Ricky Ian Gordon (he/him) - Composer
Ricky Ian Gordon was born on May 15, 1956 in Oceanside, NY and raised on Long Island. After studying piano, composition, and acting, at Carnegie Mellon University, he settled in New York City, where he quickly emerged as a leading writer of vocal music that spans art song, opera, and musical theater. Mr. Gordon’s songs have been performed and or recorded by such internationally renowned singers as Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Nathan Gunn, Judy Collins, Kelli O’Hara, Audra MacDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Nicole Cabell, the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Frederica Von Stade, Nadine Sierra, Andrea Marcovicci, Harolyn Blackwell, and Betty Buckley, among many others.
Recent productions of his work include:
2022: – “Intimate Apparel” An opera commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and The Lincoln Center Theater with librettist Lynn Nottage, premiered January 2022 at The Lincoln Center Theater directed by Bartlett Sher. Filmed by PBS for Great Performances for Fall, 2023. Nominated for Drama Desk Awards, The Antonyo Awards, Luceil Lortel Awards, and Outer Critics Circle Awards.
“So too with Gordon’s lush yet intricate score, which soars into the timeless atmosphere of operatic writing (though he calls his hybrid works “operacals”) while always regrounding us in the specifics of period and character. In numbers like “No One Does It for Us,” repeated choruses do more than ram home lovely melodies; they underline the similarities between Esther and Mayme, who sing it. And it is not for nothing that George’s letter arias from Panama are typically accompanied by a ghostly chorus of other men, as if to question their strange intimacy.
“Intimate Apparel” — even more as an opera than as a play — is an act of rescue. When Esther tells Mrs. Van Buren, as they write the first letter to George, “My life ain’t really worthy of words,” she means that she isn’t special enough to be made permanent on paper. That isn’t true; as Nottage and now Gordon have shown, she is worthy of even more. She is worthy of music that is finally worthy of her.”
Jesse Green, NY Times
“The opera matches the tone and the emotional tenor of the original play strikingly well. Ricky Ian Gordon’s music sets a trotting, melancholy, urbane pace, redolent of early-twentieth-century New York; the melodies, shared between two pianos, sound as if they were inspired by the sight of gleaming, rain-soaked pavement.”
Vinson Cunningham, The New Yorker
2022:- “The Garden of the Finzi Continis” An opera commissioned by New York City Opera and The Yiddish Folksbiene with librettist Michael Korie, Based on Giorhio Bassani’s novel, premiered January 2022 at Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust
“Gordon and Korie’s opera honors the fictional family that Bassani created and allows them once again, as operatic voices, to haunt and inhabit a garden in Ferrara that never actually existed but continues to resonate in memory and history.”
Larry Wolff, Hudson Review
“An aspect of Gordon’s music that I am fond of is its accessibility. Someone utterly unfamiliar with new opera can connect with his compositions. As a listener there are challenging sections, but melody isn’t chucked. With his latest, Gordon brings in elements from other styles that provide audiences with a familiarity that draws the listener into the music, rather than away from it. Gordon has a lot of implements in his composer’s toolbox, and he’s not afraid to mix and match styles that engage the audience.
At first, the music of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” sounds fanciful, but there’s a dark undercurrent threaded throughout. At dramatic heights, the music would crash together like an ominous warning, providing a sense of urgency. When the Racial Laws are promulgated in Ferrara, an ensemble piece hammers home the bitter truth of the legislation as the words “The law is the law,” and “Is the law the law,” repeat mechanistically to a driving beat.”
Chris Ruel, OperaWire
“Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie have made a new opera. Gordon is a composer, Korie a librettist. Both are Americans born in the middle 1950s. In the middle 2000s, they made an opera out of The Grapes of Wrath. Now they have made an opera out of another classic novel—this one Italian, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. They have done a very good job of it, I’m happy to report.”
Jay Nordlinger, The New Criterion
2020: “Ellen West” – A new chamber opera with poet Frank Bidart for Saratoga Opera and Beth Morrison Projects. Premiered June 2019 at Saratoga Opera and January 2020 for the Prototype Festival at the Gelsey Kirkland Center for the Arts. Published by Theodore Presser Music and Recorded on Bright Shiny Things.
