In a studio space carved out in the ground floor of the Battery Parking Garage—the first to be built by the city and the last building ever built by Robert Moses—singer Dashon Burton faces a camera. He looks natty in his suit, his long, hip-length locks tied back at the base of his neck. He sings the same line in his deep bass-baritone. “The world wants us to love it.”
“Think about describing one of your favorite places in the world to someone,” says director Joshua Frankel. He wants Burton to reach not just a place of happiness but of transcendence. “You know Philippe Petit, walking between the World Trade Center towers on a wire? Imagine you are watching him. Imagine what that feels like. Look around—does anyone else see this?” Burton glances around in wonderment, but then breaks into laughter.
“Is there going to be a blooper reel?” he asks.
“You laughed, that means you had fun,” Frankel answers.
“I’m always having fun.”
In this scene, Burton—a Bronx-native and a founding member of the Grammy award-winning vocal group, Roomful of Teeth—is looking out at the vast and wild emptiness of Jones Beach Island. He plays the role of 20th-century urban planner Robert Moses, a man whose vision still shapes how New Yorkers live and move through their city and state. In his iconic 1974 doorstop of a biography, The Power Broker, Robert Caro also makes a scene of this moment.
“Sometimes, when Bob Moses stepped out of his boat onto Jones Beach, he could not see another human being. In front of him would be nothing but a wide, straight strip of the whitest sand he had ever seen, stretching unbroken until it disappeared at the horizon, sliding on one side beneath the ocean surf, rising on the other into dunes covered with tufts of beach grass, little gnarled bushes and stunted trees, with, between the dunes, marshes of a peculiar, striking grayish-green color from which swooped up heron and gulls. He had returned to it a hundred times, pushing and pulling his little boat through the reeds, to sit lonely on the beach with wind rustling his hair, drinking in the wild, desolate scene.”
Jones Beach, which opened in 1929, was Moses’s first great building project and perhaps his most celebrated. Though his deeply classist and racist beliefs were already manifest in its plans—Moses deliberately built overpasses low enough to prevent buses, and so public transportation (as well as the kinds of people who took it), from reaching the public park—Jones Beach remains one of Moses’s least problematic works. It’s easy to love a beach.
“The world wants us to love it.”
Moses surveying Jones Beach marks his first appearance in A Marvelous Order, a new opera about the battle between the builder and the writer Jane Jacobs over the future of lower Manhattan. At the helm are Brooklyn-based composer Judd Greenstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith, award-winning choreographer Will Rawls, and animator and director Joshua Frankel: a super group of sound and vision, language and movement. Jacobs, the David in this Goliath story, is easy to root for, but Moses—who at one period held twelve full-time appointments simultaneously and, though never elected, wielded more power than the mayors and governors he ostensibly served—is harder to crack open. Jones Beach is the opera’s entry point. On stage, Burton will sing—an animated shore lapping behind him, the footage he records today playing from LED building blocks—
“Look at this scrubby grass and rock
Where the water bumps up against land.
Think of the people at rest, the day’s grief
Siphoned from their hearts.
The world wants us to love it.”
“There was no commission,” Greenstein tells me, though New Amsterdam Presents, an artist’s service organization cofounded by Greenstein, and 3-Legged Dog, in whose Battery Parking Garage space filming is taking place, are co-producing the work.
“Judd suggested the idea,” Frankel says. “I immediately said yes.” They had worked together on a 2011 animated short film, “Plan of the City,” and this new project followed soon afterwards. “We both grew up in New York City, played in Washington Square Park,” he explains. It was a story they both cared deeply about.
“I hadn’t written an opera,” Greenstein says, but the scale of the battle between a man who had displaced more than 500,000 people over the course of his career and the writer, along with a coalition of neighbors, who managed to stop him fit the form.
“It demanded to be an opera,” Frankel agrees. He speaks to his own background as an animator and visual artist. “It also demanded animation to help tell it. Animation shows a different point of view,” he explains, a view not unlike the way Moses looked at his surroundings, a view difficult to otherwise convey on stage.
Architecture has been built into the set, and animation built into the architecture. Frankel describes “animated modular blocks”—they have LED screens that can display video—that can move around the stage, “constructing and deconstructing the environment.”
“We’re going to blur the lines between people on the stage and animation,” he says. The blocks also play sound, mingling pre-
recorded voices into the live performance. At times, Moses appears both on stage, and in animation. “The human next to technology, it does seem to feel right,” Frankel explains. “It evokes the experience of being a human next to an underpass.”
“Collage is the language of architectural proposals.”
