I normally hate holiday creep, but I make an exception for the gays. Pride started out as a late-June anniversary commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, but soon enough all of June was LGBTQ Pride Month. Now, 50 years later, there are operas about Stonewall premiering in the middle of May. (We’re coming for you next, April.)
The Stonewall Operas, the works in question, are the culmination of the Advanced Opera Lab of NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. (Full disclosure: I’m an alum of this program and know many of these writers.) There are four of them, each about half an hour long, and they were presented by New York University, American Opera Projects, and The Stonewall Inn in a split run: two shows at NYU and two at Stonewall itself. The directors were from The New School, and music-directing duties were split between Jillian Zack and Kelly Horsted.
Fittingly, two of the operas take us back to Greenwich Village in the early hours of June 28, 1969. Nightlife, with libretto by Deepali Gupta and music by TJ Rubin, tracks four members of a fractious jazz quartet as they finish a set at the Village Vanguard and make their way to Stonewall, with just enough time for a series of personal revelations before the cops come crashing in. Gupta’s text moves nimbly between casual conversation and poetical self-expression, and Rubin’s score matches it with a deft combination of sultry jazz and angular modernism.
For me, the high point came early, when Chick (resonant contralto Sara Couden), a tentative lesbian who’s come into her own at Stonewall in a bright red feather boa–hemmed, besequinned robe, leads Hep Cat (clear-voiced baritone Clayton Williams), a sensitive bassist who may have a crush on Chick but is definitely starting to go through heroin withdrawal, in an achingly slow dance. The hallucinatory atmosphere intensifies as Punk (clarion tenor Errin Brooks), a proud self-described freak, sings a deliciously filthy aria about having so much sex he reeks of cum. (Brandon Coleman adds an air of menace to the background with his full-throated rendition of the abrasive Daddy-O.) The sequence had the unspeakable grandeur of the highest melancholy queens, at once proud and tawdry, overflowing with the desperate vulnerability of frightened mammals coming together for a moment of safety in the dark.
The riot itself fell flat—even with a loud sound cue of shouting and breaking glass, it’s hard to conjure the chaos of nearly 200 people in a small confined space when you only have four singers onstage. The other period piece, Outside (libretto by Seth Christenfeld and music by Bryan Blaskie), avoided this problem by setting the action in a bar down the street. It’s a slow night, with Mark (honey-voiced bass Hans Tashjian) giving a drag performance for a crowd of three: his boyfriend Kenny (lithe countertenor Jordan Rutter), droll reporter Joan (Couden), and Davey, the bartender (Coleman).
Judy Garland has just died – the score makes several canny references to her iconic numbers – and the four engage in easy banter about the end of an era, until news of the unfolding fracas upends their night. If some of the character turns felt rushed, the performances made up for it; after Couden’s bravura “Big Butch Joan” aria, I was ready to follow her into battle armed with nothing but the bobby pins on my rainbow yarmulke.
Kenny ultimately doesn’t follow the others to join the riot at the end of Outside, a move that’s pilloried in Ben Bonnema and Brian Cavanagh-Strong’s The Pomada Inn (Bonnema wrote the libretto and Cavanagh-Strong the score). Its madcap plot features a lesbian power couple (charismatic soprano Amy Justman and exasperated mezzo Kathryn Krasovec) from New York and an interracial gay couple (Brooks and Tashjian) in the Ukraine, bouncing from present-day NYC and Kiev to the night of the Stonewall Riots and back again. Tara (Krasovec), one of the New York lesbians, is sure that she would have thrown a brick at a cop in 1969, but once there, she finds she can’t bring herself to. “Tell me which nonprofit to donate to!” she wails, marking the limit of what she’s willing to do to fight the global rise of fascism, “Or tell me which march to go to, and I’ll hold up a sign!”
The Pomada Inn sends a strong message that more is required of us than that, but overall the piece doesn’t totally cohere. The transitions from locale to locale — in which the lights flicker and the cast stands up on their tip-toes to twirl in place — feel too goofy for the heavy subject matter, and the Kievan couple feel more like a prop for Tara’s journey than fully developed characters. And it’s not like Tara needs to look overseas to find examples of queer people facing bitter persecution; right here in New York City, queer people, especially trans people, especially trans women of color, still face harassment and assault from cops and civilians alike. Less than a week before seeing this show, I was followed out of the subway by two people filming me and calling me a faggot, and I think of myself as luckier and safer than many of my friends. Even in the birthplace of Stonewall, we are not yet free.
The Community imagines a world where we might be. Shoshana Greenberg (libretto) and Kevin Cummines (score) describe their work as a “dystopian comedy.” and it lives up to that claim. The year is 2419, and an unspecified apocalypse has wiped out most of humanity. A small group of survivors have built the titular Community, where everyone is bedecked in sparkles and flowers, and the nuclear family is a long-forgotten nightmare.
The High Priestess (Krasovec), bedecked in a pyramidal hat constructed out of shiny gold flip-flops (the costumes are by Rebecca S. Kanach), leads the Community in an annual ceremony marking the Stonewall Riots (in which a pom-pom covered high heel is ritually sacrificed), and teaches the children about “The Village of the Green Witch” — cue a spotlight on a portrait of Marsha P. Johnson in a bright green blouse — from a glitter-encrusted tome that tells of the events. The other members of the Community (Justman, Rutter, and Williams) each have their own copy, which they carry in pouches around their necks emblazoned with slogans like “I want to be a MERMAID!”
As with Outside, it felt like the creators were chafing against the time constraint here. The rituals are important to the piece, but they eat up stage time, and the conflicts that animate the work — one of the members wants to live in solitude, and another wants to give monogamy a whirl — are introduced late and shoved into the cracks between the expansive ceremonies. More time would have allowed Cummines’s music to blossom into its full mystical strangeness, and given Greenberg more space to get zany with mythic distortions of the historical facts.
Fifty years on, Stonewall’s place as a symbol of liberation seems secure, even as we disagree over what actually happened and what it means for us today. With its annual choreographed and symbolic retellings of an event of dubious historicity and endless re-readings of an ancient sacred text, The Community inevitably put me in mind of last month’s Passover celebrations, and the resonance felt fitting. That holiday challenges us to draw inspiration from the past to fight in the present for a future of liberation for all, and I think that may be the best way to approach Stonewall, too. This year, we wear suits; next year, we shall wear sequins. This year, we are here; next year—over the rainbow!
April doesn’t stand a chance.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.