Last night I had the pleasure of attending the preview of A Marvelous Order, the opera about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. For good reasons people have been spreading the word—"There's an opera coming about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs! There's an opera coming..." The drama of two larger-than-life, mythic, much debated figures with operatic lives. The Hudson Street Ballet. New York City. The eternal struggle between individuals, with their capacities for collective action and emergent decision-making, and the power brokers, with their capacities to affect change without consensus. There are many dramas here—including one as fundamental as the different natures and attractions of the city and the country—that transcend a tale of Jacobs versus Moses.
The preview event opened with a screening of director and animator Joshua Frankel's Plan of the City, which is an excellent introduction to the team, including composer Judd Greenstein and the NOW Ensemble, and their visual, musical, and conceptual sensibilities. Plan of the City is driven by its playful animation and music with a surrealistic narrative that can be interpreted in various ways. However, the ode to The City (NYC), and cities at large, is unmistakable. In the film, the protagonists take (or follow) the city into the deepest wilderness. With echoes of Madelon Vriesendorps' paintings for Delirious New York, Plan of the City is a love story. A Marvelous Order is a similar story: "a love triangle in which Moses and Jacobs vie for the affections of the City."
Add to The Plan of the City a libretto by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tracy K. Smith and you have the potential for something marvelous. In the preview's first scene, Smith brings the Hudson Street ballet to life in song. There is Jacobs, player and audience member of the street's daily, informally staged production, and then Mr. Lofaro, the fruit seller, makes his appearance, followed by Mr. Koochagian, the tailor, and the spontaneously choreographed cast of other characters. We have been waiting a half century for Smith and A Marvelous Order's team to animate Jacobs's lyrical description of city life. The title appropriately comes from Jacobs's description of the ballet, which, although she was careful about her use artful, metaphorical language in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (lest precise and practical observations be obscured), Jacobs clearly relished writing, and would no doubt have been delighted to see performed. Her stage notes were detailed: "Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order... This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole." Of course, Jacobs's lyricism was not art for art's sake, but, like the rest of Death and Life, a calculated attack on ideologies of control and panoptical renderings of the city seen from above, where people, if present at all in these images of the city, were blurred out along with the surfaces, textures, and rituals of daily life.
Scene two was a surprise. Here is a young Robert Moses discovering the land that he will shape into Jones Beach, a public place for people, children, families, and mothers (an emphasis on mothers, anticipating something to come). Brilliantly sung and performed (one of my companions, a long-time Glimmerglass diehard, wholeheartedly agreed), the scene has a haunting beauty compared to the brightness of scene one, but Moses's relationship to the land and the public is portrayed with a deep sensuality that enriches the story and the drama tremendously. Resisting the urge to make Moses a cartoon villain is honest in various ways. Although now inefficiently overwhelmed by cars, the bridges and highways that he built are still necessary for the city, and used by millions. Moreover, insofar as Jones Beach stands in for our connection to nature in the form of greenery, the expanse of sky and sea, and the great outdoors, it represents the suburban impulse that drew so many away from cities over the past half century, and where so many choose to dwell. Jacobs's greatest contribution could be described as her attack on suburbanism's invasion of the city and most minds (even the urban-minded). But she liked to cultivate a garden too, and the street tree in front of her house, which she and her son planted, was practically a member of the family. As Tracy Smith reminds us, Jacobs took pleasure in admiring Mr. Koochagian's plants. "This place is an oasis," Jacobs sings.
Did I mention that Bjarke Ingels was there? He has described his "Dryline" plan to protect Manhattan from storm surges and perhaps sea level rise as "the love-child of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs." It is a description eliciting misdirected cringes. Until we can significantly improve our patterns of transportation and development—and active streets with ample sidewalks and street trees are part of that—we are all Moses's and Jacobs's children, and more often take after the father more than the mother.