Composer Ricky Ian Gordon has found his place at opera's table

One of the things that makes Ricky Ian Gordon's operas so appealing to audiences in so many places is the natural way his music embraces both classical and popular music theater idioms, folding one into the other. What the New York-based composer calls his "hybrid" sound is lyrical in an open-hearted, distinctly American way that suits his subject matter.

Chicago has been a welcoming city for Gordon's works: Chicago Opera Theater scored a big success with his vocal chamber piece, "Orpheus and Euridice," staged at two Chicago Park District swimming pools in 2013, That same year, Northwestern University Opera Theater gave the local premiere of his first full-length opera, "The Grapes of Wrath," based on the classic John Steinbeck novel.

Now Gordon is back in town, sitting in on rehearsals for another of his shows, "A Coffin in Egypt," which Chicago Opera Theater will present, beginning Saturday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Millennium Park. The 2014 chamber opera was written for the beloved mezzosoprano Frederica von Stade, who will recreate her starring role in a staging by the work's librettist, Leonard Foglia, and conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi. The four performances will mark the opera's Chicago premiere.

Based on the play ofthe same name by Horton Foote, "Coffin" casts von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe, a wealthy, 90-year-old grande dame living in the tiny backwater town of Egypt, Texas. In the course of the one-act opera Myrtle rehashes painful memories of her late husband's infidelities and her misspent, youthful beauty.

Gordon was convinced of the operatic potential of Foote's memory play the moment he read it, the 58-year-old composer told me in a recent interview.

"My immediate thought was, 'This is the stuff of opera,' " Gordon said. "Myrtle goes through every possible emotion, from rage to rancor to self-forgiveness, before she decides to - as she puts it - go to sleep. You can't have music theater without dramatic and emotional necessity, and there is enormous necessity in her putting her life's story to bed at that moment."

The tonal harmonic palette of "Coffin" is an expression of a musical aesthetic the fast-talking Gordon said he is "making up as I go along."

"I grew up during a time when composers were being terrorized out of their own style and their nWl1, authentic voices," he said. "Luckily we are living in a more pluralistic musical environment now. I feel there's a purity in what I hear and what I'm going for musically that is my own - it's me. I don't want to soil it by wondering what I have to do to get good reviews from critics who (might favor) a more academic style. The minute you start trying to do that, you poison the well."

Houston Grand Opera co-commissioned "Coffin" and premiered the work in March 2014. Patrick Summers, the company's artistic and music director, asked Gordon to build the show around the voice and artistry of von Stade (or Flicka, to revert to the nickname she adopted as a child).

Gordon, who has long admired von Stade and considers her singing "part of my personal iconography," jumped at the chance.

"Flicka is a brilliant artist who is incapable of making a sound or move that is inauthentic," he said. "A lot of what happens on stage in terms of her particular art is how she interacts with other artists; so a lot of the beauty of this show is just watching her interactions. It's a perfect vehicle for her."

For her part, von Stade is happy to return the compliment.

"One of the best parts of doing this show is being with Ricky and Leonard, both masters at what they do. To get to hang out with them and do their work is a real privilege," said the singer, who is coming out of retirement to perform "Coffin." She had starred in COT's 2010 production of Jake Heggie's "Three Decembers," another opera composed specially for her.

Having spent the better part of her career playing goody-goody women in opera, the mezzo confessed she finds it something of a relief to be cast as a not wholly sympathetic character.

"I know many women like Myrtle," said von Stade, who will turn 70 in June. "There are unattractive sides to her, but you see what made her life so difficult. I like her because she tells the truth. Her relationship with her husband, while absolutely as bad as it gets, is at least honest. I'm sad because she has so much sorrow at the end of her life. When people are really awful to you, it gets inside you in a way that's very hard to peel away."

The Chicago premiere of "Coffin" is one of several dates circled in red on Gordon's crowded calendar.

He and his "Grapes of Wrath" librettist, Michael Korie, are working on a two-act reduction ofthat opera, which the Opera Theatre of St. Louis has commissioned for its 2017 festival season. "It really will be a different version, a total reconfiguration," to make the big, expensive stage work more portable and affordable for more companies, the composer explained.

Earlier this year Albany Records released the original-cast album of Gordon's Gertrude Stein-Alice B. Toklas opera, "27," which St. Louis premiered last June. The composer also has been pitching his second opera, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," to various companies including Lyric Opera, after Minnesota Opera, which was to have produced it, backed out.

He's also working with playwright Lynn Nottage on a musical adaptation of her play "Intimate Apparel," as part of the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater's joint commissioning program.

With so much on his plate, Gordon is far too busy to worry whether the critics, or anybody else, like or dislike his work. He's moved on.

"It just feels like I'm here to stay, until I'm not," he said. "I think I have a place at the table now. Nobody can take that away from me. I have a large body of works, I've done a lot of big things and, until further notice, I'm going to do my work. I'm not going anywhere."
- John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 21 April 2015