by Edward Kliszus

Finally, after a two-year Covid-19 hiatus, Intimate Apparel, a new American Opera, returns to the Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse.

Moreover, this work represents the culmination of aspirations and vision of Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb and Producing Artistic Director André Bishop. They have joined the artistic powers of the Lincoln Center Theater (LCT) and Metropolitan Opera to create and present this premier collaborative masterpiece. In their own words, “Now it is our turn, and we are delighted to produce Intimate Apparel based on Lynn Nottage’s prize-winning play, with her own libretto and music by the irrepressible Ricky Ian Gordon.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (Ruined, Sweat – the only woman to win two Pulitzer Drama prizes) brings to life the struggles of African American women who came to New York from the southern states after reconstruction and into the early 20th century. Their plights and aspirations are largely undocumented, and thanks to Nottage’s extensive research and insightful pen, we can now experience their stories in a unique, operatic verismo medium designed for a small space.

Initially, on a medical scholarship to Brown University, Nottage switched gears to study music and playwright crafting under Paula Vogel, realizing that women could make a career in these fields. She completed further studies at Yale while August Wilson was there, and her plays were to be performed years after her graduation.

Nottage is a true trailblazer. Her two Pulitzer Prize dramas focus on human struggle, the longest war since WWII in the Congo, and displaced middle-class America, exemplified in Redding, Pennsylvania. She crafted the book MJ that inspired the Broadway musical of the same name, which opened on February 1, 2022.

Intimate Apparel reveals and documents everyday working-class people’s plights, trials, and tribulations. What happens to the heroine Esther in this production is realistic and poignant. My wife, a product of a culturally diverse family, saw firsthand her mother’s life savings taken by her father to buy a beauty parlor for his paramour – leaving her mother and two daughters in severe financial peril. Shame is often why these incidents remain undocumented, and spouses are sometimes removed from photos.

The intimacy of the theater with its excellent acoustics, sensitive lighting, multi-media projections, and Dianne McIntyre’s splendid choreography and staging provides a particularly accessible venue for opera.

The stage floor featured a moving circle where props like beds and chairs are furtively wheeled on and off, transforming into a bordello, bar, boarding house, and boudoir of the wealthy, all while effortlessly flowing to music and verse.

Perhaps this smaller operatic venue is akin to Igor Stravinsky’s theatrical masterpiece Histoire Du Soldat (1918), designed, according to legend, for a small venue due to a shortage of musicians during wartime. Like Soldat, performing grand musical works in a small space amplifies artistic power, enabling personal, intimate communications with an engaged participating audience.

The operatic singing style was virtuosic and boldly supportive of the narrative. Kearstin Piper Brown’s Esther is outstanding, displaying her dramatic operatic range with aplomb. Duets featuring Esther, Mrs. Dickson (Chabrelle Williams), Mrs. VanBuren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell), Mayme (Jesse Darden), and Mr. Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis) are equally vital and compelling. The frequent choral accompaniment enriched the dramatic power of soloists and duos. The libretto and apposite multi-media visuals rounded out the sensory experiences impeccably.

Turn of the century photographic equipment flashed grandly. One sees the portrait develop and dry on the stage backdrop. The photo caption is “Unidentified Negro,” depicting invisible people, of whom little or none is written or survives into posterity. Nottage said, “So often when I was doing my research, I’d look at photographs, particularly those of wealthy white families. In the captions, all the white people would be identified, and then where the black person’s name and title should be, it would always say “Unidentified Negro.”

Symbolism is palpable. Our heroine’s name, “Esther” (Esther 9:26), particularly evokes a biblical reference as it is the Persian name of a Hebrew girl (Hadassah). She prevented the genocide of the Hebrews during the Babylonian exile (c598B.C.), an event celebrated annually during the feast of Purim. You must see this new opera to discover a connection. We never divulge secret plots or twists.

The music by renowned composer Ricky Ian Gordon is conducted by Steven Osgood and performed by world-class pianists Nathaniel LaNasa and Brent Funderburk, providing stereophonic projection from their lofty grand piano placements They were practically floating above the stage, adding an ethereal quality to the sonic delights. Musical styles are seamlessly juxtaposed, effectively characterizing the tension, survival, struggle, and merging of cultures, ranging from and through ragtime, Gershwin, a dash of Hindemith, African-American music, and today’s avant-garde.

An elderly father-in-law of mine famously advised taking two pictures of a matrimonial couple–bride and groom together and then individually. That way, if things do not work out, each has a nice dress-up picture for their photo album. He was either cynical or attempting humor but unintentionally expressed some insight. In the end, we save the pictures that form the fabrics of quilts that portray our lives.

Current Cast (in alphabetical order)

Justin Austin (George Armstrong),  Errin Duane Brooks (Mr. Charles), Kearstin Piper Brown(Esther) Chanáe Curtis (swing), Adrienne Danrich (Mrs. Dickson), Jesse Darden (John), Arnold Livingston Geis (Mr. Marks), Christian Mark Gibbs (Dance Captain), Tesia Kwarteng (ensemble), Anna Laurenzo (young woman), Barrington Lee (ensemble), Jasmine Muhammad (ensemble), Naomi Louisa O’Connell (Mrs. Van Buren), Kimberli Render (swing), Adam Richardson (swing), Krysty Swann (Mayme), Indra Thomas (ensemble), Chabrelle Williams (Esther Wednesdays and Saturday Matinee), Jorell Williams (ensemble).

Directed by Bartlett Sher; Choreographer Dianne McIntyre; Music Director Steven Osgood; Sets Michael Yeargan; Costumes Catherine Zuber; Lighting Jennifer Tipton; Sound Marc Salzberg, Projections 59 Productions; Casting The Telsey Office, Metropolitan Opera Casting Consultant Melissa Wegner; Stage Manager Theresa Flanagan; Assistant Stage Manager Karen Evanouskas;  Associate Conductor/Piano 1 Nathaniel LaNasa, Piano 2 Brent Funderburk.

Runtime: 2 1/2  hours with intermission

For tickets click here and to see our other reviews click here.

Call Lincoln Center Theater at 212-501-3100

Lincoln Center Theater

150 West 65th Street

New York NY 10023

Readers might also enjoy our reviews of My Moment – 106 Women on Fighting for Themselves, and Artwork at The Players: 50 Selected Essays. Women Running in the Mountains, and Gold by Rumi.