“Gordon’s music captures the tumultuous emotions of the libretto. The vocal lines are at times punchy, then achingly simple; the instrumentation sometimes becomes so frantic that it sounds like a first-rate thriller score. Gordon’s music, in particular its solo moments for Ellen, paints a complex picture of a suffering woman undergoing an unraveling mental state, and his attention to text allowed Bidart’s poetry to shine. “
Maria Mazzaro, Opera News
“Ricky Ian Gordon’s riveting one-act opera “Ellen West, ” recently given its world premiere by Opera Saratoga at the Spa Little Theater, depicts the savage struggle of a young woman whose eating disorder is a war to the death between her soul and her body. Through an unusually powerful fusion of music and poetry, the opera soars beyond the clinical details into the realm of existential dread, yet never loses sight of the suffering human being at its center.”
Heidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal
“The most striking quality of the music, from the outset, is the pervasive sense of melancholy. Gordon writes with an omnipresent legato—not just from note to note within a given phrase but from phrase to phrase. One might think that this fluidity would be at odds with the lack of tangible resolution in the harmonies, but these paradoxical elements result in musical storytelling that’s both unsettling and enthralling.”
Daniel J. Kushner, Opera News
It is often said that “good art” should provoke a bit of unease, that the encounter should cause the viewer, the listener, or the reader to squirm somewhat by pushing the boundaries of comfort zones. “Ellen West” does that in spades.
A heavy-hitting poetic work set to music of equal weight is the foundation upon which “Ellen West” is built, but as with any work of opera or musical theater, having the right singing actors in place to bring the story to life is key. Zetlan, an ardent supporter and ambassador for new works originated the role in the summer of 2019 at Opera Saratoga for which she garnered praise, particularly for her attention to the emotional details.
Chris Ruel, OperaWire
2019: “Without Music” – Five songs for mezzo-soprano and piano to poems of Marie Howe. The work was commissioned by Music Academy of the West for their 2019 Marilyn Horne Song Competition Winners’ Recital Tour. Premiered by mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano and pianist Andrew Sun.
“Gordon wrote the cycle after he lost his partner to AIDS in 1996, setting poems written by Marie Howe in memory of her brother, who was claimed by the same disease. Loss is certainly a subtext, but these songs focus rather on life, their sonorities bright and their texts fondly reminiscent.
Gordon’s writing for piano often provides extra illustration for the text, and in Sun’s hands the images were vivid. The vocal writing in this cycle is direct, giving a sense of purpose to the line rather than the searching, wandering feeling that characterizes a lot of contemporary melodic writing. Gordon’s style certainly isn’t spare, but no gesture feels wasted.”Eric C. Simpson, New York Classical Review
2018: – “The Tibetan Book of The Dead” An opera with a libretto by Jean Claude Van Itallie; Commissioned by The Houston Grand Opera; Premiere: May 31, 1996; Rice Theater, Houston, Texas. Then, The American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia June 1996, conductor Charles Prince. It is published by Presser Music. New production at Eastman School of Music…
“Eastman’s take on “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” leaves the audience with plenty to ponder: a heartfelt reflection on death as a vital part of life, sung with conviction and manifested through intelligent set design by Daniel Hobbs and deft musical direction by conductor Timothy Long. The production, which continues through Sunday, is a rare chance for Rochester to experience a rewarding and important entry in the contemporary operatic repertoire.”
Daniel J. Kushner, Roschester City Newspaper
When “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, premiered in 1996 in Houston and Philadelphia, here were some of the responses…
‘When Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera of, The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” written with librettist and playwright Jean Claude Van Itallie, bowed in the spring of 1996 at Houston Grand Opera, and The American Music Theatre Festival, these are some of the things which were said about it.
“Gordon’s music is an eclectic, colorful and sassy stew of American pop, modernism and post-Puccini lyricism- a rhythm and blues torch song one minute, a sinister rendering of the nursery rhyme “This Old Man” the next. But it all meshes. The score surprises at every turn, but it never jolts. Moreover, Gordon draws a huge range of color and texture from his 11 instrumentalists…
Gordon is a superb composer of songs-soprano Camellia Johnson closed her San Antonio recital last year with a magical Gordon set- and his vocal lines in this opera are unfailingly lyrical, sensuous and comfortable on the voice. When the dead woman finally sings-she soars in an aria of grand breadth and freedom.”
– Mike Greenberg, San Antonio Express News
“It’s a requiem that takes into account rebirth, which composer Ricky Ian Gordon handles with a litheness, occasional sly humor and an artistry that announces a creative rite of passage.
Though highly melodic, the score has few traditional tuneful hooks, preferring to create a continuous musical organism that has many of the mercurial qualities of Olivier Messiaen. The music goes whatever direction it’s needed with a harmonic freedom and purposefulness… you’re aware of having taken an important musical journey.”
