Gay composer Ricky Ian Gordon premieres Christmas Tree musical at Houston Grand Opera.
By Don Maines
Renowned gay composer Ricky Ian Gordon wishes everyone a happy holiday season with the world premiere of his new opera, The House without a Christmas Tree, which runs through December 17 in Houston.
Gordon’s year-round gift, he says, is being “emotionally honest.”
“We are in a world of recovery,” he says. “Emotional honesty is what I pretty much represent in the world.”
The Houston Grand Opera commissioned Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek to adapt The House without a Christmas Tree from an original story by children’s author Gail Rock, as well as an Emmy Award-winning holiday TV special that was first broadcast on CBS in 1972.
Jason Robards played James, the gruff, emotionally distant father of 10-year-old Addie Mills. As a grown-up in Manhattan, Addie looks back on her childhood in Nebraska with her grandmother and James, a widower.
Gordon, who also lives in Manhattan and has composed three operas inspired by the death of his lover in 1996, says the family-friendly story “resonated” with him.
“Watching the movie and reading the book was such a pleasure, and very touching for me,” he says. “Writing the music was very uninhibiting because I did not have to show how sophisticated I am. It rolled out like the truth.”
Gordon has laid bare his truth before, including opening up to author Donald Katz for the 1992 narrative nonfiction book, Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America. Gordon’s parents and three sisters also told Katz what their lives were like on Harbor Isle, Long Island, from often-conflicting points of view.
“For five years, I was the liaison between Don and the other members of my family,” says Gordon.
Home Fires, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, drew comparisons to 1973’s groundbreaking PBS documentary series An American Family, in which the late Lance Loud shocked viewers by coming out as cameras rolled.
“I even met Lance Loud,” Gordon says. “He knew about the book.”
Home Fires’ publication “was painful for my family,” admits Gordon, explaining that it exposed feelings and observations that were surprising to him because “people talk to an outsider in ways they don’t talk to each other.”
The book includes the letter that Gordon wrote coming out to his father.
Gordon’s “shame-filled” childhood included “getting beaten up a lot” by classmates. “It was so bad that at one point we had to move. It was definitely bullying because I was different, though anti-gay [bullying] is somewhat inaccurate because I had no idea what I was yet. I just knew I was unlike other kids, including being obsessed with opera.”
Gordon found comfort as a college student when he took part in Erhard Seminars Training (EST), the organization founded by Werner Erhard in 1971.
“It is now Landmark Education, which Kevin, my partner, is deeply involved with,” says Gordon. “I used to practice Tibetan Buddhist meditation, but it morphed into regular old meditation. I learned [the Buddhist meditation] a very long time ago from a guru named Swami Muktananda at the Syda/Syddha Yoga Foundation.”
Gordon says EST “felt liberating—not from my own pain, but by making me want to tell ‘truth.’ That wasn’t the end of my problems, but it’s why I don’t hide myself anymore.”
Gordon’s generosity of spirit is alive in performances of The House without a Christmas Tree, in which Addie believes that a Christmas tree will make her family’s home “look happy.”
The composer also brought joy to the production’s cast and crew by arriving in Houston on October 29 to help with rehearsals. He planned to stay in town through the first two performances at the Houston Grand Opera’s Resilience Theater at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
“It’s a huge thing to premiere an opera,” he explains. “In every rehearsal, anything can go wrong. You have to imbue the whole cast with the direction you intend the story to go.”
The cast includes 10 local youngsters who perform as HGO’s juvenile chorus, singing “Gather around the Christmas Tree.”
Members of the juvenile chorus also portray Santa Claus, one of the three Wise Men, and part of the posse behind 10-year-old Addie’s love interest, played by Maximillian Macias, a student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Montrose.
What: The House without a Christmas Tree
When: Nov. 30 through Dec. 17
Where: Houston Grand Opera’s Resilience Theatre, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas, Houston
Parking: Available at the Avenida North garage at 1815 Rusk Street, across from HGO’s temporary convention-center venue.
This article appears in the December 2017 edition of OutSmart magazine.