Buddhist teachings. While in Houston, the sneakers were purchased simply because Jeffrey sought comfort and they would provide it. Unfortunately, the opera opened without him, as he had gotten so ill that he flew home to New York before he heard a single note.
The two had met in 1991 through a mutual friend. “It was a very strange feeling,” Ricky says. “It wasn’t something as silly as love at first sight, but it must have been karmic, because Jeffrey walked across the room and I felt a sort of shiver as he went by and I thought, ‘I’m supposed to be with him.’”
But it wasn’t easy–after overcoming his shyness to ask Jeffrey out, there were a couple of dates that got cancelled and Ricky was about ready to give up, but Jeffrey called back and they finally went out to dinner. “We were having a wonderful time, the conversation was flowing, there was a lot of empathy between us,” Ricky remembers. “At one point, he looked like a shadow had come over his face and he said, ‘There’s something I have to tell you–I’m HIV positive.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘That’s OK!’ And in my mind I thought, ‘Well, then I’m just going to love him right out of the world’ because back then, it was like a death sentence.”
After Jeffrey’s death, Gordon wrote the Green Sneakers poems as a way to work through his grief. “Absolutely everywhere I went made me sadder after he died. I couldn’t find any solace,” he remembers. “I put those poems away – never in a million years did I think I’d do anything with them. It was about 10 years later that I premiered a pretty big opera – The Grapes of Wrath – and it did pretty well. It went to Utah and while I was there with it, I was asked to be the composer-in-residence at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. While I was meditating one day, I suddenly remembered those poems.”
Eugenia Zuckerman, then the Artistic Director of the festival, had asked him for a string quartet, “a little 10-minute piece.” At first, Gordon was afraid to tell her he was working on an opera instead, trusting that she would present whatever his work was. But when he’d finished it, called her, read her the poems, and confessed that that was what he wrote, she cried. “Instead of giving me a concert hall, they gave me my own theatre, a director, and Wendall Harrington even did projections. It was a moment when faith and instinct paid off,” he says.
In a way, he had dreaded tackling the composition of what he knew would be a significant piece. “Sometimes a piece just shows up in your head and you’re like, ‘Oh, no, I just didn’t want to write something so big and so difficult right now,’ but once it’s there, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Gordon had already thought of casting baritone Jesse Blumberg, who had sung the role of Connie Rivers in Grapes of Wrath, as the Composer (or Gordon himself). Asked if he’d ever considered a tenor, he explained that baritone is the closest singing voice to the speaking voice and he wanted this to feel almost spoken. Also, Gordon is a baritone himself and he wanted it to be as close to himself as possible. Blumberg fit the bill and not just because of his beautiful voice.“There was something about him, his presence on stage–he seemed incredibly authentic and truthful and I knew that nobody could deliver those words if there was a false moment,” Gordon says.
He asked Blumberg to read the poems and tell him if he thought he could deliver them, wondering if the fact that the baritone was straight would be problematic. Blumberg read the verses and wrote back, saying he would be honored.
Gordon then moved on with the piece, going to Ucross, an arts colony in Wyoming, where he could write in peace. “Because the words are so bold-faced, so intimate and personal, and in a lot of ways, very unfettered–they just sort of came out like vomiting,” he says wryly. “I knew that the music had to be the same kind of thing. It had to be simple, it couldn’t be overwrought. One thing I did think was I had a sort of advantage in using a string quartet–a string quartet is somewhat formal and it would create a bit of a distance that would be good because otherwise, the piece could be unbearable to listen to.”
During the process of writing the music, Gordon says he would wake up in cold sweats, feeling ill, but also feeling it was right, that it was flowing in. And when he thought he was done, he remembered a poem he’d written Jeffrey for his birthday called “Sleep,” which became the 17th song in the opera. He decided to use it as a sort of epilogue to the piece and describes the character of the Composer going to the piano–which will have been sitting on the stage unused since the beginning–and begins to write, “getting back to work, writing a lullaby for Jeffrey.”
Even with the “distance” of the string quartet, the music critic from the Denver Post, Wes Blomster, who had asked to be able to attend a dress rehearsal the day before the premier, was overcome with emotion. “He was shaking and sobbing by the end,” says Gordon. “We just sort of held each other and, believe me, that’s never happened with me and a music critic!”
Blomster wrote a four-page review that reflected the intensity of his reaction. “Gordon Creates Masterpiece in ‘Green Sneakers’” was the headline and he went on to compare Gordon to Mahler. “With the repetition of ‘Sleep, Dear,’ the final words of Green Sneakers, one heard in Vail a distant echo of the ‘Ewig’ that concludes Mahler’s monumental Abschied. For this is a song of today’s earth, a farewell lamentation that transcends death.”
SleepEven today, the piece continues to touch audiences and critics alike. It premiered at Lincoln Center this year and the New York Times called it a “healing experience.”
“Every time the piece is done, it’s kind of Earth-shattering–certainly for me,” Ricky says.
So how is he doing today, a modern composer of opera in this day of deafening noise that passes for “music?”
Established as a star that continues to rise, profiled in Opera News, as well as Opera Today, the New York Times, New York magazine,and the New Yorker, he has many commissions and, as he says, “I’m making my living as a composer!”
He has also found love again. “Right after 9/11 I met this fantastic man named Kevin Doyle. He’s the Executive Editor of Condé Nast Traveler magazine and we started seeing each other and I have to say, he has a lot of patience.” Gordon explains that his heart was still broken, he had photos of Jeffrey all over his apartment but not only was Kevin patient, but he was also catalytic, suggesting it was time to put the photos away. “I felt like when we started a relationship, I was sort of nursed back to health,” Ricky says, “And now I’m in another place, now Jeffrey’s taken his rightful place….”
Few people experience a love that inspires opera. Ricky Ian Gordon had in Jeffrey Grossi not just the devastating sadness of losing such a love, but the profound joy of experiencing it with him, as he says in one of the poems of Green Sneakers:
Flower of my heart.
- Sue Saltmarsh, PositivelyAware.com, November+December 2013