Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera Green Sneakers is much more than a theatrical song cycle for a baritone and string quartet. It is a raw, personal, and intimate work of art written by the award-winning composer after the AIDS-related death of his partner, Jeffrey Grossi. Called “a masterpiece” by Opera Today, the mini-opera tells the story of the couple’s final few months together, from the day Grossi buys a pair of sneakers until the moment of his death. It is a production that peers into the soul, transforming and uplifting the audience at each performance. Between Green Sneakers’ West Coast premiere (at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center) and its next staging (at New York’s Lincoln Center), Gordon took a moment to talk about his most personal composition, how he felt the first time it was performed, and why he felt compelled to create it.
What inspired you to create a mini-opera based on such a painful period of your life?
For a very long time, it felt like I couldn’t move past the pain, but soon I realized my way of working out my grief was through my work. It’s catharsis. You create in order to move past. Also, I had the feeling if I wrote Green Sneakers and got it right, it could conceivably be a source of comfort for a lot of other people who had gone through what I’d gone though.
Because the story is so personal, was there ever a moment when you felt like this might be too difficult for you to produce?
There were times I’d wake up in the middle of the night, soaked in terror, because I felt such immense pressure to get it right. The time I spent preparing this piece was so deep because I really loved him, and it seemed essential to remember him in my work. I don’t think I really had any idea what grief was until the moment when Jeffrey was staring at me, he was in my arms, and a moment later he was gone and I was holding a husk and I could tell he was no longer there.
How did you feel the first time you witnessed Green Sneakers performed in front of a live audience?
I knew it was enough that I’d put that piece onstage and the audience didn’t need me to be a wreck on top of that. It was really important to me that I hold myself together and remain cool, calm, and collected. However, when the performance ended I went backstage and let my feelings out there. I was moved and so proud because I thought, My God, this piece is beautiful. Then I had a talkback with the audience in the lobby, and that night was unlike anything I’d experienced. The whole audience was crying, and everyone wanted to share about who they’d lost. It was such an intimate conversation for that context, and that made it so fulfilling. It was so rewarding, and I’ll never forget it.
Do you feel differently now when you see the opera performed?
I still have to work to control myself when I see it now, but it’s not that it’s painful, it’s just so moving to me. There are so many moments in Green Sneakers that are still so real, when I see them I feel like I want to burst into tears, but a part of me feels like that would be inappropriate because it’s in the piece. It’s there, and I don’t want the audience to take care of me, I want them to experience it and feel whatever they bring to it.
HIV infection rates have increased in young gay men in recent years. As someone who witnessed a loved one passing from the disease, what would you say to the youth of today who might not worry about HIV?
Don’t throw away your life. The world is so different now than it was when Jeffrey died in 1996. Young people today missed seeing what it was really like at the height of the AIDS crisis, so for them, they think it’s OK because you just get to take a few pills all the time. Today, HIV is romanticized in a way because you get to be like that character in Rent, but young people need to know that there’s nothing romantic about it.