There’s an Opera Coming about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in NYC

Robert Moses Jane Jacobs-NYC-A Marvelous Order-Opera

Robert Moses is all the rage these days, for better or worse starting with the new exhibit “In the Shadow of the Highway: Robert Moses’ Expressway and the Battle for Downtown” at the NYC Municipal Archives and now with A Marvelous Order, an upcoming opera about Moses and Jane Jacobs. Last night at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, we caught a preview of the opera which is still in the works.

Urbanists will be familiar with the debate over whether Moses and Jacobs were as adversarial as commonly or conveniently played out in city narratives, but The Marvelous Order sidesteps that by placing the two protagonists in a love triangle, vying “for the affections of the City.” The multi-dimensional work features not only opera, but also dance, animation, and poetry.

Composed by Judd Greenspan, written by Tracy K. Smith, choreographed by Will Rawls and directed by Joshua Frankel, The Marvelous Order is co-produced by New Amsterdam Presents, which has just begun a two year residency at National Sawdust, and 3-Legged Dog.

The two scenes previews last night, with music performed live by NOW Ensemble, have apropos titles: A libretti called Ballet of the Streets, clearly set in Greenwich Village showing Jane Jacobs observing the activity on the streets from the window of her home as day turns into night. Even from this first scene, many of Jacobs’ ideas espoused in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities are present, like eyes on the street, diversity of activity, and 24/7 activation.

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A sample excerpt of something sung by Jane Jacobs:

People walking and shopping and talking. People on the street. Conducting their lives. People stopping and listening and watching. They kep the peace. They keep the peace. They keep a place alive.

In the background last night, the animation by Joshua Frankel showed in both abstract and concrete ways the building blocks of the city streets, the patterns of residents and others through a neighborhood and the shift in activity throughout a day. In the completed opera, these animations will play in custom made boxes of different sizes that can move around the stage – a metaphor for the people of New York who rearrange the shape of their environment.

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The second excerpt showed a young, idealistic Robert Moses encountering the marsh that will become Jones Beach, his first large-scale project in the New York City area. It also explores the eminent domain mechanism by which the land was acquired from Long Islanders and the issues of race and socioeconomics that underlie this project and the many to come under Moses’ hand.

Moses sings “Look out at this scrubby grass and rock, where the water bumps up against the land. Think of people at rest, the day’s grief siphoned from their hearts.” And later even Governor Al Smith shows up saying “This is the plan of a few great mean. The greatest men in our state. Men of flawless minds, able hands,” to which a senator responds “People on Long Island are afraid to go to bed, for fear that when they wake up, Moses will have seized their land!”

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As a Marvelous Order writer Tracy K. Smith said last night, “Passion and conflict drive the story [but] this is not just a story about conflicting visions. This affects apartments that people live in and own that might become highways and roundabouts. [It’s] what it means to be a citizen and a neighbor.”

The event also began with a screening of the short film Plan of the City, by the same team, which served as an inspiration for A Marvelous Order. It’s a fun watch:

Support the completion of A Marvelous Order by attending upcoming events.

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich, who is appropriately both a classically trained cellist from Juilliard and an urban planner. Next, check out the current exhibition In the Shadow of the Highway: Robert Moses’ Expressway and the Battle for Downtown


 A Marvelous Order, National Sawdust, opera, Williamsburg

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