Taking on the Civil War in music is a daunting prospect. If you write an opera, you risk having it become “Gone With the Wind” or Philip Glass’s 2007 “Appomattox,” a full-length extravaganza. And the Virginia Arts Festival, which set out to commission a Civil War piece for the sesquicentennial of the first shots on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, didn’t have the resources for something so lavish.
“We only had five performers,” says Mark Campbell, a lyricist and librettist. ‘Try to re-create the Battle of the Peninsula with five performers. I don’t care how good a projectionist we have; it’s not going to happen.”
Instead, Campbell and the composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, created “Rappahannock County,” a staged revue of 21 songs that will have its world premiere in Norfolk on April 12. The creators cite Edgar Lee Masters’s “Spoon River Anthology” as a model for a work in which five performers play 30-odd characters.
“The whole idea,” Gordon says, “was that through a series of snapshots you would create a whole, and they would be strung together by the years of the war. Each year of the war is four or five songs, four or five characters.”
“I always thought of it as a fully staged song cycle,” says Rob Cross, the director of the Virginia Arts Festival who helped bring together three other commissioning partners — the Virginia Opera and the performing arts centers at the Universities of Richmond and Texas at Austin — to raise the $700,000 needed for the project. “But the average ticket buyer doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”
Commemorating American history through song has a certain logic: From spirituals and hymns to folk ballads and children’s ditties to Broadway standards, the song is deeply rooted in many aspects of American identity. What’s striking is the choice of Gordon, 54, to write them. Gordon is a fast-talking New Yorker whose subject matter has been wide-ranging and idiosyncratic: a setting of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” a musical about his own childhood on suburban Long Island (“Sycamore Trees,” which played at the Signature Theatre last year), and the chamber piece “Green Sneakers,” about his partner’s death from complications of AIDS in 1986.
But Gordon is also eminently a songwriter. His feet are planted firmly on the soil of cabaret and musical theater. He bristles at the pejorative use of the term “crossover.”
And his particular brand of effusiveness and accessibility are helping make him the leading proponent of a certain kind of Americana. “Rappahannock County” follows his operatic version of “The Grapes of Wrath” (2007), a sprawling musical-opera that blended a range of Depression-era musical vernaculars on a large palette. Now he’s taking on the Civil War — which wasn’t a subject that originally interested him, but which seems, like “Grapes,” to fit.
“I think that it’s more than a fluke,” says Kevin Smith, former general director of the Minnesota Opera, which commissioned “The Grapes of Wrath,” of Gordon’s engagement with all-American subject matter. “I think it’s a good match for Ricky. I think that there’s something stylistically about him that defines him as being American. I think that American no-holds-barred exuberance that defines him as a person also [marks] his compositional style.”
That exuberance manifests itself in a veritable outpouring of music. Simply talking to Gordon (and he talks volubly, and engagingly), one has the impression not of a studied approach to composition, but of things pouring out in a flood: the libretto to his chamber opera “Orpheus and Euridice” composed in a single sweaty hour, a whole song written on the subway train uptown, all followed with much late-night agonizing and rewriting and retooling. Gordon’s music is so visceral he manages to avoid the self-consciousness of some other contemporary American operas; he doesn’t deliberately try to write in a lush, neo-Romantic, pseudo-Puccini style that colors some composers’ operatic vocabularies. Though he doesn’t shy away from the use of sophisticated compositional techniques when they suit his expressive purposes (there are tone rows in “Grapes,” a hallmark of the 12-tone technique long beloved of composers on the Schoenberg model), expression, with him, comes first.
This may be why he’s so popular. In the Washington region these days, he’s downright ubiquitous. In addition to “Rappahannock County,” both “Green Sneakers” and “Orpheus and Euridice” are currently playing in the first season of the Arlington-based company Urban Arias, through April 10.
And Gordon’s presence was what drove the creation of “Rappahannock County.” “We had no trouble getting the other co-commissioners with us,” says Cross. “The subject matter was not the issue, but the artistic team we were putting together.” That team includes the conductor Rob Fisher, the founding music director of the acclaimed “Encores” series of classic musical revivals in New York — a blue-chip presence from the world of Broadway.
A knack for Americana is a useful commodity these days. More and more, it seems, the urge to address actual history in operas is emerging not only in “docu-operas” about contemporary events, but commissions about specific episodes in history. (In 2007 the Virginia Arts Festival commissioned “Pocahontas” by Linda Tutas Haugen.) The idea appears to be that such operas could help history come alive and draw in audiences, though given that opera is even more off-putting than history to some people, the effect may be akin to disguising spinach from a picky eater by using not sugar, but Brussels sprouts.
The Civil War is a great example of a subject that seems dull to some and still alive and vital to others. “These pieces, in being so American, one wants them to be approachable and not off-putting,” Gordon says. “You don’t want to create a vocabulary about the Civil War that is dense and off-putting. Nobody wants to come anyway.” Nobody wants to come? One imagines a regiment of Civil War reenactors brandishing their muskets in defiance.
But it’s true that a musical work on such a quintessentially American subject calls for a kind of musically democratic approach. And this is the secret of Gordon’s success with Americana. He’s a composer who, though steeped in compositional traditions — as a child, “I took out recordings of every opera written in the 20th century” from the Lincoln Center library, he says — is a tunesmith first and foremost. “I think of Ricky as being more of a melodic composer,” says Minnesota’s Smith, “as much of a song writer as he is an opera composer. Everything comes from that. He fills in around that. It’s all about the melody, all about writing an aria or a song.”
It’s tempting to link Gordon with Aaron Copland, another gay Jewish composer who found himself a veritable musical spokesman for the American heartland. These are only superficial similarities, though. Copland was a master musical technician who happened to turn his attention to some American themes such as the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” (also, incidentally, as the result of a commission). Gordon’s Americanness stems from his continuation of a tradition of American works poised on the cusp of opera and Broadway (think Gershwin, Weill or Sondheim).
Whatever its origins, Americanness is clearly coming to define Gordon as a composer. His next two operas were supposed to draw on another of his passions, foreign films: “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (based on the 1970 film by Vittorio De Sica) is having its premiere in 2012 at the Minnesota Opera. But even in that piece, American musical idioms are emerging: “This tennis scene could practically go in ‘Anything Goes,’ ” Gordon says. As for his next project, for the Metropolitan Opera’s commissioning program, he had planned a version of another European film, “The Story of Adele H,” but has now switched to “Intimate Apparel,” a work by the MacArthur Award-winning American playwright Lynn Nottage, instead. “I know they were relieved at the Met,” he says; American opera is very much on the agenda there (though there is no guarantee that any of the operas written for this program will actually be performed on the Met stage).
The challenge for Gordon with “Rappahannock County” was finding his way into an unfamiliar subject. “If you just try to start at the beginning, you can get caught up in minutiae before you’ve lit a fire in your heart,” he says. Instead, he looks for a moment “that feels like I cannot not do it” — in this case, the song “I seen snow,” in which a teenage Confederate soldier is lying on the battlefield, slowly bleeding to death. Gordon described, in some detail — he seems incapable of talking without detail — how in rehearsal, as the song progressed, everyone in the room began to cry.
“That is something no one can ever take from you as a composer,” he says: “the moment when you hear it and it’s better than you imagined.” He expresses regret that audiences don’t get to experience the rehearsal process. “They should see the rehearsal, not the production,” he says. “Deep things happen in those rooms.”