– David Patrick Stearns, USA Today
“Music serves innumerable functions. It allows us to weep, to rejoice, to mourn, to celebrate. Or, in the case of Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a liberation through hearing, to exorcise demons. At its Houston premiere, the cathartic impulse and function of the work resonated radiantly.
…it revealed to Houstonians a composer with a facile but compelling gift for song. His opera was, to me, another exciting moment in the accelerating emergence of a collective American style of art music rooted equally in the country’s vernacular and cultivated traditions.
Gordon is a gifted composer. His opera contained several regally radiant songs- extended works that are a new format drawing from the sophisticated Broadway style of, say Stephen Sondheim, and the traditional aria form of opera.
The entire work cosseted feelings. The musical accompaniment was felicitous.
Gordon’s style was distinctive.”
– Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle
“Ricky Ian Gordon is best known as a composer of songs that are singable in cabarets, on concert stages, just about anywhere. He treats words-weather by Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes-with tender loving care, wit, and once in a while, sass, but I can’t remember a saccharine or maudlin tune from him. All of which made him the right man to make an opera out of Jean Claude Van Itallie’s 1983 ritual-play The Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not To Do It Again. Gordon, who used a composer’s prerogative and raised the ante of the subtitle by changing it to the more music evoking a liberation through hearing.
It’s emotional Honesty and increasingly affecting score will win lots of admirers.
Gordon’s ease with tonal tunes and harmonies stood up nicely against his shrewdly placed spikes of dissonance.”
– Leighton Kerner, The Village Voice
“Ricky Ian Gordon writes in the idiom most common among contemporary composers: eclecticism. This approach has the obvious advantage of freeing the artist from a stylistic straitjacket, but also carries the considerable risk of producing work that is meandering and formless. Gordon avoids that pitfall in The Tibetan Book of the Dead by stringing together spacious melodies, jazzy riffs, Stravinsky-like neo-classicism and even a bit of the blues within a unifying tonal landscape.
The most compelling aspect of Gordon’s music is his boldly colorful orchestration. More than a third of the pit orchestra consisted of percussion instruments, including xylophone, glockenspiel, timpani, snare, cymbals, tambourines, wood blocks, and gourds. A small string section, horn, trumpet, flute, clarinet, piano, and harp completed the lively ensemble. Gordon’s ability to balance this unusual combination of timbres is masterful. His sound is never overtly percussive, but fluidly adjusted for the theatrical needs of the opera. Gordon uses a somber kind of lushness as well as a glittery brightness to reflect corresponding dramatic elements in the libretto.”
– Peter Burwasser, Philadelphia City Paper
Gordon could write glorious music to the telephone directory if he wanted to… the music soars, and we’re reminded of just how magnificent Gordon’s music can be. A major piece of new music.
– Cary Mazer, Philadelphia City Paper
A succinct one-act piece…
Gordon has written tuneful things that range through blues and gentle rock, cowboy rhythms and pop. The final chord-unresolved-provides a glimpse of eternity- one of the memorable things in this score.
– Daniel Webster, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Gordon’s music has potency and power and is especially notable for the sympathetic and incisive support of the text. His score is accessible, even breezy at times, and yet always responsive to the words. Gordon is not hesitant to use vernacular, even pop music idioms in adding additional texture and clarity to the meaning of the text. There are also passages of surpassing beauty…
– Brian Caffall, Philadelphia Gay News
2017:- “The House Without A Christmas Tree” – libretto by Royce Vavrek, directed by James Robinson, conducted by Brad Moore, Premiere, Houston Grand Opera…
“Houston Grand Opera offers a charming, family-friendly piece, in an alternative performance space, that manages to be heartwarming without being sappy…Mr. Gordon’s score employs accessible, Coplandesque tonality, which has its apex in Addie’s arias…they capture a young girl’s imagination and optimism…The text is clearly set, and well crafted ensembles vary the texture as do bigger choruses…” Heidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal
“Not only does this opera have to find its place among the “Nutcrackers,” “Christmas Carols” and “Messiahs,” as a world premiere, it also has to bid for a permanent spot in the operatic canon. Gordon’s melodic, tonal score makes a strong bid for that spot, falling easily on the ears, often bringing to mind the late operas of Richard Strauss in its naturalistic setting of Vavrek’s dialogue to melodically compelling music…
The pleasing score, congenial vocal demands and modest scale of “The House Without a Christmas Tree” give it a good shot at achieving staying power, attractive to professional opera companies of all sizes and to conservatories and universities. It was warmly received by the opening-night audience, some granting it a standing ovation.”
