OPERA NEWS - Stonewall
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In Review > North America


New York City Opera

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The cast of Stonewall in the New York City Opera world premiere of Iain Bell's work
Photos by Sarah Shatz
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Lisa Chavez as Maggie
Photos by Sarah Shatz
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Brian James Myer as Carlos, Jessica Fishenfeld as Leah and Liz Bouk as Sarah
Photos by Sarah Shatz

THIS YEAR, people from around the globe are gathering in New York for World Pride to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. The spontaneous revolt against a police raid is often regarded as the catalyst for the LGBT rights movement. New York City Opera, now in the third installment of its annual Pride series, marked the occasion with Stonewall, a new opera by the composer Iain Bell and the librettist Mark Campbell, which had its world premiere at Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center on June 21.

In some ways, the June 28, 1969 uprising is ripe for fictionalization. There is no formal account of what happened; books and documentaries have relied on oral histories and a few patronizing news reports. (“Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad,” read a headline in The New York Daily News.)

Where there are unanswered questions, there is art to fill the void. Bell and Campbell tell the story through the eyes of seven queer characters who are carefully drawn to represent the wide cross-section of people who frequented the bar: Maggie, a butch lesbian (mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez); Renata, a black drag queen (tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts); Sarah, a trans woman (mezzo-soprano Liz Bouk); Carlos, a Dominican-American schoolteacher (baritone Brian James Myer); Andy, a seventeen-year-old runaway living on the streets (tenor Andrew Bidlack); Leah, a lesbian whose parents forced her into aversion therapy (soprano Jessica Fishenfeld); and Edward, a closeted married man (baritone Justin Ryan).

Campbell’s plain-spoken libretto includes a good deal of humor, which has always been an important survival mechanism in the gay community, and real-life moments from the raid, such as the butch lesbian who incited the crowd to “do something” as she was being arrested. 

In some ways, Stonewall, a seventy-five-minute one-act opera divided into three parts, buckles under the weight of its good intentions. In Part I, each character gets a scene to introduce his or her struggle, usually accompanied by a soliloquy loaded with a backstory. Part II depicts the uprising itself, and Part III captures the morning-after on Christopher Street outside the bar, as the dazed barflies-turned-crusaders make sense of what happened.

The quick turnover of characters in Part I made it difficult to invest in them. As each one expressed a desire for refuge at Stonewall, they became archetypes lovingly drawn to dramatize a historical moment.

Bell’s musical language—tonal, descriptive and, at times, banal—fell back on repetition to set the mood. As a man harassed Maggie on the 1 train, we heard the churn and rattle of the subway car in the low strings and timpani. When the hustler Troy (bass-baritone Joseph Beutel) called Edward to blackmail him for money, the clarinets and piccolo played an eerie round. 

The use of looping motifs had its limits, particularly when it came to the riot at the heart of the opera. There was something oddly subdued about the strings playing a sequence of running triplets, the woodwinds counting time in circling quarter-note phrases, and the chorus members chanting “Gay power!” on the beat in their middle voice. It felt too neat to be believable as chaos.

Bell’s writing eventually rose to the level of psychological detail in the pre-dawn music that opened Part III. Tender and bruised, it spoke to the exhaustion of a hard-won victory. Conductor Carolyn Kuan led the company’s orchestra in a clear, sensitive and natural performance of the new score.

The strong ensemble cast performed with a sense of the anniversary’s momentousness. Marc Heller, a Verdi and Puccini tenor, thundered as the deputy police inspector. Myer showed a refined baritone as Carlos. Fishenfeld was asked to put her clean coloratura to contrived use in Bell’s vocal writing for Leah. Chavez, Weatherston Pitts, Bidlack and Beutel committed wonderfully to their characters, with some help from David C. Woolard’s costumes. Bouk, a trans man who performs as a mezzo-soprano, had a captivating presence but an unsteady, occluded timbre as Sarah. The still-wondrous voice of veteran Darlene Love, one of the stars of the 2013 documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, rang out unmistakably in the songs she recorded for Stonewall’s jukebox in Part II.

Director Leonard Foglia worked efficiently within the confines of Riccardo Hernandez’s spare set, in which LED lights were reconfigured to individuate spaces. Foglia’s decision to have many of the characters dance a little jig as they got ready to head to Stonewall gave me an acute case of secondhand embarrassment. —Oussama Zahr 

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