New Opera Recalls Stonewall On Its 50th Anniversary

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The Stonewall riot as depicted in Iain Bell and Mark Campbell’s opera ‘Stonewall’ at New York City Opera.
(Photos by Sarah Shatz)
By James L Paulk

NEW YORK – On June 28, 1969, the police launched a raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village. Stonewall, an unlicensed bar owned by the Mafia, catered to the most marginalized elements of what much later would be known as the LGBTQ community: hustlers (and clients), drag queens, butch lesbians, transgender people, and homeless kids. Such raids and roundups were not uncommon, but on this occasion the bar patrons fought back, ultimately joined by a street mob which, in the following days, morphed into a larger protest. This uprising has come to be considered the seminal event of the gay liberation movement in America, and the downtrodden kids who started it all are now celebrated as genuine heroes.

Lisa Chavez plays Maggie, a butch lesbian.

Given this significance, it’s surprising that Stonewall has never been depicted in an opera, an art form with an intense gay fan base. So, on the 50th anniversary of the event, the scrappy reincarnation of New York City Opera has tried to fill this void with Stonewall, an opera it commissioned from British composer Iain Bell, with a libretto by Mark Campbell, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his collaboration with composer Kevin Puts on Silent Night. The work had its world premiere June 21 at the Rose Theater in Jazz at Lincoln Center.

This commission, conceived by Michael Capasso, NYCO’s general director, came only 18 months before the first performance, a very short time in the opera business. Campbell has said he completed the first draft of the libretto in three weeks. Bell is a busy guy. His fourth opera, Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel, opened in March at the English National Opera. And you have to wonder if some of the weakness of Stonewall is the result of a rush job amid competing projects.

In an interview posted online, Campbell said: “This is not a ‘docu-opera.’” I suspect he was referring to works like John Adams’ Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, which stick rather closely to the historical events they portray. Stonewall blends reenactment with imaginary events to tell its story, and in this sense it bears more resemblance to Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, with a libretto by Richard Thomas. That was, of course, the last opera presented by NYCO in its first incarnation – the company actually shut down immediately after the final performance. Hmmm….

Going back to the reenactment; In a story carrying so much historical weight, a lot of narrative elements must be respected. Campbell has done that without whitewashing his characters – even, for example, showing us a hustler (a straight kid who works as a go-go dancer at the club) blackmailing a wealthy married guy from uptown.  And the cast fairly represents the ethnic diversity of the club that night.

Jordan Weatherston Pitts portrays a drag queen in the opera ‘Stonewall’ at New York City Opera.
Although the opera tells what is on one level a very simple story (oppressed down-and-out gays fight back), it carries layers of complexity. And that complexity weighed heavily on the first act. The first part of the opera, taking up more than half of the work’s 90 minutes, is a series of vignettes which introduce ten stereotypical characters as they go through the day, preparing for a night out at the Stonewall, their refuge. These little portraits – of a couple of young drag queens, a teacher just fired from his job, a tough lesbian who emerged as leader, and more – become a window into gay life in the ’60’s, at least for these outcasts, who describe their struggles and modest hopes. This might be necessary to bring the characters to life and endear them to the audience, but it becomes a slog as they tell their stories one at a time.

Bell’s score doesn’t help matters. It’s imaginative, varied, and thoroughly professional, with a strong nod to Leonard Bernstein. There’s even a “Tonight Downtown” ensemble piece. But it’s really just an atmosphere behind all this text exposition. And the extensive use of sophisticated parlando, a declamatory type of singing, rings especially false on these characters; it’s so far removed from their sound world. The exception is Maggie, a butch lesbian modeled after a real person, who is first introduced to us fighting back from a subway assault, and later becomes the leader of the rebellion. Maggie is Campbell’s best creation, and she gets Bell’s best and most biting music. Mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez tore into the part in a standout performance.

Maggie (Lisa Chavez) plays a prominent role in the Stonewall riot in the opera.

The first part ends in a big Broadway-style number for the whole cast, and we finally enter the club. We know quite a bit about Stonewall: Someone has even assembled a playlist of the songs on the jukebox from that night, which range from Sinatra to Streisand to Diana Ross. Bell composed his own “jukebox score” in the style of the period, starting with a piece that sounds a bit like a Petula Clark song (sung by Darlene Love). This segues into something more soulful, which has the Stonewall patrons dancing around. Suddenly the police break in, the music stops, and the opera really switches gears. The score becomes darker and harsher. It’s still mostly atmospheric music and parlando text, but Bell does his best writing here, in solid Hollywood horror-film style. A mob forms, some patrons are carted off by the police, others slip into the night, and the part ends.

In the brief final scene, the survivors survey the cluttered scene as the sun comes up, and they muse about the uncertain future, singing “what happens now?” and “…much to be done.”

Director Leonard Foglia (listed in the program as “Production”) and his team set the violence and demonstrations as stylized dance, which worked well. Fake violence just looks fake on the opera stage, but when it is made abstract, we experience it in our imaginations. It helped that the choreography, by Richard Stafford, was tight, with just the right amount of restraint. Much of the success of the opera derived from Foglia’s direction – his cast was convincing and ultimately very sympathetic. Riccardo Hernandez’s simple unit set was functional, unobtrusive, and probably frugal.

Besides Chavez, standouts in the cast included the powerful tenor Marc Heller as Larry, who headed up the police on the scene. Baritone Brian James Myer sang ably as Carlos, the teacher who was fired. Joseph Beutel was effective as Troy, the blackmailer. And Liz Bouk sang the role of Sarah, a transgender role written for a transgender singer.  Carolyn Kuan conducted with nice balances and energy.

Brian James Myer (as Carlos), Jessica Fishenfeld (Leah), and Liz Bouk (Sarah) in ‘Stonewall.’

This was not a night for vocal display, and it’s unusually hard to assess the performances from the cast – many of them really didn’t get the kind of music that shows off the voice. Bell’s score claims considerable sophistication, yet much of it probably wasn’t really heard attentively. The audience was just too busy dealing with the story to pay attention.

But sometimes the sum is greater than the parts, and Stonewall turned out to be a deeply moving night in the theater in spite of the obstacles. I spoke to several people who had wept during the performance, and only the most hardened patrons could have emerged without being touched by this painful true story, honestly told and beautifully acted.

Stonewall continues at NYCO through June 28. For tickets and information, go here.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in Atlanta, where he works as a development officer with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.