Eric Skelly, Houston Chronicle
2017: – “The Grapes of Wrath”-libretto by Michael Korie, new reduced two act version, directed by James Robinson, conducted by Christopher Allen, Opera Theatre of St. Louis…
“Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie have trimmed and condensed their 2007 epic, which originally ran a little over four hours, into a taut and effective opera that tells its tale in under three. “Grapes” packs a dramatic punch and pleases harmonically. Gordon’s score, grateful to the voice, explores almost every thread of musical style from the era it depicts. This is a version that should have wide acceptance, particularly from smaller opera companies.”
Sarah Bryan Miller, St Louis Post-Dispatch
“The Grapes of Wrath” represents a near-perfect matchup of composer, librettist, and source material. John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about the odyssey of the Joad family from the Oklahoma dust bowl to the shantytowns of Depression-era California, is quintessential Americana, aspires to profundity, and narrowly skirts bathos. The same descriptions could be applied to the work of both Gordon and Michael Korie, his librettist. Gordon, one of several young composers heralded in the 1990s as the future of American musical theater, is mercifully unafraid to show his gift for melody: “Grapes” gives most of the main characters distinctive numbers and recapitulates them a lot so you remember them.”
Anne Midgette, Washington Post
“Gordon’s eclectic score adds an unmistakably American flavor to the tragic odyssey of the Joad family, dispossessed tenant farmers in Depression-era Oklahoma, who flee the Dust Bowl to seek a better life in the would-be promised land of California. They pack up their meager belongings in a rusty jalopy and head off down Route 66. It is along this “plenty road” where their American dream dies…
Gordon’s music, a patchwork of musical Americana, gives memorable lyrical flight to plain-spoken lyrics that coalesce into set pieces flowing easily one to the next. The Coplandesque fields of diatonic harmony in the orchestra are as open as the prairie skies. Echoes of art song, Sondheim, Weill, blues, jazz and other elements reference the music of Steinbeck’s America. But the voice that emerges most clearly is Gordon’s own.
Whether in tender ariosos, wistful ensembles or powerful choruses, his music goes straight to the heart of the pain, suffering, fleeting happiness, immense loss and, finally, compassion, these hapless characters experience. This is a great American opera to stand alongside earlier evocations of specifically American periods and subjects by George Gershwin, Carlisle Floyd, Robert Ward, John Adams and others.”
John Von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
“John Steinbeck’s classic 20th century novel about the plight of the common people against the harsh indifference of nature and human greed was given a magnificent and moving interpretation by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in the premiere of a new revised version by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie. Conductor Christopher Allen engaged members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in a compelling reading of Gordon’s highly listenable and unmistakably American score. Hints of folk music, bluegrass, blues, gospel and jazz permeated Gordon’s affecting music, which distinctly matched Steinbeck’s sobering subject matter.”
John Naunheim, Ladue News
2016: “27” (Choral Version for Master Voices, City Center, New York City) – libretto by Royce Vavrek, directed by James Robinson, conducted by Ted Sperling…
MasterVoices (formerly The Collegiate Chorale) will open its 75th anniversary season with the New York premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek’s 27, featuring Stephanie Blythe, Heidi Stober, Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh, Daniel Brevik, and Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Conducted by Ted Sperling and directed by James Robinson, 27 explores the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who hosted regular salon evenings at their Paris home at 27 Rue de Fleurus, with such guests as Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, May Ray, Henri Matisse, and Ernest Hemingway.
“Every element worked together to produce a memorable evening about which we had a surprising thought—“I’d see this one again”. We have yet to feel such enthusiasm for a contemporary work. Our eyes and ears have been opened.”
Meche Kroop, Vocedimeche
“Royce Vavrek, one of the hottest librettists on the contemporary opera/music theater scene today, and Ricky Ian Gordon, a masterful composer and melodic genius, are a powerful duo in their new opera, 27, having a semi-staged production for two nights at New York City Center as part of MasterVoices’ 75th anniversary season. “
Also, “27” was presented at Pittsburgh Opera in 2016
“Pittsburgh Opera unfurled a winning new production of Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera “27” on Feb. 20 at its headquarters in the upper Strip District…
Gordon’s music is beautifully written for the voices, tuneful according to the spirit of the people it brings to life, and maintains an engagingly consistent flow. “
Mark Kanny, Pittsburgh Tribune
“Mr. Gordon’s transparent, mellifluous score evoked the musical language of jazz, foxtrot and musical theater, and repeated memorable motifs to great effect.”
Elizabeth Bloom, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
2015: “Morning Star” – libretto by William Hoffman, directed by Ron Daniels, conducted by Christopher Allen, Premiere, Cincinnati Opera
1910. New York’s Lower East Side. Their homeland now a memory, Becky Felderman and her children find hope in the promise of life in the New World. As decades unfold, their dreams are tarnished by hardships—-the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, World War I, and the Great Depression. Their story is our story—-one of triumph and tragedy, struggle and sympathy, and a family that abides the trials of a lifetime.
