By Julia Munemo
The sold-out, March 12 “pre-premiere” of the opera A Marvelous Order at Williams’ ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance brings together the creative talents of three Williams alumni. Will Rawls ’00 is the choreographer, Judd Greenstein ’01 is the composer, and Joshua Frankel ’02 is the director and animator in a production that weaves together the stories of urban planner Robert Moses, activist Jane Jacobs and the city of New York in the 1960s.
“A friend sent me a book about Moses and Jacobs and suggested I write an opera about it,” says Greenstein, who works as a composer and is a founding member of NOW Ensemble. Because he’d worked with Frankel and Rawls on a short film about New York in 2010, they sprang to mind as potential collaborators. This is the first time any of them has worked on an opera.
A Marvelous Order depicts the struggle between Jacobs and Moses over the fate of Washington Square Park and lower Manhattan. Moses proposed building a highway through the area, which threatened Jacobs’ neighborhood. Jacobs successfully rallied the community in opposition to the plan, weakening Moses’ hold on urban policy. “That moment of conflict represents the juncture between two approaches to urban planning, personified by the two antagonists, that continue to frame the contemporary development of cities around the world,” the creative team writes of the opera.
Yet neither Moses or Jacobs is all good or all evil. Moses gave the city Shea Stadium and Lincoln Center, and Jacobs’ concept of what she called “unslumming” has been compared to gentrification. “The story is perfect for an opera because it’s large in scope but contains characters that you can wrestle with,” Greenstein says.
There’s also a third character—perhaps the most important—in the opera: New York City. “The opera tells a huge story about the displacement of poor people of color and immigrants in an extremely diverse city,” says Rawls, a dancer and choreographer living in New York. “One of our questions is how to enact an ethos around representing the city without cheapening it and making it simple entertainment.”
In addition to the choreography, animation, and music, the libretto plays a big part in that ethos. “We needed somebody who could take esoteric ideas and turn them into emotional ideas,” Greenstein says of the team’s decision to ask Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith to be the librettist. “Tracy’s work does exactly that.”
Says Frankel, a visual artist, “One of our goals is to bring out the human and emotional ramifications of a conflict over competing theories about how a city should be shaped and how decisions should be made. The scale of what’s at stake—the homes of thousands of people, enormous towers of housing, 10-lane super-highways—seems to demand an opera.”
The performance includes seven singers, three dancers, and five musicians from NOW ensemble. There are a total of 10 scenes, although the team likely will add another few before premiering the opera in New York some time in 2017.
That process will be equally collaborative. “In A Marvelous Order, no one person has taken total creative control,” says John Rodriguez ’18, a theater and economics double major who took a Winter Study course with the creative team in January. His job was to document rehearsals, although he sometimes got to stand in for performers who had to miss a day or two. “Each of the collaborators worked together in constructing this work,” he says.
“We made decisions from the outset about which ideas will be communicated through which artistic medium,” Frankel says. “In some cases I’ve been able to give the audience important information with images, taking expositional weight off of Tracy’s shoulders. Sometimes, to show two sides of an issue, we’ll have the characters’ lines express one point of view while the music provides additional angles or connotations. In some moments, we’ve chosen to put dance in the foreground to communicate emotion.”
That’s a message Rachel Chanoff, director of programming for the college’s CenterSeries, hopes viewers, especially students, take home from the ’62 Center performance. “It’s important that students are inspired to be makers, not just viewers,” she says. “We want them to see how collaborators work together and how grand the results can be.”
Read more about A Marvelous Order and the CenterSeries integrative programming.