Gay New York Explored In Suitcase Opera
Listen to a podcast with writer David Kodeski and find out how a suitcase bought on eBay came with an added surprise
It was a writer’s dream, manna from heaven. You purchase a suitcase from eBay for $100 and when it arrives at your home you open it to discover an extraordinary lifestory related through the personal letters of a gay man – a gay marine, no less – living and working in 1940s New York.
For writer David Kodeski, it didn’t stop there. The author of the letters - who Kodeski describes only as Jimmy - began to make a career for himself as a promoter of avant-garde theatre and jazz concerts in the Big Apple after leaving the US Army.
He frequented clandestine gay clubs in the city, became close friends with literary heavyweights like Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams and saw his love affair with Howard, who lived in California, torn apart when the latter entered into a straight marriage. You couldn't script it. Or could you?
Relating the story in a Belfast café, Kodeski is wide-eyed with wonder, as excited today as he must have been when the correspondence and added ephemera began to fall into place. From a journalist’s point of view, however, the story remains frustratingly unfinished.
'Jimmy and Howard both went on to become extremely successful people, as a promoter and songwriter respectively,’ explains Kodeski. ‘I don’t know if Howard’s family ever discovered that he had experienced a queer relationship, so I cannot divulge either of their true identities.’ He bites his lip, shrugs his shoulders and apologises sincerely. ‘Sorry.’
Kodeski - a gay man himself - has travelled from his native Chicago, Illinois to a rainy Belfast in the week that his resulting work from the source material, Suitcase Opera makes its European debut in the Crescent Arts Centre. He shakes his head when I suggest that the weather must be familiar and pulls out his iPhone. 'Hardly,' he laughs, holding up a picture of him chest deep in snow. 'We've had a cold snap, lately.'
Suitcase Opera finds itself in Belfast due to a remarkable series of coincidences. The man who Kodeski wrote the opera with, composer Eric Reda, knew someone who knew someone who had worked with Northern Irish independent producer Mark Caffrey some years ago. Somehow Caffrey made contact with Reda about a completely different production, Reda told him about his new work, and a date was set to bring Suitcase Opera to Belfast.
Having written one-man shows and monologues before, for the first time Kodeski finds himself in a foreign country as part of a collaborative project. He looks around - at the graffiti, at the people, at the cold, ashen sky - and wonders how he got here in the first place.
'I have never written an opera before,' he explains. 'But somehow it managed to work itself out. Now here we are in Northern Ireland.' He attempts an accent: 'Norn Iron... and it's wonderful.'
Kodeski the performer also plays a role in Suitcase Opera - that of himself, essentially. Through 'poems' and 'ruminations' he tells the tale of how he came across these extraordinarily revealing letters in the first place, then allows actors and singers to bring Jimmy, Howard and 1940s New York to life.
'I'm sort of the Virgil, in a sense,' he adds. 'I introduce the concept of how this story came from this suitcase that sort of fell into my world. It's as though the opera springs from my memory of reading the letters for the first time.'
Kodeski worked with Reda, of Chicago Opera Vanguard, and director Karen Yates on Suitcase Opera. Piecing the libretto together from transcripts of the letters was a long and painstaking process, and one that remains ongoing. 'I'm still writing some of the passages,' admits Kodeski, though they should be ready for the Crescent performance.
So, how would he describe the finished work? The press release calls it 'an unforgettable journey into an undiscovered record of American gay liberation'. Perhaps Kodeski wrote that line. On a personal level, however, Kodeski calls it 'life changing'.
'The letters are a tremendous examination of self, they're a tremendous depiction of New York, and they're a tremendous depiction of the Marine Corps at that time. You have this post-war explosion of art and culture and society. I mean, the universe really exploded, in many ways.'
Kodeski has his work cut out putting the (final) finishing touches to Suitcase Opera in the days ahead, but he can see Jimmy's story run and run in various formats. He only hopes that he can continue to play a part in telling it.
'I think that this collection of letters probably has the potential to live a number of lives,' he concludes. 'I think it can exist as the opera, possibly as another solo piece for myself. It could exist between the covers of a book.'
And how about a cinema adaptation? 'I would love to sell the rights,' Kodeski laughs. 'I've never written a screenplay or anything like that. But then again, I'd never written an opera. So, if it's offered...' With Kodeski's luck, you wouldn't bet against it.
Suitcase Opera comes to the Crescent Arts Centre for one performance only on Saturday, February 19, as part of the Queen's Quarter Weekends Festival.