Urban myth and reality ignite new opera, "A Marvelous Order," at Williams College


WILLIAMSTOWN >> By the time New York's master builder Robert Moses proposed a major expressway that would slash through downtown Manhattan in the early 1960s, he had already made his mark on the city. He had woven a network of highways, bridges and tunnels that threaded the five boroughs together, with a string of parks, beaches and swimming pools throughout. He'd built landmarks like Lincoln Center and the UN, as well as high-rise housing projects. He had proven his genius for dreaming up, funding and building even his boldest ideas, usually in defiance of the mess and frustration of metropolitan democracy.

As it would turn out, that last project was a step too far. Led in part by journalist and organizer Jane Jacobs, a different vision of what the city was and could be emerged. The collision of these two visions proves that beyond the process of decision-making — the bond issues, zoning rulings, and public hearings — are stories of power, anger, greed, and ultimately love.

In other words, all the best stuff of opera, which is why "A Marvelous Order" — appearing Saturday in an already sold-out "pre-premiere" performance at Williams College's '62 Center for Theater and Dance — seems both very strange and very appropriate at the same time.

While "A Marvelous Order" is very much about divergent ideas of what the city could be — Moses' vision of the city as the apotheosis of technological modernity, with its infrastructure and engineering, and Jacobs' vision of an evolving, organic matrix of neighborhoods — as a work for the stage "A Marvelous Order" seeks to locate the meaning of the controversy in the people of the city.

"The only reason Moses has meaning, or Jacobs has meaning, is because people's lives were changed forever by their work," said Judd Greenstein, the opera's composer. "To understand the story you have to understand it is about people, and that's where it becomes an opera. It's not just a story about Moses and Jacobs."

The project — which has drawn much interest, including a "Talk of the Town" piece in The New Yorker last month — marks a homecoming of sorts for its creators. Greenstein graduated from Williams in 2001. As a composer and curator, he has worked with many important ensembles, including Williamstown-based Roomful of Teeth. For the opera, he has worked with college friends Joshua Frankel (Class of '02) who directs and did the animation for the work, and choreographer Will Rawls ('00). The project has been in the works for the last two years, and has taken up residency at Williams' CenterStage this month.

Inspired by the modernist geometry of urban planning that was in vogue at the time, the set features blocks of various sizes, which can be pushed, carried, or rolled around the stage. Some of them contain screens that show Frankel's animation that includes a collage of found footage and his own photographs.

"The cast is constantly rearranging the shape of their environment," Frankel explained at a panel discussion at the college on Tuesday. "We are treating all the movement on the stage as choreography just as Jacobs viewed the movement of people on Hudson Street as a ballet."

Rawls said at the panel that both visions are critical parts of the opera.

"That's the world of Moses, the geometry of that world and the spiraling, fractal imagination of Jane as she sees the chaos of the city achieve a kind of logic," he said. "We've tried to overlay these two maps in different ways on the show, and put people on them and think about the layers of movement."

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That required a high degree of cooperation and interaction, Greenstein said in an interview earlier this week, amongst themselves and with collaborators that have been brought on board like Tracy K. Smith, who wrote the libretto.

"One of the things about this opera that is unusual is the extent to which it was not any one of us that said this is my project, and you are all the moons around my planet," Greenstein said. "We wanted to tell it in such a way that each of us carries the weight of telling the story."

Among the guiding ideas of their collaboration, including the notion that it was a love triangle between Moses and Jacobs and the city itself, was that it couldn't be black and white. The story of their battle has reached a mythic level — Moses cast as the power-mad villain and Jacobs as the hero who "saved" Greenwich Village.

But it is useful to remember that Moses' commitment to a narrow understanding of "open space" changed the way New Yorkers engaged with the natural world, and that most would agree that too few vital public works projects have been accomplished since his fall from power. And on the other hand, as Greenstein noted, Jacobs' vision of ideal urban life planted the seeds for the sort of gentrification that is in some ways the most urgent problem many cities face today.

Which is why in creating the opera he said they were eager to present their "duality as myths and as real flesh and blood people with real emotions."

Greenstein said much of the opera's plot tracks to specific historic moments, and sets the scene for Moses' and Jacobs' titanic clash, but that his favorite scenes came when he could look into his characters.

"I'm really interested in the moments where time seems to stop," he said. "That's the most operatic moment, when you are peeling back the outer, known elements of a figure you think you know from the public record."

The opera also marks one of the longer works for Greenstein as a composer. His previous acclaimed work is often described as "indie classical," which defies easily categorization into genre. His work often features bright pop-like or hip-hop beats, with complicated classical harmonic structures. He said his approach is not about being bound to earlier forms, but about crafting something individual, with all its idiosyncrasies, that is open to the world and unexpected influences.

It's a kind of approach he learned at Williams, with the liberal arts ideal. He noted that in addition to his studies, he also learned a lot organizing a contemporary music series. It was about collaborating with peers, and working for people who didn't necessarily share his interests.

"To be exposed to as wide a variety of perspectives and disciplines as possible only benefits the artistic process," Greenstein said.


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