“Was the long pull “Morning Star” had to undergo before finally emerging into the blinding light of performance worth it? Most emphatically, yes.
A worthy performance by a splendid ensemble of mostly young American singers rescued from oblivion a music theater piece of considerable heart, power and poignancy. The opening-night audience at Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts received the work with the kind of open enthusiasm not usually awarded contemporary operas.
The success of Tuesday’s premiere validated everyone’s faith in “Morning Star.” The two-act, three-hour (including intermission) opera, which follows the resilient Becky’s struggle to keep her family together amid horrific, life changing events, impressed as Gordon’s finest opera to date.
The score’s seamless fusion of melodic arioso, accompanied recitative, Broadway-style ballads, stirring ensembles, and Tin Pan Alley and ragtime elements, turns on a dime as the dramatic and emotional situations require. Several memorable songs crystallize the psychology of the main characters, notably Fanny’s proto-feminist ballad, “If I’m Not Allowed to Sing”; and Pearl’s “So Many Colors,” in which the young woman, an African-American from the rural South, laments the loss of her home and family.
The music sits comfortably on Hoffman’s sharply observed libretto, slyly peppered with Yiddishisms, Sondheimesque in its witty use of language, yet entirely Hoffman’s own in its ability to evoke the rhythms of working-class life and death.
Composer and librettist get inside the heads of their characters with a deftness of touch that makes us feel the pain of their shattered dreams. Past and present are jumbled, with ghosts mingling with the living. We realize how everyone, not just hardscrabble immigrants in old New York, can be trapped by the choices they make in life. “
From the striking opening tableau of working-class New Yorkers gathered in the pouring rain in front of projections of actual newspaper headlines of the 1911 tragedy (“The skies wept,” sings the ensemble), to the final scene evoking the devastating fire itself, nothing strikes a false note.”
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
“Above all, it is an opera that features the stunning music of Ricky Ian Gordon and a compelling libretto by William Hoffman. Each character, perfectly described musically and literally, is real and convincing and virtually lives on stage.”
Burt Saidel, Oakwood Register
“Morning Star is a rich, complex work likely to repay repeated hearings.”
Joe Law, Opera News
2014: “27” – libretto by Royce Vavrek, directed by James Robinson, conducted by Michael Christie…
Stephanie Blythe makes her Opera Theatre of St. Louis debut starring as Gertrude Stein, in a role written for her by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek. Indulge for an evening at #27 Rue de Fleurus in Stein’s Paris salon, home to the luminaries of the Lost Generation.
Elizabeth Futral is Alice B. Toklas.
Stein and Toklas were a couple for nearly 40 years, until Stein’s death in 1946. Stein, of course, was the quirky writer, art collector, salonnière and pontificator on all matters artistic. Toklas, whom both women called the “wife,” was Stein’s secretary, cook and general enabler as well as lover. For those four decades, practically everyone who was anyone artistic or literary in Paris passed through their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus — thus the title of the opera and a signature refrain. Meet Picasso, Matisse, Leo Stein, Man Ray F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, various paintings and doughboys and soldiers all played by Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh, and Daniel Brevik
“Gordon’s compositions are stunning. The orchestrations are intricate and lovely, which in turn are contrasted by the upfront nature of the main vocal line, combining opposites in one marvelous conclusion. The thought lingers that these two opposites mirror Toklas and Stein; Toklas the delicate and lovely orchestration and Stein the brash vocal line. Vavrek’s libretto is crisp, and fortunate to have read the libretto; it is as fine as any poetry and can stand on its own as such.
Director James Robinson has done a remarkable job to bring this enlightened work to life with some truly stunning visuals created by cleverness rather than extravagance, and conductor Michael Christie brings the remarkable score to vivid realization with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Allen Moyer creates a worthy canvas that is somehow elegant in its simplicity, and James Schuette’s costumes effectively let the trio differentiate their myriad characters (and adds his own humorous touches too). Kudos also to wig and makeup designer Tom Watson and Sean Curran’s choreography.
New operas don’t often go on to the kind of popularity that sees them being universally admired and being performed a great deal at other opera companies, but “27” is likely to defy the odds. St. Louisans should not miss the opportunity to see the impressive work during its birth.”
