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Classical 101

New York City Opera's 'Stonewall' Commemorates 50th Anniversary Of Riots

Sarah Shatz
The cast of the new Stonewall production by New York City Opera

During the decade I lived in New York, the 1980s with spare change on both sides, I’d often walk to classes at NYU – when I went to class – across Christopher Street in the West Village, past what had been known as the Stonewall Inn.

There may have been a plaque on the building that housed the bar from which a rioting crowd began the gay liberation movement. But walking by in those days, it was hard to tell you were passing liberation-point-zero.

Police raided the Stonewall Inn the night of June 28, 1969. Such a raid was business as usual, except for one thing. On this hot June night, the bar patrons fought back. The crowd of drag queens, leather-clad men and tourists yelled a collective “no more!”

Fifty years later, the Stonewall Inn is a bar and a shrine, and synonymous with striving for equal rights and dignity for all.

The New York City Opera produced Stonewallan opera by Iain Bell (music) and Mark Campbell (words) at Lincoln Center last week. Reviews re-introduced the historical context and were respectful toward the work and the performances. Or, as Beverly Sills said about the early days of her career, “Nice reviews, no handstands.”

I’m of an age to appreciate that such an opera is being written at all. Stonewall, as I understand the work, may be about the stereotypical opera audience. I haven’t seen Stonewall and have heard only a few notes of the music. The one shocking line from The New York Times review by Joshua Barone indicated that attendance at performances was sparse.

Is there a disconnect between those who remember what happened and those who don’t? I always think of operas, indeed all of the arts, as the ultimate truth tellers. There is beauty, poetry and music – but that beauty illuminates who we really are. 

Are the truths that Stonewall in 1969 was a seedy, Mafia-run pigsty hard to bear today? The 1969 Stonewall was one of the few places where people could be who they actually were. This required a brave degree of self-awareness 50 years ago. It does so today.   

I hope the opera Stonewall will travel. It looks like grand entertainment. Stonewall will get communities talking about what was wrong then and what needs to be improved now. People who are comfortable today need to be reminded of what it was to be persecuted and abused in 20th-century America.

Go to Stonewall, get up and dance, and decide if times have changed.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.