A muse to many mediums, New York is no stranger to operatic settings: Adaptations of literary masters like An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby and Angels in America aside, there is a Gershwin-penned, Harlem-based rarity (Blue Monday); the Little Italy–based Menotti work The Saint of Bleecker Street and Blitzstein opus Reuben, Reuben; and a Lower East Side Street Scene by Kurt Weill. Perhaps the most ambitious work is Central Park—a triptych of one-act operas with libretti by Wendy Wasserstein, A.R. Gurney and Terrence McNally (paired with composers Deborah Drattell, Michael Torke and Robert Beaser).
But considering the widespread diversity of New York’s people and neighborhoods, one wonders why it has yet to reach Paris or Seville–level divadom as an operatic setting. Don’t tell me that we’re just a younger country and a younger opera culture; we have enough composers at work now that the numbers should have caught up.
Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer seem to feel the same way, offering as their answer the comparatively modest albeit no less vital Five Boroughs Music Festival, which seeks (in a manner consistent with New York City Opera’s new itinerant vision) to “bring musical performances of the highest quality to all parts of New York City." They have become even more ambitious this season with the Five Borough Songbook, a collection of 19 world premieres—a 20th is slated for its second spin at Flushing Town Hall November 12—of art songs set in New York City.
It’s a frankly exhausting experience hearing 19 world premieres, but it’s the kind of exhaustion you feel after running around the city on a Saturday full of errands, brunches and museum exhibits, replenishing the lost emotional electrolytes with Galapagos Art Space’s varied selection of beers on tap. Oceanside native Ricky Ian Gordon, whose musical theater works (My Life with Albertine) have lead to grander-scale operas (Orpheus and Euridice, The Grapes of Wrath) opened the evening with an Erlkönig-ish flash of piano and a Whitman-based baritone-soprano duet, O City of Ships that rippled with intense optimism and golden tones.
And, like one’s first impressions of New York, Gordon’s song ceded to sepia-toned memory as 18 other senses took over. Some erred toward the languidly imagerial—avant-rock artist Christopher Tignor’s Secret Assignation took the verbal artistry of Bronx poet Lewis Warsh and set it to warm textures and silent parentheticals meant to be read along in silence by the audience.
Others were eloquent in their capturing of multilayered New York moments. Israeli-born composer Yotam Haber crafted a postmillennial polyphonic spree out of Julia Kasdorf’s setting of Psalm 137, making a sublime meditation out of On Leaving Brooklyn with unexpected turns—singers alternating the syllables in the line “my Babylon, my Jerusalem” created a fractured diaspora. Quick to follow was Christina Courtin’s Fresh Kills, a touching pairing as Courtin herself gave a memorable performance earlier this year of Haber’s New Ghetto Music. Here, her lullaby Fresh Kills was full of Miranda July-like charm and moody memory.
There were, naturally, lighter tones: Lisa Bielawa’s Breakfast in New York captured the symphony of overheard conversation that dominates brunches city-wide. Gilda Lyons’s rapid transit set to music MTA service changes and the pleasures and sorrows of the subway system continued in Tom Cipullo’s G is for Gromy: An Ode to the G Train (“Sometimes I feel like a human G Train,” sings baritone David Adam Moore. “I keep traveling in circles, and I never go anywhere important.”). And Coney Island Avenue by Gabriel Kahane (pictured) was a trademark of the singer-songwriter’s artful ironic parlor music and obsession with Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee.
However, the true impact of the Five Borough Songbook was its juxtapositions and musical landscape, creating neighborhoods that are distinct but which sit on top of one another bringing out inherent comparisons and contrasts. Mohammed Fairouz’s Refugee Blues, a riff on W.H. Auden’s poem of the same title, was one of the sharpest emotional impacts of the evening with a Marc Blitzstein brand of anger and white-knuckle piano accompaniment to such stanzas as "Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;/It was Hitler over Europe saying, ‘they must die’:/O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in is mind.” Like Gordon’s O City of Ships, Fairouz’s work is about coming to New York. Though as he indicates in his program notes, his narrator (“one of those women who crossed the Atlantic carrying the weight of the whole world on her shoulders”) is more war-torn and resilient and less Whitmanly optimistic.
Refugee Blues came after a starkly sentimental duet by Daron Aric Hagen (The New Yorkers) that traces a couple over 40 years of taking and loving the city and was followed by a jaunty, jittery ode to Times Square The Center of the Universe by Richard Pearson Thomas. The latter would have sounded at home in an ironic, latter day Leonard Bernstein canon, sung by Gene Kelley by way of Williamsburg or Park Slope. It was a jarring switch from the onslaught of Refugee Blues, but that ability to switch with a feline reflex and chameleon adjustment? That’s New York.
What song epitomizes New York to you? Leave your picks in the comments below.