In “Green Sneakers,” Ricky Ian Recalls His Jeffrey & ‘Temps Perdu’
Gordon wrote an opera, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a liberation through hearing," after Jean-Claude van Itallie’s play, to help ease Grossi’s passage to death, its text meant to be read at the bedside of a dying person as preparation for death and rebirth. After its premiere in Houston, Ricky Ian and the Houston Grand Opera Association brought it to Philadelphia for a week, and I heard the final one of the Pennsylvania performances, on June 16, 1996. "Green Sneakers" probes, in 17 songs and two instrumental sections, in 57-and-a-half minutes, the conflict that can arise between the creative artist and the devoted lover in an individual, the struggle between overseeing and wanting to revel in a musical premiere and meeting the urgent demands incumbent upon the caring partner of a fatally ailing significant other.
The prelude’s bustling melody cuts off abruptly and turns melancholy. Regret suffuses the first song, "If Only Someone Could Have Told Me," which begins a section set in a time just after Jeffrey’s death. In the wistful "In particular," the sight of the green sneakers, in Jeffrey’s closet, begins to touch off memories, initially of "our first Christmas together," then of "our last Christmas together."
The memories flow on. In "He Came to Houston" and "Needs," Gordon contrasts his excited anticipation of "the opening night/of the opera./The opera I wrote for him/to help him die" with the grim realities of Grossi’s illness, which must take priority. In "Shopping," we are reminded that, in once ordinary things, lurk potential hazards to the immunologically compromised-"We careened through Fragrances and Cosmetics./Previously,/this department brought considerable cheer to me …/This day,/it was a cloud chamber/of gaseous, murderous, poison vapors./Chanel, Guerlain, Dior,/all conspiring to kill my lover"-as the scents cause a fit of gasping and choking. Calm follows the storm, as Jeffrey recovers in the shoe department, where, in a verse set so lovingly, the couple finds and buys the eponymous green sneakers.
In the inner conflict of "Sportswear," the proud artist wrestles with the protective lover. As the pair endeavors to find comfortable clothing for Jeffrey, strings and singer convey turmoil, resentment and helplessness-"I can’t believe I have to go through this/all of this,/and before my opening night!/My opening night." The next song reflects its creator’s frustration and sadness-"scented cream" and "cologne … sprayed willfully" have led to Jeffrey’s severe coughing fit and force him to miss the opera’s "Opening Night." Artistic responsibilities make the composer remain in Houston, while Jeffrey returns home alone, and the protective care partner is obliged to delegate his duty-"We had to bundle him up/in a blue blanket,/and send him home./I begged the stewardess,/’Protect him. Please./Take extra care/He cannot withstand the cold.’"
"Philadelphia" finds the artist’s guarded optimism again challenged. In the touching "Stone Garden," the cast of "Tibetan Book" meets the work’s inspiration-"He cried,/and they followed." In the tender "Blue Dust Mask," the composer proudly shows off, to Jeffrey, the opera written for him and, equally proudly, introduces the audience to Jeffrey "as my muse."
There is something almost peaceful about "Two Months Later" as, with Jeffrey’s death, the struggle with illness is over. Then survivor’s guilt kicks in. "Green sneakers," a high-lying cry, begins the last verse, which continues, "reminders of my selfishness, my pettiness,/and his frailty." The reflective "Would you consider(/learning Buddhism?)," another memory of Jeffrey, concerns the means by which the opera came into existence. Jeffrey introduced Ricky to Sogyal Rinpoche’s "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" and Ricky "wrote him an opera: ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead.’"
The brusque musical scales that open "Operas Come and Go" contrast sharply with the contemplative previous song. The work has distracted the artist from his dying lover, even as it provided a vehicle to aid the beloved in dying. Hope mingles with wrenching emotion as Ricky sings to Jeffrey, from the opera, "My friend/now is the moment of death …/You are going home." "It Was as If" brings another memory: Jeffrey had a sudden, surprising burst of vitality and attempted some "important" communication, "but not a sound" came, just "One tear [that] trickled from his left eye," leaving Ricky-in their home, still so alive with so many memories-puzzling over what Jeffrey had wanted to say. Emotions tumble over one another-"tears, rage, terror,/or utter confusion"-in "Bonanza," as Ricky donates "bags and bags" of Jeffrey’s clothing, including the sneakers, to an organization thrift shop.
"Bus Ride," a pensive instrumental interlude, introduces the final section of the work. The relatively peaceful "Provincetown" concerns Ricky’s journey there, to heal, to recall, and to sort out his diverse thoughts, and there is a brief reminiscence of the opening song, the regret-filled "If Only Someone Could Have Told Me." The good memories of this momentous love ultimately come to predominate in "Epilogue: Sleep," a resolution at once exultant and serene, which Ricky sang at the "Celebration of the Life and Death and Promised Resurrection" for Jeffrey, at St. Joseph’s Church in Yorkville, four days after his death. "Green Sneakers," which ends with a verse that begins, "Jeffrey,/not a night has fallen,/not a star/That I was not reminded/of how warm you are," makes for a fitting tribute to the love of one’s life.