Christopher Reilly, Alive Magazine
“Gordon’s music is beautifully written for the voices, tuneful according to the spirit of the people it brings to life, and maintains an engagingly consistent flow
Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune
“Singers love Gordon’s music because he knows what works vocally and what doesn’t, and because he cares about getting it right. He has said that he hopes to see the day when opera and musical theater meet, and “27” helps to bring it closer. There are hummable tunes and recurring themes, drama and sweetness, in a well-wrought score. Vavrek is Steinian without stealing Stein and keeps the story moving, for a clever, witty libretto.”
Sarah Bryan Miller, St Louis Today
“27’ is an opera that will find her way into the repertoire without a doubt!
“A Hit is a Hit is a Hit,”
James Sohre, The Denver Post.
2014: “A Coffin In Egypt” — libretto by Leonard Foglia based on Horton Foote’s play, Directed by Leonard Foglia, Conducted by Timothy Myers
90-year-old grand dame Myrtle Bledsoe has outlived her husband, her daughters and virtually everyone else in Egypt, Texas. But in the last stage of her life, she can’t outlive the truth. Houston Grand Opera, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, and Opera Philadelphia proudly present the World Premiere of this haunting tale of memory and murder, racism and recrimination. Known for opera, art song, and musical theater, composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist/director Leonard Foglia base the opera on a play by Horton Foote, providing the perfect showcase for beloved mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.
“A Coffin in Egypt” is a splendid opera of spite.” Mark Swed, The Los Angeles Times
“Gordon’s contribution to the genre is as germane to the spirit of a place as Copland’s The Tender Land or Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men.”
Peter Dobrin, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A Coffin in Egypt, a rarely produced 1980 play by Horton Foote would seem an unlikely subject for an opera, but in the hands of the marvelous Frederica von Stade and the talented composer and librettist team of Ricky Ian Gordon and Leonard Foglia, it becomes a tour de force.”
Hoyt Hilsman, Huffington Post
“Gordon’s music amplifies her sentiments. Gentle, free-flowing melodies drive home Myrtle’s wistfulness about past pleasures and her love of nature’s beauty. When her anger flares up, Gordon’s sharply etched vocal lines pack a wallop. The music’s animation and economy enable her storytelling to move quickly.”
Steven Brown, The Houston Chronicle
“Mr. Gordon’s accessible, well-made score is carefully constructed for his leading lady’s vocal and dramatic strengths, taking advantage of her expressive low and middle ranges and giving her the opportunity to show different sides of Myrtle. The strongest sections are extended lyrical arias exploring Myrtle’s happy memories—an elegiac paean to the fields of Texas wildflowers that she first saw in the brief halcyon days early in her marriage; a wistful, Sondheim-esque song of lost opportunity, “There was a moment when I could have. . . .” Her rage is more told than shown, however; the vocal writing isn’t edgy enough to make the outbursts of anger a truly dramatic contrast with the happier reminiscences.”
Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal
2011: “Rappahannock County” — libretto by Mark Campbell, directed by Kevin Newbury, conducted by Rob Fisher…
This fictional song cycle (recorded on Naxos and published by Presser Music) inspired by diaries, letters, and personal accounts from the 1860s, premiered at the Harrison Opera House April 12th, 2011. It was co-commissioned in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, by The Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond, Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas in Austin, The Virginia Arts Festival, and Virginia Opera.
“The piece has the sense of a lens closing in on a spectrum of individuals and their feelings around slavery and morality in a profound and poignant way…
The acclaim accorded “Rappahannock County” by the 2,200 people who packed Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House for the premiere made clear that Gordon and Campbell had achieved their goal.”
Wes Blomster, Opera Today
“One of the most enjoyable aspects of this recording of the première production of Rappahannock County is the consistent excellence of the cast of vocalists, each member of which faces difficulties of dramatic expression, textural delivery, and musical technique. Though composed in a style that mostly avoids the histrionics of ‘traditional’ opera, Mr. Gordon s score nonetheless presents challenges to each of the soloists, and there are few performances of new music in which the vocal demands are met with the level of achievement heard in this performance. …Mr. Campbell and Mr. Gordon have created a depiction of this milestone in the history of the United States that is not one of generals on horseback, deafening cannonades, and grandiose ideals of succession or Reconstruction: performed with honesty and impeccable musicality and recorded by NAXOS with presence and imagination, Rappahannock County proves a moving portrait of the wondrous pragmatism of America in some of her darkest hours and, in its unmistakable faith in the most basic will to endure, of the essence of the Old Dominion.”
