A Coffin in Egypt: Theater Jones, 14 March 2014

His Time is Now

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon talks about his one-woman opera A Coffin in Egypt, based on a Horton Foote play, premiering this weekend at Houston Grand Opera.

Ricky Ian Gordon is a composer whose time has come. A recent Opera News article had the headline “Ricky’s Moment,” and he has two new operas about to open. One is titled 27, about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, premiering in St. Louis in June. The other, which is of Texas interest, is A Coffin in Egypt, premiering at Houston Grand Opera March 14-21, followed by productions in Los Angeles in April and Philadelphia in June. It is based on a play of the same name by Texan Horton Foote, turned into a libretto by Leonard Foglia.

Foglia, who is also the director of Coffin, was a natural choice for the assignment. He was already familiar with the material because he had directed the South Africa-born British actress, Glynis Johns, in the world premiere of the play. Sometimes it is a more difficult job to adapt and existing work for an opera libretto than to write something original.

By the way, Johns is best known for creating the role of Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music on Broadway, for which she won a Tony. In a stroke of chance, this musical is also being produced by Houston Grand Opera at the same time as Coffin.

The plot revolves around reminisces of a 90-year-old woman: her triumphs and heartbreaks, including her husband’s various dalliances. The role will be sung by Frederica von Stade, one of the great mezzo-sopranos of our age, who was tempted out of retirement by such a juicy part in what is essentially a one-woman show (she repeats the performances in LA and Philly).

Gordon’s excitement concerning the upcoming premiere was evident throughout our recent telephone conversation.

“Flicka [von Stade’s nickname] is an amazing singer and the sound of her voice has been a constant companion through my musical development,” Gordon says. “I know her capabilities so well that very little had to be changed. There was an approach to one or two notes that needed some attention, but that was it.”

The Egypt of the title is not the one that immediately comes to mind. This one is considerably smaller and in Texas, about 11 miles northwest of Foote’s hometown of Wharton, on Farm Road 102. The population in 2000 was 29. Things are looking up, however. In  2010, the population for the ZIP code was 73, with 21 souls under the age of 40 (half between the ages of 10 and 19) and 10 between the ages of 50 and 54.

There used to be a railroad that lumbered through town, but to the regret of most all of residents, it was discontinued in 1991. To add insult to injury, the tracks were removed—just in case anyone got the wild idea of restoring service. But, who knows? Twelve people have liked the article on Egypt since it was posted on the Texas State Historical Society’s web site. “Be the first of your friends [to ‘like’ it],” it hopefully implores. 

The metropolis of Wharton, by the way, is on the east bank of the lower Colorado River, 45 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The rate of growth in Wharton is dizzying: 9,033 in 1980, 9,011 in 1990, and in 2000, the population was 9,237.  Such growth could not be sustained; in 2012 the population dropped to 8,784. 

All of this background is needed because it is the perfect subject matter for Foote, who wrote the play on which Gordon’s opera is based. Foote wrote about what he knew—and that was Wharton, Texas, where he was born on March 14, 1916. In addition to his plays, such The Trip to Bountiful and The Young Man From Atlanta (which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), he wrote many film scripts. His adaption of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird won an Oscar in 1962, and his original screenplay for Tender Mercies garnered him a second Oscar in 1983.

This “moment” that is Ricky’s, was created by the boffo success of his operatic setting of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, premiered by the Minnesota Opera in 2007.

“It was a gamble,” he says, summing up what every composer feels before an important premiere that can launch or fizzle out a career.

It also was a golden opportunity and Gordon was musically prepared to make the most of it. His musical voice, which he honed over the decades, is an American amalgamation of assorted influences. There is some cabaret, some musical theater (five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald was an early champion of his songs), and a touch of Copland’s open forthrightness combined with a solid background in the classical masterpieces.

“[Musically], we all came from somewhere,” Gordon says. 

A Coffin in Egypt adds the element of gospel. The gospel singers took a bit of negotiating on the part of the composer.

“The original play used prerecorded singers, but I didn’t want existing gospel music in my opera. I wanted to write my own and have it heard ‘live.’ Since this is a chamber-sized opera, I was limited to smaller forces.” he says. “Originally, it was conceived for 13 instrumentalists, some actors and one singer. I traded four instrumentalists for as many singers. Now, I may have a smaller orchestra [nine] but I have my Gospel quartet.”

Since he is using such a small ensemble, a piano was necessary to fill out the sonorities, and some of the players double. The pianist also plays the celesta, the clarinetist plays the bass clarinet and the flutist doubles on piccolo. To this, he adds a horn and the five strings (two violins, a viola, cello and bass). 

“When I first heard the orchestration, I though that I had erred to the side of caution and made it too transparent,” he says. “I was afraid of overbalancing the singers in this one-on-one format. However, I immediately heard that I could fill it out more to make it more effective. I am still making some minor changes. It is my nature to tinker right up to the opening downbeat.”

“Some critics will complain about its tonal language, but I stopped worrying about them a long time ago,” he says. “I care about what the audience will think.” 

An aside: Yes, this may be Ricky’s moment, indeed. However, it is not Gordon that has just now arrived, but that music itself that has finally matured past its 20th century tantrum. Living composers are saying “enough.” They have eschewed the compositional establishment’s disastrous flirtation with a hierarchally imposed atonal musical language dedicated to “new sounds” and “expanded techniques.” Perhaps it was the early minimalists, who dared to write (and write and write…) a C major triad again (and again and again…) to revel in its mathematically perfect integer multiples shimmering from its base partial on a harmonic oscillator. Ah, sheer bliss.

This is not to say that our detour into dodecaphonic and experimental realms was not of great value; it was, and our compositional palette was greatly enriched. But, on the downside, it was its imposition on Gordon’s generation of composers that did so much damage.

Composers were terrorized into writing according to the party line. Those who wanted to explore their own, more tonal, voice were shunned and held up to ridicule. Most quit composing, a loss that is incalculable. Others, like Gordon and Lee Hoiby before him, soldiered on in the shadows hoping that the day would come when there would be a headline in Opera News such as “Ricky’s Moment.”

– Gregory Sullivan Isaacs, Theater Jones, 14 March 2014