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Song of Protest for the New Century

Iain Bell’s “Stonewall” from New York City Opera is needed listening

Lisa Chavez (center, facing forward) and the cast of Iain Bell’s “Stonewall,” commissioned and produced by New York City Opera.
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Iain Bell’s “Stonewall” is New York City Opera’s 36th world premiere commission — and it’s a winner. This is not City Opera’s first foray into 20th century gay history — in 1995 it presented the New York premiere of “Harvey Milk” (music by Stewart Wallace, libretto by Michael Korie). Its good intentions met with respectful critical indifference and then faded away. A similar fate befell Anthony Davis’ “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X” which depicted 20th century civil rights history.

“Stonewall,” composed to a taut theatrical libretto by Mark Campbell, is not mired in reverence or historical literalism but brims with theatrical and musical vitality. Mark Campbell’s libretto presents composite fictional characters (based on real people Campbell has known) that represent the full spectrum of the LGBTQ community. The first act introduces each protagonist with a monologue or short scene that reveals their background and history, including the indignities they have suffered or are suffering at the hands of society. On that hot Friday night of June 27, 1969, each one wants to forget their troubles and dance downtown with their community. Their lives converge with each other’s and with history.

What is interesting about the Stonewall depicted here is that the gay male, lesbian, transvestite, and transgender communities of all ages and colors socialize together easily and joyously in the same space. Were there fewer racial and gender divisions back then in the community? Also, the Internet does not exist — so LGBTQ folks have to connect in safe spaces person to person. No anonymous cyber-cruising.

The fun and games abruptly end in the extended Act II, which depicts the NYPD bust of the Stonewall Inn. A defiant lesbian Maggie turns on the cops shouting, “No, just NO!” and is beaten. The crowd outside the Stonewall Inn reacts violently to police brutality. The patrons inside reach their breaking point and strike back against the cops. Soon the cops find themselves outnumbered as an angry mass protest takes over the West Village. Act III is an epilogue depicting the morning after the riot, where all the characters greet an uncertain new morning with hope and a sense that there is “Much to be done” — a new future dawns for the LGBTQ community. All this accomplished in less than 90 minutes.

British composer Bell’s tonal music is an active, not passive, participant in the drama. It doesn’t pulsate in the background like a film score but gives specific emotional voice to the drama through the singers and orchestra. It is doesn’t describe or comment on the story — it embodies the story. The Stonewall riot scene starts as a series of disjointed individual confrontations while the orchestra builds up an atmosphere of unease and mounting anxiety. A pulsing beat is tossed back and forth by the oppressed Stonewall patrons and the crowd outside, which builds into a crescendo. Individual voices combine, becoming an ensemble of defiance and self-empowerment that leads to an explosive climax. The epilogue has searching lyrical harmonies as each protagonist ponders what just happened and where they will go from here. Bell also manages to write two authentically catchy ‘60s Motown-style pop tunes, “Today’s the Day” and “Better Days Ahead” (recorded by the incomparable Darlene Love), which the cast dances and lip-synchs to in Act II.

A vibrantly committed cast bring strong individual profiles to each character while Leonard Foglia’s fluid and cinematic production never lets the action pause for a moment as the story hurtles toward its historical crisis. Maggie, whose defiance sparks the riot, is played warmly with dignity by mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez. Andrew Bidlack’s bright keen tenor brings youth, vulnerability, and a hopeful quality to Andy, a homeless teenage hustler from Buffalo kicked out by his parents for being gay. Soulful tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts introduces us to Renata, a glamorous drag queen by night, shy queer black youth Maynard by day. Trans mezzo Liz Bouk portrays trans woman Sarah, who is celebrating her first year living as a woman. Jessica Fishenfeld is bubbly lesbian Leah, who survived conversion therapy in a mental institution and isn’t going back into the closet. Brian James Myer sensitively portrays Carlos, a teacher in a Catholic school fired for being gay. Their antagonists are mob bar owner Sal (sung by gritty baritone Michael Corvino), muscular gay-for-pay blackmailer Troy (bass-baritone Joseph Charles Beutel), and NYPD deputy inspector Larry (powerfully sung by spinto tenor Marc Heller). Caught in between is closeted married man Edward (baritone Justin Ryan). Carolyn Kuan and her orchestra find life in the smallest detail and build the music to shattering climaxes.

The saying goes “If you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it.” Twenty-first century America has forgotten its history and seems eager to repeat past wrongs and inequalities. “Stonewall” depicts not a divided but a united queer community that don’t just complain about injustice after reading articles on their iPhone or online. They came together as a physical body in a spirit of united protest to speak truth to power in one combined voice. America today needs to hear the voices and the songs of that spirit of protest. I hope “Stonewall” the opera keeps on singing that story for decades to come.

Updated 12:53 pm, July 5, 2019
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