Ricky Ian Gordon’s latest song cycle, a 70-minute modern and personal take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Euridice, stars soprano Elizabeth Futral and clarinetist Todd Palmer, performing—and dancing—the title roles, accompanied by Doug Varone’s company and a Steinway grand on a rotating stage. Gordon spoke with Alicia Zuckerman.
I hear this project has been ten years in the making.
Exactly. Todd Palmer, the clarinetist, approached me in 1995. He was doing The Shepherd on the Rock, the Schubert piece for clarinet, soprano, and piano. He thought it’d be great to have a contemporary answer to that piece, and I said yes. A lot of times as a composer, you’re strapped financially; you’ll say yes to anything.
That was a very difficult period for you.
My partner, whose name was Jeffrey Grossi, had AIDS. I was his primary caretaker, and a lot of times, you’re in no condition to do anything. And one morning I called Todd and said, “I just want to write a piece for clarinet and piano.” I thought, At least I can do that. I could hear the disappointment in his voice. That night, I went to bed, and about four in the morning, I literally had one of those wake-up-and-there’s-an-idea-in-your-head moments. I see Todd as Orpheus with his clarinet, and Euridice gets a mysterious virus that steals her from him incrementally. When someone you love is dying of AIDS, every day something else about them dies. I went to the dining-room table with my notebook; by five o’clock in the morning, I had the entire libretto.
Come on! One hour?!
I was, like, in a fever.
There’s one verse you added after Jeffrey died. What is that?
“When it came, her death, he struggled hard and long. / All throughout her suffering, she’d act so strong. / Ashamed, he somehow felt his own survival wrong.”
Yes, and it really happened. I felt in a way like grief was a foreign country that I’d heard people talk about, but I didn’t quite know what it was until he died.
When you went to Elizabeth and Todd and told them they were going to have to dance, how did they react?
Elizabeth was wildly game—there was one moment when she was walking in midair on the hands of Doug’s dancers while she was singing. Todd was scared, mostly about memorizing a piece this long. Then yesterday, there was one point when Todd was in a full arabesque playing his clarinet. It’s so beautiful.
You’re working on an opera of The Grapes of Wrath now—isn’t it an eerie time to be writing about a natural disaster?
Not since the Dust Bowl have there been so many refugees in this country. I’m on the last scene, when the Joads are in the rain looking for a dry place. Could it be more timely? It’s hair-raising.