Rag Trade: Pride and Prejudice in the New Opera ‘Intimate Apparel’

Music and language fuse tight as a drum in this spiraling story


It’s a privilege to listen to the fine operatic voices emanating from the mostly Black cast of Intimate Apparel, in a Lincoln Center theater with only 299 seats. Overhead, in a niche on the far wall, two pianists and conductor Steven Osgood oversee Ricky Ian Gordon’s musicalizing of Lynn Nottage’s 2004 play. Nottage’s crisp libretto, which concentrates and strengthens the power of the original, is projected on that wall, to be read or ignored; the diction of the 16 singers in the relatively intimate space is always clear and the text audible. 

Onstage, a Manhattan boardinghouse in 1905 resounds with strains of ragtime; single women rent rooms there en route to inevitable marriages and families elsewhere. But Esther, plain and tall (played magnificently by Kearstin Piper Brown), has already spent half her life there, bent over a sewing machine, crafting stunning lingerie for both rich white ladies and Black dance-hall girls—often the exact same garments. She’s saving her earnings to open a beauty salon, where she can be her own boss. 

Though a fluent seamstress, Esther can neither read nor write; her attempts at correspondence with a laborer in Panama (also, it emerges, illiterate) are abetted by her diverse clients. When the two eventually meet and marry, the scaffold built of the words of others collapses. The scene in which George (Justin Austin) slowly removes Esther’s elaborate wedding costume (designed by Catherine Zuber, responsible for all the glorious clothing) contributes mightily to the drama of their first night together. 

Another, subtler romance transpires between Esther and her Orchard Street fabric merchant, forbidden by Orthodox Jewish doctrine from touching a woman not his wife or relative. Their obvious pleasure in each other’s company, his delight in her “custom,” rescues the opera from overwhelming sadness. To tell more would be to spoil it; you must go and see it for yourself. 

At two and a half hours, Intimate Apparel feels too short—you long to discover how Esther’s dilemma will resolve and you hold faith in her ability to conjure happiness, even as you know that history and the racial politics of New York in 1905 conspire against her. Nottage and Gordon have fused music and language into an opera tight as a drum; every move contributes to the spiraling story. (Dianne McIntyre superintended the simple, eloquent choreography of people and props on Michael Yeargan’s revolving stage.) This is a production in which all technical aspects are of the highest quality. Gordon’s score manages to be both historically apt and contemporary, and director Bartlett Sher has made sure that emotional truth remains central to the undertaking.  ❖

Intimate Apparel
By Lynn Nottage and Ricky Ian Gordon
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center
150 W. 65th Street, 212-239-6200
Through March 6