If you thought you knew everything about the genius of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage, think again. Now you can add to her incredible resume librettist, as she makes her debut with the Opera version of her play “Intimate Apparel”, playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at 150 W 65th Street in Lincoln Center. This stunning opera has music by Ricky Ian Gordon and direction by Bartlett Sher and it is the first opera product out of the Met/LCT New Works Program, a marvelous program that fosters collaboration between the Met and Lincoln Center Theater. “Intimate Apparel” tells the touching story of Esther, a Black woman who makes her living sewing sexy corsets and undergarments for women. She lives in a house with other single Black women and is desperate to find love and marriage. She is a woman who has goals in life and is working towards saving up to fulfill them, but finds herself consumed by the desire to find a husband, be touched, and feel love.
Esther is so desperate for love that when a Black man working on the Panama Canal—George Armstrong—starts sending her letters, she wants to respond back to the letters. The sad part is that Esther–whose parents were slaves–can neither read or write. She convinces her female clients to write letters for her to Mr. Armstrong. In the meanwhile, she is purchasing the fabric for her garments from a white Jewish vendor named Mr. Marks. Mr. Marks definitely is attracted to Esther, but due to the times and his religion, can never act on it. Esther decides to marry Mr. Armstrong and they have a wedding, with the actually wedding day and ceremony being the first time they lay eyes on each other. Esther finds out that she has gone from the frying pan to the fire as Mr. Armstrong is not the tender, loving, affectionate man he seemed to be in his letters. In fact, she finds out that the letters are not exactly what they seemed either. Mr. Armstrong ends up betraying Esther, feeling no remorse and causing her to be worse off then she was before the exchange began.
Something that is very clear in this opera–which is performed with subtitles–is that in the 1900s Black women had so much riding against them. Being the children of slaves they didn’t have an education. Living in rooming houses with people like Mrs. Dickson to run them, only gave the women a certain amount of protection. But Black women were also regarded as people not worthy of love and respect, at times by their own men. They were there to be used and there was no recourse for them, except to accept the mistreatment and start over again. Nottage doesn’t give a tale of happy ever after and joy, but a tale of reality and pure human woe. “Intimate Apparel” is an important work in the scheme of human events because if dedicated, caring playwrights like Lynn Nottage doesn’t write about these occurrences, then these women go on being marginalized, even in our history. But, don’t get me wrong, amongst all of this there is still hope, because in the end, though she goes back to her sad beginnings to start a new, at least she has the common sense to not let her pride keep her alone and devastated. Watching this opera truly struck me with the mistreatment of Black women in those times. It was also horrible the way that a Black man could blatantly demean his wife and she just had to take it. An element that I truly appreciated about this opera is how it captured the relationship between Black women– that when push comes to shove they will have each other’s back.
To sit and watch an opera, means everything is sung in a stupendous operatic voice and that is an absolutely stirring thing to experience. The voices of these performers were captivating to say the least. What gifts they have in both their vocal instruments and acting delivery. Kearstin Piper Brown is exquisite as Esther! You felt her frustration, her pain, her disappointment and her strength! Justin Austin as George Armstrong had a glorious voice that could melt butter! He also embodied the role of this deceptive, cold, resentful Black man with great flair. Arnold Livingston Geis is superb as Mr. Marks, the Jewish fabric salesman, who always showed great care, concerns, empathy and an understated affection for Esther. Naomi Louisa O’Connell gives a stunning performance as Mrs. Van Buren, a frustrated rich White woman, who is a client of Esther and constantly shares her stories of woe and being ignored by her husband. Adrienne Danrich commands the stage as the rooming house landlady Mrs. Dickson. She treats the women in her rooming house as a mother would—teaching them and sending them off to be married. She gives advice and tries to protect these young ladies under her care. Krysty Swann is absolutely brilliant as Mayme, a prostitute who is a client, but becomes a part of the love triangle between Esther and Mr. Armstrong. Errin Duane Brooks is delightful, as Mr. Charles, an older man interested in Esther. All the other featured performers and the ensemble deliver “Intimate Apparel” with a smooth, delicate flair.
“Intimate Apparel” is one of the many stories behind the photos that we see of unnamed Black people at the turn of the century and it is a story worth being told! Lynn Nottage can do it all!