Why you need to see 'Intimate Apparel,' the first opera at Lincoln Center Theater
The show is gorgeously designed and shares untold stories of Black history.
You might be thinking: The Metropolitan Opera is practically the centerpiece of Lincoln Center. There are operas there all the time. What do you mean, the first Lincoln Center opera? We mean Lincoln Center Theater, the organization that operates three cozy theatres (the Vivian Beaumont, Mitzi E. Newhouse, and Claire Tow) in the building just behind the Met.
LCT usually sticks to traditional plays and musicals, and The Met sticks to operas. But in 2006, the artistic directors of the two companies had the idea to develop new operas together. A few of those operas have since debuted on the Metropolitan Opera stage, but for the first time, LCT is hosting an opera premiere in its own building: Intimate Apparel at the Newhouse.
The opera is based on the 2003 play by Lynn Nottage and takes you back to 1905 New York City. The main character is a single Black woman named Esther, who works as a seamstress specializing in ladies’ lingerie. She hopes to one day open her own beauty parlor and find love.
There are a lot of misconceptions about how opera is highbrow and inaccessible, but go to Intimate Apparel and those ideas will be shattered. If you’ve never seen an opera before, this one is a great place to start: It’s in English. You’ll see an epic story of romance, betrayal, and big dreams. (And you can go in jeans.) Plus, it’s rare that all-new American operas premiere in New York, so you’ll experience something historic. You don’t want to miss this show, and here’s why.
Intimate Apparel has an award-winning creative team.
When you’ve got Pulitzer- and Tony-winning artists together on a show, you know it’s going to be good. The backbone of it all is Lynn Nottage, who wrote the original Intimate Apparel play back in 2003. We wouldn’t have the opera without her! Not only is she a Pulitzer winner, she’s a double Pulitzer winner, having won for her plays Ruined and Sweat. She’s also got loads of other awards for her work, including an Outer Critics Circle Award for the Intimate Apparel play.
The opera version is directed by Bartlett Sher, the director behind critically acclaimed Broadway shows like To Kill a Mockingbird, My Fair Lady, and The King and I. He’s a Best Director Tony Award winner for his revival of South Pacific, and he’s got another eight directing nominations to boot.
And of course, Intimate Apparel wouldn’t be an opera without its music, and that’s where composer Ricky Ian Gordon came in. Gordon is an Obie Award winner and Helen Hayes Award winner, respectively, for his operas Orpheus and Euridice and Sycamore Trees. Plus, award-winning performers like Audra McDonald and Renée Fleming have sung his music. You won’t see them in Intimate Apparel, but you will see equally talented performers singing Gordon’s enchanting piano score.
The Intimate Apparel music is gorgeous — and performed in English.
Unlike most operas, the music in Intimate Apparel wasn’t written for a full orchestra. Instead, two pianists sitting above the stage play the whole score. But that doesn’t mean the opera is lacking musically in any way. Those two pianists are great storytellers — shifts in the music signal joy, sadness, and suspense in the plot the way a great movie score does. And the simple music makes the opera feel more, well, intimate, and lets the singers’ voices shine.
Between the simple music and small size of the theatre, it’s also easy to understand what the singers are saying. There’s no dialogue; all the conversations that drive the plot are sung, so you’ll definitely want to catch every word. Opera often gets a reputation for being inaccessible because it’s sung in different languages, but subtitles are always provided. Intimate Apparel is in English, so you won’t even need subtitles, but they’re projected on the walls anyway just in case.
There’s romance, intrigue, and plenty of drama.
If you love soap operas, romance books and movies, or any kind of drama, Intimate Apparel has it all: secret and forbidden romances, a love triangle (actually, more like a pentagon), gossip, and betrayal. And it all kicks off with an exchange of letters — You’ve Got Mail and She Loves Me fans, this one’s for you.
Esther receives an unexpected letter from a Panama Canal worker named George, who sounds handsome by the way he writes. She enlists the help of two friends to write back to him since she’s illiterate: Mayme, who lives in her building, and Evangeline Van Buren, a wealthy white client of Esther's looking for something fun to do. Esther hopes she’ll eventually get to meet and fall in love with George for real. All the while, Esther’s fabric salesman has his own eye on her, but because he’s Jewish and she’s Black, their love is forbidden.
What is George really like? Who will she choose? Who are the other people in the love pentagon? You’ll have to see for yourself — and like previous audiences, you may audibly gasp multiple times as plot twists are revealed.
Intimate Apparel is based on true, seldom-told stories of Black history.
Nottage was inspired to write the original Intimate Apparel play after discovering photos of her great-grandmother Esther, who was a seamstress. That’s where Esther’s name and profession in the play and opera come from. Nottage combines this with another bit of true history: At the turn of the 20th century, after the Civil War, many Southern Black women came to New York to build new lives. They found inexpensive shelter and community with other Black women in boarding houses. The fictional Esther lives in a boarding house run by the Black landlady Mrs. Dickson, who is a mother figure to Esther and the other women there.
But photos of the real Esther aren’t all that inspired the characters in Intimate Apparel: Nottage said in an interview with LCT that she looked through tons of photos from the time period, and the white people would be identified by name while the Black people would each be listed as an “unidentified Negro.” The opera even recreates some of these photos at the end of each act. By focusing Intimate Apparel on ordinary Black workers — a seamstress, a canal digger, a landlady, a performer — Nottage has given names, faces, and depth to Black people lost to history. You won’t see these stories anywhere else on stage.
The opera is in an intimate theatre.
Fitting, for a show with “intimate” in the title! Most major operas are performed in the 3,850-seat Metropolitan Opera House — which has no bad seats, but you won’t be close to the stage in most of the sections. Intimate Apparel is performed in the 299-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, so no matter where you sit, you’re right up close and can see every little detail of the intricate costumes and the actors’ facial expressions.
Plus, the Newhouse has a more relaxed dress code, unlike the Met, which encourages formal attire. So if you’re interested in the opera but are daunted by the glamour, you won’t feel underdressed at Intimate Apparel no matter what you wear. That said, this show is all about beautiful clothing, after all. So if you do want an excuse to wear that fancy outfit, you’ll still fit in perfectly at Intimate Apparel.
Intimate Apparel celebrates sisterhood.
Intimate Apparel doesn’t always paint the rosiest picture of love. In the opera, everyone gets disappointed by their dream of finding true love, whether because the person is taken, cold, or is someone that society does not want them to love. But Intimate Apparel celebrates a different kind of love instead: sisterhood.
This is a show about the unconditional love and support between women who are each other’s source of happiness. There’s a mother/daughter-like bond between Esther and Mrs. Dickson, a sisterhood between Esther and her fellow boarding house resident Mayme, and an unlikely friendship between Esther and Evangeline Van Buren, a wealthy white woman that Esther makes clothes for. Evangeline gets swept up in Esther’s quest for love and even invites Esther on a trip with her to escape her disinterested husband.
With Galentine’s Day this month, what better time to see a show like this? And even though the relationships in Intimate Apparel don’t always end in happily ever after, the romantic show still makes for a great Valentine’s Day outing. Between the music, the performances, the celebration of Black life, and the thrilling drama, there’s so much to love about Intimate Apparel. Put on your favorite apparel and go!
Photo credit: Kearstin Piper Brown and Justin Austin in Intimate Apparel. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)