At a November 2015 gala at National Sawdust, Williamsburg’s newest classical music venue, Tracy K. Smith stands in all black. She’s talking to Peter L. Laurence, author of Becoming Jane Jacobs, about the books she’s read: Caro’s Power Broker, Jacobs’ National Book Award-winning Death and Life of Great American Cities, as well as Anthony Flint’s more recent 2009 Wrestling with Moses, which details the Jacobs and Moses struggle in particular.
“The human next to technology, it does seem to feel right. It evokes the experience of being a human next to an underpass.”
“It was really new,” she says of her experience working on A Marvelous Order. It’s both her first libretto and her first collaborative project. “I had just finished a prose memoir and wanted to try something new. I grew up in Brooklyn,” she says, in Cobble Hill. She was dimly aware of Moses and Jacobs but all too familiar with the shadow of the BQE, which bisected her neighborhood from the East River.
The opera addresses “what it means to be a citizen and a neighbor. What we are and aren’t watching for. What we think about the people we live among and what we are willing to do to them or for them.”
Performed that night are the opera’s two first scenes: Jane Jacobs in Greenwich Village and Robert Moses on Jones Beach. In both, Smith’s libretto overlays the screen.
“The way [Smith’s libretto] interacts with the animation is really exciting—we can select certain phrases, and maybe suggests a second way to the look at that phrase,” says Frankel. It brings the details of a story whose deep roots are in granular information (precisely where an expressway is laid, for instance) to the fore. And while the creative team admits operas about urban planning are “fairly rare,” they also wholeheartedly believe in the importance and the inherent drama of this story.
“Cities can feel so static,” Frankel says, “so the idea that someone can make enormous change happen is fantastical.”
“So much of the [historical record] is fantastic,” Greenstein echoes. “You can’t believe it’s real.”
“It’s obviously a story about New York,” Frankel continues, “but we find it’s also one that resonates everywhere. More than 50 percent of people worldwide live in cities.”
The performance at the November gala opens with Jane Jacobs, then a writer for Architectural Digest working from the home she shares with her husband and children, using her neighborhood as source text. Against a backdrop of street maps and foot prints, she sings:
“People stopping and
Listening and watching.
They keep the peace.
They keep a place alive.”
In his 3-Legged Dog office, executive artistic director Kevin Cunningham talks about the state of making new work in New York today. “It’s a feast and famine world,” he says. “We see less and less space available for this iconic artistic community that has defined New York since the postwar modernists, since Walt Whitman.”
As a production company, 3-Legged Dog also operates 3LD Art & Technology Center, an art space and performance venue as well as an integrative technology lab. They use the income from their consulting work to help fund the art they produce: films like Charlie Victor Romeo, which went on to Sundance, as well as operas like A Marvelous Order. “Art has been substantially subsidized since Neolithic times,” Cunningham says. “We’ve just created a new business model.”
“Right now everything is paid for by blood, sweat, and tears. The art is the boss.”
By Cunningham’s reckoning, Frankel’s been in the 3-Legged Dog lab for almost the entirety of the past year, working on the opera. “We really love their ambition and we do what we can to meet them halfway,” he says of A Marvelous Order. “But we need to come up with another $60-80,000 to do that. When we commit to an artist like this, you have to jump off the cliff. It’s the only way work gets done.”
“Right now everything is paid for by blood, sweat, and tears,” Cunningham says. “The art is the boss.”
Following a two-week residency at Williams College in Massachusetts this past March (they’ve taken to calling the residency’s cumulative performance—the first time the opera has ever been run through in full before an audience—a “pre-premiere”), the creative team are working towards a premiere-premiere, something big, in New York. But the logistical challenges are as real as they are liberating.
Greenstein sees their lack of formal support as a double-edged sword. “With less money, there’s more artistic freedom. There’s no one telling us there needs to be a single on the album.”
“We are doing this outside the purview of a major opera house,” Frankel adds, “and with that freedom there are also a lot of decisions.”
Ultimately their attention is on the work itself. And the work of A Marvelous Order is not just to dramatize a historic conflict, but to peel back its many layers, to complicate and deepen our understanding of these two towering figures. Moses did, after all, bequeath us Jones Beach, and Lincoln Center, and the Central Park Zoo, and the Triborough Bridge, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and on and on and on. And in the half-century since his fall, precious few public works projects have been undertaken in New York City. Not even the most dedicated follower of Jacobs believes that’s a good thing. Likewise, gentrification—a desperately urgent problem in today’s New York City—presents challenging questions to Jacobs’ legacy. After all, the slum Jacobs saved in the 1960s is now some of the most expensive real estate in the world. A Marvelous Order’s real main character, Greenstein says, is New York City.
In Greenwich Village, a late night crowd sings, “We aren’t friends but / We’re not strangers.”
Photos by Roman Iwasiwka