Joey Newsome, Voix Des Arts Blog
2010: “Sycamore Trees” – By Ricky Ian Gordon, Directed by Tina Landau, Book by Ricky Ian Gordon and Nina Mankin…
“Sycamore Trees” was sponsored by the Shen Family Foundation and was a recipient of The Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award. It featured Broadway’s Farah Alvin, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Jessica Molaskey, Matthew Risch, Diane Sutherland & Tony Yazbeck.
“Sycamore Trees” is a compelling musical of suburban secrets… ”
Peter Marks, The Washington Post
“If “Sycamore Trees” were simply an autobiographical tribute to Gordon’s past, it would have limited force, but it’s aimed at the American dream itself, which gives it broader emotional resonance. With his ability to put old ideas about love, unity and community into new post-modern musical settings, full of unconventional tunes and harmonies, Gordon ultimately achieves in “Sycamore Trees” a fresh and stimulating tribute to the thing he seems to cherish most: family — his, yours, everyone’s. ”
Barbara Mackay, The Washington Examiner
Nominated for The Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Play or Musical by The Helen Hayes Awards Organization, and won a Helen Hayes Award for Best Ensemble.
2010: “The Grapes of Wrath” – A Two Act Concert Version of the Opera with a libretto by Michael Korie, at Carnegie Hall, directed by Eric Simonson with projections by Wendall Harrington and lighting by Francis Aronson. Narrated by Jane Fonda, with a cast that included Victoria Clark, Nathan Gunn, Christine Ebersole, Elizabeth Futral, Matthew Worth, Sean Panikkar, Stephen Powell, Steven Pasquale, Peter Halverson, Andrew Wilkowske, Madelyn Gunn, and Alex Schwartz…with The Collegiate Chorale and The American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ted Sperling.
“It must be said that “The Grapes of Wrath” certainly reached the audience on Monday night. The hall was packed and the ovation tumultuous.” Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
“…a stirring, crowd-pleasing work that left the Carnegie Hall audience cheering on its feet…
on the whole Gordon and his librettist Michael Korie have created a major new American opera, one that is likely to stand the test of time.” Eric Myers, Opera Magazine
2008: “Green Sneakers” – A Theatrical Song Cycle for Baritone, String Quartet, and Empty Chair, with a libretto by the composer, premiered July 15th in Vail, Colorado, at the Alberto Vilar Performing Arts Center, when the composer was Composer-in-Residence at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. Upon it’s premiere, with baritone, Jesse Blumberg, and the Miami String Quartet, it was cited a “Masterpiece” in Opera Today, in an article entitled “Gordon Creates Masterpiece With “Green Sneakers,”
“It is amazing that in this his first work for string quartet Gordon has perfected an idiom that goes to the edge of tonality to create a microcosm of pain and despair that has all the markings of a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk. Indeed, at the premier, members of the Miami String Quartet were no longer mere strings, but humanized voices that formed a seamless dramatic unity with Blumberg… With the repetition of “Sleep Dear,” the final words of Green Sneakers, one heard in Vail a distant echo of the “Ewig” that concludes Mahler’s monumental Abschied. For this is a song of today’s earth, a farewell lamentation that transcends death.”
Wes Blomberg, Opera Today
It was subsequently done at Pittsburgh Opera in a festival of the composer’s works, on a double bill with his “Orpheus and Euridice.” Robert Croan writing in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, called his article, “Superb Mini-Operas Convey Heartfelt Grief.”
2007 & 2008: “The Grapes of Wrath” – A full-scale opera with libretto by Michael Korie, premiered at the Minnesota Opera in a production that then traveled first to Utah Opera, and then to Pittsburgh Opera.
Musical America called the work, “The Great American Opera,” and Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote that: “…the greatest glory of the opera is Gordon’s ability to musically flesh out the entire 11-member Joad clan…Gordon’s other great achievement is to merge Broadway and opera… greatly enhanced by his firm control over ensembles and his sheer love for the operatic voice.” Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker, wrote “Gordon, who first made his name in the theatre and as a composer of Broadway-style songs, fills his score with beautifully turned genre pieces, often harking back to American popular music of the twenties and thirties: Gershwinesque song-and-dance numbers, a few sweetly soaring love songs in the manner of Jerome Kern, banjo-twanging ballads, saxed-up jazz choruses, even a barbershop quartet. You couldn’t ask for a more comfortably appointed evening of vintage musical Americana. Yet, with a slyness worthy of Weill, Gordon wields his hummable tunes to critical effect…”
A Suite from the opera was premiered at Disney Hall in spring 2008 (May 18). The full opera, live from the Minnesota premiere, is available on a 3 CD set with libretto liner notes on PS Classics. Carl Fischer has published the Vocal Score as well as a Folio of 16 Arias from the Opera.
