Opera is built for grand ideas, stories epic enough to fill huge theaters with drama, laughter, and pathos. When composer Judd Greenstein decided to make his first foray into the larger-than-life form, though, inspiration for such a tale came from an unlikely and seemingly understated source.

As he pondered the big questions of what an opera should be and could be, a bartender friend suggested Greenstein explore the battle between infamous New York City planner Robert Moses and urban theorist Jane Jacobs—a battle not just for the soul of New York and its streets and neighborhoods, but one that anticipated countless battles in cities around America and the world that continue today, battles about what it means to destroy and to build. It was a rare, and recent, example of David, for at least a moment, beating Goliath.

That bartender was also friendly with visual artist Joshua Frankel, with whom Greenstein had already collaborated. Greenstein and Frankel embraced the idea and considered how best to put a new spin on the well-chronicled piece of New York lore—how to stretch the story that Greenstein has described as a love triangle between Moses, Jacobs, and the city of New York while using its lessons to expand the possibilities of the operatic form itself. They brought Tracy K. Smith, who would eventually be named U.S. Poet Laureate, on board as a librettist.

Then they went looking for a place to build it. They landed at Penn State.

Greenstein, Frankel, and Smith, all creating within the ambitious medium for the first time, worked together to make A Marvelous Order, an opera that premieres at Eisenhower Auditorium on Thursday, Oct. 20, after being delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts, the creators’ partner in bringing the opera to life, it marks its first contemporary opera premiere in decades, and its biggest opera in scope and conceit by a mile, all created despite numerous additional logistical hurdles that the pandemic piled atop an already complex undertaking.

performers on stage in front of a blue screen that says this is how tired we are, by Joshua Frankel
Developmental Stage
Sections of A Marvelous Order have been performed in New York City and at Williams College, but the opera will be performed in its entirety for the first time at Penn State.

(Photo by Joshua Frankel)

“It was amazing to find a partner willing and able to make a multi-year commitment to us, and who wanted to present the opera and to integrate it with their community in the way that they have in Penn State and the Center for the Performing Arts,” says Greenstein. “It’s not like there’s many other places around the country that could do this. There are very, very few.”

The premiere has been preceded by Penn State residencies with the opera’s creative team—including a collaboration last November between music students and Greenstein’s NOW Ensemble—which have brought students and the broader campus arts community into the heart of the multifaceted creation process, as well as to Moses and Jacobs’ story. For the two weeks leading up to the performance, the team is offering another residency, including class visits and a solo exhibition by Frankel at the Palmer Museum of Art, allowing the creators to continue connecting with Penn State on and offstage.

In 2019, George Trudeau, the now-retired director of Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts, saw Greenstein do a presentation about A Marvelous Order at an opera conference in Rotterdam.

“George came back from that conference all excited, saying ‘We have to partner with them,’” remembers Amy Dupain Vashaw, director of audience and program development at the Center for the Performing Arts. Talks to finalize such an agreement began soon after.

Recalling the process, A Marvelous Order producer Andrew Hamingson says, “what became very clear was that this wasn’t going to be something where you just show up on campus one night and do a performance. What was of deep interest to George and his team was the inclusion of master classes and giving guest lectures across departments, figuring out how to incorporate the opera into the university in a pedagogical way. That was clear from the very beginning, and something that we really loved.”

“A lot of our work focuses on creating a more welcoming, inclusive, diverse, and equitable space through the arts, here on campus and in our community,” says Dupain Vashaw ’91 Com, ’21 MPA WC. “We just felt the opera had so many elements that would allow us to sort of build on that work.”

Order’s first such collaboration at the university was a choreography residency in the fall of 2019, just a few months before the pandemic would throw an enormous wrench into the plans of the creative team and CPA. In 2020, the logistical hurdles seemed like they might still be far enough off to avoid, since the opera wasn’t scheduled to premiere until the fall of 2021. But continuing uncertainty made A Marvelous Order’s initial premiere impossible.

“The ground was still shifting underneath our feet. ‘Can we gather? Are we masking? Are we vaccinated?’” Dupain Vashaw says. “That was not a fun decision to have to make. In retrospect, it was absolutely the right call. Now audiences are starting to feel okay about coming back.”

The creative team tried to look at it as a chance to perfect the opera. “Learning that the show was getting delayed because of the pandemic was heartbreaking on one hand, but it left room for clarifying the vision,” says Frankel. “It’s been a long path, dramatically affected by the pandemic, but all the twists and turns I think and hope are adding to the work.”

animation frame of two vintage vehicles on blue screen with red overpass and a hand pointing down at them, by Joshua Frankel
Driving the Narrative
Visual artist and director Joshua Frankel uses video and animation as a backdrop to drive a narrative focused in part on the battle between the primacy of automobiles versus public space in the physical evolution of New York City.

(Animation frame by Joshua Frankel)

The story, though big enough that its lessons can apply almost anywhere, is from and of New York City—as are Frankel and Greenstein, who both grew up playing in Washington Square Park. They were the exact city children Jacobs describes in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, whose vibrant surroundings and, specifically, Washington Square Park itself, Jacobs fought to protect from Moses’ plan for a highway that would run through Greenwich Village. That fight makes up the first act of the opera, and was a big part of the reason the story felt like such a natural fit for Greenstein and Frankel.

