Lynn Nottage’s 2004 masterpiece, Intimate Apparel, is a play about suppressed emotions screaming to get out. What could be more operatic?
Esther is a seamstress in an early-twentieth-century Manhattan boarding house for single Black women growing weary of sewing wedding night lingerie for all the other tenants as they leave to make fresh starts with new husbands while she toils away, single, progressing into her mid-30s. But one day a letter arrives from George Armstrong, a laborer digging the Panama Canal who heard about Esther through a mutual friend and asks to exchange letters to stave off loneliness. Correspondence commences and a love blossoms while Esther makes a meager living sewing the same garments for uptown white socialite Mrs. Van Buren and downtown Black prostitute Mayme, both of whom take a burning interest in Esther’s new affair. Mrs. Van Buren cannot squeeze any affection out of her husband, and Mayme is emotionally unfulfilled by her customers. Along the way, Esther buys fabric from and develops a flirtatious relationship with the Jewish Mr. Marks, although the two are separated by enormous gulfs of culture and history. When George finally arrives in New York, the fantasy constructed through letters starts to crumble as tensions rise between Esther and all the people in her life.
As the new adaptation with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and a libretto by Nottage herself shows, this play might always have been dying to be an opera, a genre dedicated to intense expressions of outsized emotions. Characters sing in opera because speaking would be far too pedestrian for the depth of their feelings, which cannot but pour out at every moment. And yet, the great strength of this show is its nuance. There is in fact nothing outsized about it. No mythic heroes. No melodramatic deaths. No soaring arias. Instead, Nottage and Gordon combine on a warm and affecting story that is so heart-wrenching because it is so recognizable and real.
Nottage’s story is the same as the play version, and Gordon’s music comes from just two pianos, perched on balconies above the Newhouse’s small playing space. The lyrics are conversational and the music simply and eloquently complementary. Under the direction of Steven Osgood, the first act score rings eloquent and full of promise. As the narrative tension builds in act two, so does the dissonance in the score, the two pianos at odds the same way connections between the characters tatter and fray.
A particular musical highlight is our introduction to Mayme (Krysty Swann), who sings a rag for the brothel customers. Gordon gives us a rag full of the requisite swing while never abandoning the operatic milieu, an unexpected and impressive melding.
Bartlett Sher directs with a steady hand that keeps these characters always at the emotional boiling point, only very occasionally and impactfully erupting. At the center of everything is Esther (in some productions of the play, she never leaves the stage) to whom Kearstin Piper Brown gives beautiful voice and profound emotion. Esther knows that she wants to love and be loved, but she is never certain how to go about achieving that, a paradox that Brown captures skillfully. Her singing is expert and confident, but she never lets that poise bleed into the character, who always seems to be making her way with uncertainty and determination.
Adaptation of work from one genre into a new one usually feels clunky and forced, breaking the unity of story and form often at the core of the original’s success. But Intimate Apparel: A New American Opera bucks that trend by uniting an original with a new form that is entirely appropriate to accentuate shades of import latent in the original and always pushing its way out. Here those depths of emotions have found their expression in resounding operatic song, rounding out and offering intriguing new dimensions to Nottage’s great play.