Since Chautauqua Opera Conservatory students worked with contemporary composer Ricky Ian Gordon on pieces he himself wrote, he said he found a certain level of comfortability working with them that may come across in their performances.
“Wednesday’s recital will be like a salon in my living room,” Gordon said.
At 7 p.m. tonight in McKnight Hall, students from the Chautauqua Opera Conservatory will perform a collection of musical theater, pop and classical works under his guidance.
After studying piano, composition and acting at Carnegie Mellon University, Gordon has since composed several operas and written songs for the likes of Audra McDonald, Renée Fleming and Dawn Upshaw, among others.
While Gordon did not arrive to coach the students until this past Sunday, preparations for tonight’s recital have been underway since the beginning of the season. Students have also been working with Kanae Matsumoto Giampietro, Martin Dubé and Jinhee Park.
“The coaches have been instrumental in putting us in the place where we are now, where we’re really ready to put on this concert,” said Benjamin R. Sokol, who will be delivering two duets in addition to choir pieces.
Lizzy Hayes, a mezzo performing in tonight’s recital, said the vocalists are combining their own interpretations with Gordon’s vision as a composer.
“It’s the coolest because you’re getting not only your take on it, but then the person who actually wrote the music,” they said.
Sokol said he appreciated Gordon’s keen sense of how to express the text of each piece.
“He knows where the right emphasis is, and he’s really a master of how English — specifically American — song goes,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure working with him and to really gain his expertise.”
While pieces were chosen to highlight the individual talents of the vocalists, many of the works focus on exploring different facets of human relationships.
Soprano Hailey Gutowski will be singing “Run Away” from Gordon’s 2001 album Bright Eyed Joy, which she explained is about a breakup.
“At first I learned it in a bit more of a musical theater style … but when I brought it to him, I had reworked it into a classical style and he really liked it that way,” she said.
Hayes said while the majority of works in the show do not explicitly focus on LGBTQ+ stories, the show is largely comprised of pieces based on works by queer authors.
“I think that’s another part of classical music culture that needs a lot of attention and work, the representation — not just in talking about trauma or talking about pain or talking about the hardships of queerness, but celebrating it too, and giving a little bit of spotlight to the joys of that,” they said. “Because it’s written by a queer composer and a lot of the texts are written by queer poets, it’s that specific kind of amplification that that needs.”
In addition to the solo “Open All Night,” Hayes will be performing a duet with Sokol titled “Resume/Wail/Frustration.”
Sokol called it an “angry” piece between two partners, but said he enjoys singing as villain characters in the bass/baritone range.
“(The characters) probably been married for a really long time and there are marital issues and we’re both at the point where we just want to kill ourselves,” he said. “And we’re trying to find the best way possible to kill ourselves because we’re both so angry at each other.”
Sokol will also duet with soprano Song Hee Lee for “Zephyr/One Star” from Gordon’s opera The Grapes of Wrath, adapted from the John Steinbeck novel of the same name.
He said “sweet sentiment” carries through in the piece.
“It all takes place during the Great Depression, a lot of this, so what they’re really needing and what they don’t have is the money to possibly have a fulfilling life,” said Sokol. “By the end of the song, we both sort of realize that it doesn’t matter whatever we have as long as we have each other.”
Additional works will be performed by students Jaimie Langner, Maya Goell, Fernando Silva-Gorbea, Anthony Voiers and Soren Pedersen.
Gordon said rehearsals have been a “blast” because of the performers’ abilities.
“This is a great bunch of young artists and three exemplary pianists who are the finest of collaborative artists,” said Gordon. “It is a showcase for everyone’s talents and, for me, nothing but a privilege.”