'Stonewall' Opera Marks Uprising's 50th Anniversary

Jun 22, 2019
Originally published on June 24, 2019 8:34 am

June 28 marks the 50th anniversary of an event that proved to be a catalyst for a simmering gay-rights movement. On that day in 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Now a new opera, Stonewall, at the New York City Opera, dramatizes that historic moment.

The idea for the opera, which was commissioned for NYCO's 75th anniversary, came from Michael Capasso, the organization's general director. Capasso points to the NYCO ideals that align with the show. "City Opera had been founded as the People's Opera," he says. "We thought that we needed programming that needed to speak to the people of the city of New York."

Capasso and the team he assembled realized his vision quickly. Just 18 months prior to Stonewall's opening on June 21, Capasso hired Leonard Foglia as the show's director and Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Campbell as the librettist. Campbell, who was paired with British composer Iain Bell, wrote a first draft of the new opera's text in three weeks.

"I wasn't there in 1969, but I'm a beneficiary of what happened in 1969, as are all gay people," Campbell says. "We've all learned from Stonewall. That's why it was such a terrific privilege to be able to write it."

Bell was in the middle of writing another opera. "Yes, time constraints would be pretty intense. But I knew this was a story I wanted to be involved in telling," Bell says.

The story follows a cast of LGBTQ characters as they prepare to go to the Stonewall Inn. Campbell wanted to give audiences a sense of what it was like to be gay in New York in 1969. "I wanted to remind them that there was a reason for Stonewall, and that there is still a reason for Stonewall — that you could be harassed, or you could lose your job; that people were trying to apply conversion therapy to you," Campbell says. "I mean, all of these stories, all of Part 1, is about examining how homosexuality was a crime."

Brian James Myer, who plays a gay high school teacher in the show, says that Stonewall's premiere is well-suited to 2019. "Why not this? Why not now?" he asks. "This is a perfect time. It's the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots this year. It's also the 75th anniversary of New York City Opera. And it's a particularly timely piece in the current political climate that we're in."

Myer's co-star, Lisa Chavez, also attests to the relevance of the opera and the character she plays. "She's based off of a real woman who did stand up to the cops," Chavez says of her character, Maggie. "So, she basically sees everybody getting roughed up and she says, 'No. No, this is enough. Enough is enough, and we're done with this.' "

Bell notes that Stonewall chronicles both the critical uprising — "I would not be married if not for the actions of those brave people that evening" — and reminds viewers of the social progress that has yet to be made in the 21st century.

"Pride in and of itself isn't just about some capital F fabulous événement," Bell says. "It's actually shining a light on the fact that horrible atrocities are still happening in our backyard. This isn't an antique piece. This is as relevant as it could be."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This coming week marks the 50th anniversary of an event that proved to be a catalyst for the gay rights movement. June 28, 1969, New York City police raided an illegal bar in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn. A new opera called "Stonewall" dramatizes that historical moment - premiered last night in New York.

Jeff Lunden has the story behind it.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The Stonewall Inn was a dive, says the opera's director Leonard Foglia, quoting from the history of the uprising.

LEONARD FOGLIA: It said that, you know, Stonewall was a bar that, if you were too poor, too young or just too much to get in anywhere else, that's where you went. It had only a front door. It had no fire exit. All the windows were boarded up. It was a terrible, terrible place run by the Mafia. But it was a place where people could go and be themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "STONEWALL")

JORDAN WEATHERSTON PITTS: (As Renata, singing) Renata is here. Renata is here.

LUNDEN: The idea for an opera came from New York City Opera general director Michael Capasso.

MICHAEL CAPASSO: City Opera had been founded as the people's opera. We thought that we needed programming that needed to speak to the people of the city of New York.

LUNDEN: All of the people - City Opera has presented work for Latinx audiences. And every June - Pride month - the company presents gay-themed work. Just 18 months ago, which is no time when it comes to creating a new opera, Capasso hired Foglia to direct. Then he turned to two high-profile artists, Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell.

MARK CAMPBELL: I mean, I wasn't there in 1969, but I'm a beneficiary of what happened in 1969, as are all gay people. We've all learned from Stonewall. That's why it was such a terrific privilege to be able to write it.

LUNDEN: Campbell wrote a first draft in three weeks. He was paired with British composer Iain Bell.

IAIN BELL: I was in the middle of writing another opera. Yes, the time constraints would be pretty intense, but I knew that this was a story I wanted to be involved in telling.

LUNDEN: The story focuses on 10 characters - who include a couple of lesbians, a drag queen, a gay high school teacher - as they prepare to go to the Stonewall Inn. Librettist Mark Campbell says he wanted to give audiences a sense of what it was like to be gay in New York in 1969.

CAMPBELL: I wanted to remind them that there was a reason for Stonewall and that there is still a reason for Stonewall - that you could be harassed or you could lose your job, that people were trying to apply conversion therapy to you. I mean, all of these stories - all of part one is about examining how homosexuality was a crime.

LUNDEN: So the teacher in the opera gets fired for being gay.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "STONEWALL")

BRIAN JAMES MYER: (As Carlos, singing) I know what I'll miss the most - my kids' faces, my kids' faces.

LUNDEN: Brian James Myer plays him.

JAMES MYER: So many operas are historic in nature. Why not this? Why not now? This is a perfect time. It's the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots this year. It's also the 75th anniversary of New York City Opera. And it's a particularly timely piece in the current political climate that we're in.

LUNDEN: But the composer and the librettist wanted to show how the gay community tried to escape the political climate of their time. So they wrote two tunes that were prerecorded to play through a jukebox on the set and sung by 1960s star Darlene Love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY'S THE DAY")

DARLENE LOVE: (Singing) They may say our love is wrong, and they may say we don't belong. But our love is sure and strong, and we'll never falter once we hit the altar.

LUNDEN: Inside the bar, couples are dancing and making out. Then the police raid the joint. Joy turns to confrontation. And, eventually, a riot erupts outside the bar. Director Leonard Foglia says this moment is the crux of the opera.

FOGLIA: It's about a group of people finding the strength to use their voice. What is that moment when people find the strength to use their voice?

LUNDEN: One of those voices belongs to a character named Maggie, sung by Lisa Chavez.

LISA CHAVEZ: She's based off of a real woman who did stand up to the cops. She sees everybody getting roughed up. And she says, no, no. This is enough. Enough is enough. And we're done with this.

LUNDEN: And the rest of the cast locks arms with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "STONEWALL")

CHAVEZ: (As Maggie, singing) You hurt us long enough. You beat us down. You screwed us over, harassed us, hurt us, harmed us, beat us (unintelligible).

LUNDEN: Composer Iain Bell wasn't even born when the Stonewall uprising happened, yet he says his life would be different if it hadn't.

BELL: I would not be married were it not for the actions of those brave people that evening. But Pride in and of itself isn't just about some capital-F fabulous (speaking French). It's actually shining a light on the fact that horrible atrocities are still happening in our backyard, and that has to be addressed. So by us saying this and telling this story, we hope that this resonates with people and it makes them realize that the events of 50 years ago - they're not antique. This isn't an antique piece. This is as relevant as it could be.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF IAIN BELL'S "FINALE FROM STONEWALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.