“The Grapes Of Wrath” was cited in Opera News Magazine as one of the “Masterpieces of the 21st Century.”
2005: “Orpheus and Euridice” – A Theatrical Song Cycle in Two Acts, premiered at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theatre as part of Great Performers, and The American Songbook Series, October 5, 2005. Directed and choreographed by Doug Varone and performed by Elizabeth Futral, Soprano, Todd Palmer, Clarinet and Melvin Chen, Piano, it won an OBIE Award and is recorded on Ghostlight Records and published by Carl Fischer Music. It was given new productions at Long Beach Opera February of 2008, Fort Worth Opera in July of 2008. Long Leaf Opera in North Carolina reprised the Lincoln Center/Doug Varone production.
“Both Gordon’s text and music are couched in an accessible idiom of disarming lyrical directness, a cleverly disguised faux naïveté that always resolves dissonant situations with grace and a sure sense of dramatic effect — the mark of a born theater composer.”
Peter G. Davis, New York Magazine
“Orpheus and Euridice” was cited in Opera News Magazine as one of the “Masterpieces of the 21th Century.”
2003: “My Life with Albertine” – written with Richard Nelson and based on Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” premiered at New York’s Playwrights Horizons (recorded on PS Classics and published by Rodgers and Hammerstein/Williamson Music, AT&T Award). It starred Kelli O’Hara, Brent Carver and Emily Skinner.
“The music swirls with regret, romance, and a sense of lost time.” Ben Brantley, The New York Times
2001: “Bright Eyed Joy: The Music of Ricky Ian Gordon” – was presented at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall as part of the American Songbook Series.
Stephen Holden, writing in the New York Times wrote of the work, “If the music of Ricky Ian Gordon had to be defined by a single quality, it would be the bursting effervescence in fusing songs that blithely blur the lines between art song and the high-end Broadway music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim…It’s caviar for a world gorging on pizza.” “Bright Eyed Joy” is recorded on Nonesuch Records with vocalists including Audra McDonald, Dawn Upshaw, and Adam Guettel.
Other works include, “Dream True,” written with Tina Landau and premiered in 1999 at The Vineyard Theater (recorded on PS Classics, Richard Rodgers Award, Jonathan Larson Foundation Award), “States Of Independence,” (also with Ms. Landau, for The Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia (formerly The American Music Theater Festival) in 1992, and “Only Heaven,” based on the works of Langston Hughes and premiered in 1995 at Encompass Opera (recorded on PS Classics, and published by Rodgers and Hammerstein/Williamson Music).
Future commissions include “This House,” a new opera for Opera Theater of St. Louis 50th anniversary season in 2025 with librettists Lynn Nottage and Ruby Gerber, and a commission from the Tucson Song Festival 2024 for a song cycle for baritone Justin Austin, using poems by Vievee Francis. After Renee Fleming premiered his orchestral setting of Harper’s final monologue from Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America,” “Night Flight To San Francisco” (which originally premiered in a piano vocal version at Lincoln Center in 2000) with conductor Sebastian Lang Lessing and The San Antonio Symphony in 2011, he set Harper’s OTHER monologue from Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America,” the “Antarctica” monologue. They are recorded on the Bright Shiny Things CD “Your Clear Eye,” with soprano, Jennifer Zetlan, and the composer at the piano.
As a teacher Mr. Gordon has taught both Master Classes and Composition Classes in Colleges and Universities throughout the country including Yale, NYU, Northwestern, Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, Catholic, Bennington, Vassar, Carnegie-Mellon, Elon, Michigan State, U of Michigan, Point Park (McGinnis Distinguished Lecturer) Texas Lutheran University, Eastman School of Music, Florida State University, Texas Christian University, and San Francisco Conservatory. He has been the featured Composer-in-Residence at various festivals including Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, The Hawaii Performing Arts Festival, The Van Cliburn Foundation, Voices of Change, Santa Fe Song Festival, Songfest at Pepperdine University, Chautauqua, Aspen Music Festival, and Ravinia. In 2018, he was the commencement speaker at the University of Michigan.
Among his honors are an OBIE Award, the 2003 Alumni Merit Award for exceptional achievement and leadership from Carnegie-Mellon University, A Shen Family Foundation Award, the Stephen Sondheim Award, The Gilman and Gonzalez-Falla Theater Foundation Award, The Constance Klinsky Award, many awards from ASCAP, of which he is a member, The National Endowment of the Arts, and The American Music Center.
Mr. Gordon’s works are published by Williamson Music, Carl Fischer Music, and Presser Music and available everywhere.
His works are also widely recorded on various labels.