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Composer Comes to S.D. to celebrate author Parker

BY BETH WOOD CONTRIBUTOR

San Diego Union-Tribune SEPT. 17, 2023 5 AM PT


It took a few seemingly unrelated steps to lead acclaimed New York composer Ricky Ian Gordon to San Diego for the premiere of his chamber opera, “Autumn Valentine.”


Because of COVID-related postponements, Gordon found himself in a gratifying but frustrating position in January 2022. He was simultaneously guiding two separate world premieres of his operas — both in Manhattan. The productions were Lincoln Center’s “Intimate Apparel” — Gordon’s scoring of the drama by prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage — and his adaptation of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” which took place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.


It was at the latter where Gordon met Diana and Walter DuMelle, cofounders of Bodhi Tree Concerts, a San Diego nonprofit arts organization. Diana served as stage manager for New York City Opera’s production of Gordon’s “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” “Ricky was going back and forth between theaters,” Diana recalled. “And it was COVID protocol time. Somehow, he made two world premieres happen.


“He’s an incredible collaborator, hardworking and genuinely excited and curious. Ricky’s amazing.”


Their Big Apple collaboration was just one of those steps to Saturday, when Bodhi Tree Concerts will present Gordon’s “Autumn Valentine” at UC San Diego Park & Market downtown. Gordon, who affectionately calls many of his works “opera-cals,” has been enchanted by the life and work of author Dorothy Parker since childhood. Parker co-founded the Algonquin Round Table, a legendary group of New York literary figures, in 1919.


“Autumn Valentine” is based on her writings. “The opera begins with an inventory of a lot of Dorothy Parker’s shorter poems,” Gordon said. He was speaking while hiking with his rescue dog, Lucy, near the upstate New York home he shares with partner, Kevin Doyle. “The poems are pithy, terse, witty — just perfect Dorothy Parker — like this one: ‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’.” Another notable Parker witticism: “Time may be a great healer, but it’s a lousy beautician.”


Another step to “Autumn Valentine” was navigated by San Diego-based singers and frequent Bodhi Tree performers, soprano Angelina Réaux and baritone Michael Sokol. The veteran opera/theater couple worked with Gordon on a workshop version of “Autumn Valentine,” which was presented by Opera Omaha in 1994. “The three of us were just kids when we sat around a table covered with Dorothy Parker poems and prose — and the latest divine musical concoction from Ricky,” wrote the couple, via email. “Coming to it again some 30 years later, the nostalgia factor is huge. But it’s as if we’re creating an entirely new opera — with an orchestra; new songs, and a more mature and compassionate perspective on these two lovely people we get to play.”


Réaux and Sokol brought the idea of a full-blown “Autumn Valentine” to the DuMelles. “I had this relationship with Ricky and they had one,” Diana said. “It was kismet.”


Gordon not only has composed music and written more text for “Autumn Valentine,” he’s also coming here from New York for a final rehearsal. He’ll also conduct a private master class on Sunday, Sept. 24. Before Saturday’s performance, Gordon will participate in a conversation with longtime music critic Ken Herman.


“It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing this version of ‘Autumn Valentine’ besides Angy (Angelina) and Michael,” said Gordon. “They’ve memorized entire short stories of Dorothy Parker and act out those stories. “They really are talented. They are singing actors. My lyrics are interspersed with the action. And we have the Dorothy Parker settings as well as a few newer songs. It’s really a one-of-a-kind of piece.”


Saturday’s performance of “Autumn Valentine” will feature a seven-piece ensemble, led by pianist Ines Irawati, who is the opera’s music director. Irawati, cofounder of Southern California’s highly praised Aviara Trio, is a vocal coach and frequent Bodhi Tree collaborator.


Joining the Bodhi Tree crew for the first time is stage director Rosina Reynolds, who is well known here for her many years directing and acting in theaters throughout San Diego. “Rosina is a local gem,” Diana DuMelle said. “When Angy, Michael and Rosina got together, they really hit it off. “We love that she brings serious theater chops. This is a ‘music- theater-slash-opera’ piece. It has a lot of dialogue and words, which is not common in opera. We feel really lucky to have Rosina.”


Saturday’s performance of “Autumn Valentine” will feature a seven-piece ensemble, led by pianist Ines Irawati, who is the opera’s music director. Irawati, cofounder of Southern California’s highly praised Aviara Trio, is a vocal coach and frequent Bodhi Tree collaborator.


Joining the Bodhi Tree crew for the first time is stage director Rosina Reynolds, who is well known here for her many years directing and acting in theaters throughout San Diego. “Rosina is a local gem,” Diana DuMelle said. “When Angy, Michael and Rosina got together, they really hit it off. “We love that she brings serious theater chops. This is a ‘music- theater-slash-opera’ piece. It has a lot of dialogue and words, which is not common in opera. We feel really lucky to have Rosina.”


Bodhi Tree’s co-founder Walter DuMelle, who has had many singing roles in the company’s productions, agreed. “Rosina, Michael and Angy did a lot of work to get to the truth of the story, even before they put voice to music,” he said. “I think that audiences will bear witness to that care and attention to the storytelling.”


Gordon considers this orchestrated production of “Autumn Valentine” a world premiere. He has blended Parker’s stories and poems with his own in this version. And he wrote more music for it. “The piece did really well in Omaha and we got a lovely review in The (New York) Times,” Gordon recalled of the 1994 performance. “But I felt like I wasn’t done working on it.


“For one thing, there were Gershwin songs in there, and, like every composer, I have a big ego. So I wanted all the music to be mine.”






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