“I can’t remember not having an awareness of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses,” says Frankel. “I didn’t really know their stories deeply until I did the research for this project. But I think it’s just in the air of that place. That’s part of why this felt mythological: If you grew up in the Village, Jane Jacobs is not a person; she is a set of stories. Anybody you’ve mentioned her to will be more than happy to tell you about their encounters with her, or their friend who knows her.”

Despite being nearly neighbors, Frankel and Greenstein didn’t meet until adulthood. Frankel has spent the past two decades pursuing visual arts across mediums, from designing and animating pieces for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign to painting murals around New York City to directing a short film about bicycle messengers. Much of his work is concerned with the dynamics of public spaces and especially cities—A Marvelous Order is part of a long arc of his pieces casting the urban environment in a new light.

Greenstein, for his part, has been composing for some of the best contemporary chamber groups in the world, including yMusic, Roomful of Teeth, and the NOW Ensemble, which serves as the “house orchestra” for A Marvelous Order. His creative work expands into curation as well: Greenstein is the co-director of the Grammy Award-winning New Amsterdam Records, and he has programmed New York City’s acclaimed Ecstatic Music Festival.

Over the past decade, Frankel and Greenstein have collaborated on a series of works that marry Frankel’s favored medium, animation, with live music to explore different facets of city living and design. Their 2011 collaboration, Plan Of The City, was a 13-minute film that accompanies Greenstein’s composition “Change” as performed live by the NOW Ensemble. The critically acclaimed piece, which blends animation, collage, and live action with a contemporary score, was the seed of A Marvelous Order and explored what it means for a city to evolve.

performers on stage sitting and standing on various white columns in front of a blue-green screen with natural setting, by Roman Iwasiwka
Write What You Know
Referencing the lower Manhattan setting of A Marvelous Order came easily for creators Judd Greenstein and Joshua Frankel, New York City natives who grew up playing in Washington Square Park.

(Photo by Roman Iwasiwka)

Since working on Plan, Greenstein and Frankel have been piecing together A Marvelous Order, approaching the massive undertaking in careful fragments and sharing parts of it as they built toward this fall’s long-awaited premiere. “Opera is sort of … you know, the end of the line, in a way,” Greenstein says, explaining his desire to make one. “I was supposed to do a more traditional opera—one that was commissioned by an opera company—and then they went bankrupt.”

Opera in the 21st century is usually made within massive institutions and funded by wealthy donors who are often more interested in preserving the form’s storied traditions than experimenting with anything new. Those institutions, New York’s Metropolitan Opera chief among them, are well-equipped in both expertise and resources to handle the medium’s complexities, but that experience can make it harder for them to foster true innovation, which Frankel, Greenstein, and librettist Smith are aiming for.

“It’s a form that is really contested right now, and I found it an attractive question to step into,” Greenstein says, explaining that part of the group’s mission is to challenge some of the medium’s core assumptions. “I think a lot of what makes an opera feel like an opera are conventions that do not actually need to be associated with opera anymore. How can we tell the story in different ways? What can set design be? Entering into that as a composer who’s writing for the form is different than just sort of weighing in on Twitter or whatever.”

“What does it mean for a poet to be a librettist?” was another question that Greenstein and Frankel posed with A Marvelous Order, for which they recruited Smith early on. One of the trio’s challenges to traditional opera was framing the work as truly collaborative, prioritizing what Frankel calls “creative generosity” rather than the result of one all-powerful composer. Greenstein’s music, Smith’s libretto, and Frankel’s animation and direction were created in sync, stemming from a consistent dialogue between the three artists about the meat of the story. “That allowed all sorts of powerful conversations from the beginning,” says Frankel. “I’ve been able to say, for example, ‘You don’t need to worry about explaining this particular plot point with words, because I can do it with such-and-such image.’”

“I don’t think people totally understand what it means to write something together,” says Greenstein. “‘Did you write the words together?’ No. ‘Did you write the music together?’ No. But we wrote the story together. How do you build something that’s really equal between these different art forms? Together, we asked the questions that informed everything, talked about the scenes, and talked about the history and characters. Those are the bones that underlie all of our individual creative decisions.”

Smith isn’t a native New Yorker, so she brought a completely different expertise to the project. Signing on not long after she won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 poetry collection Life on Mars and just a few years before being selected to become U.S. Poet Laureate (a post she held from 2017 to 2019), the poet, alongside her collaborators, returned to the story’s primary texts: Robert Caro’s weighty Moses biography The Power Broker, and Jacobs’ TheDeath and Life of Great American Cities, each offering their interpretations.

Given the complexity of some of the issues, the urban planning jargon they require, and the fact that dealing with bureaucracy is a central part of the story, Smith faced a particular challenge—one that everyone who has seen pieces of it so far says she handled with ease. “I don’t know of any opera that has this type of libretto, one that can live on its own as a type of poetic history,” Greenstein says. “People aren’t necessarily going to know that, and it makes me kind of sad that that could get lost in the shuffle. She is truly one of the great writers of our time, or perhaps anytime.”

animation frame of blue screen depicting New York's Fifth Avenue as a white line intersected by three building blocks and a green square block as a park, by Joshua Frankel
Universal Themes
While the opera’s animation relies heavily on imagery of New York City landmarks and infrastructure, the drama’s focus on the idea of what makes a “good” city speaks to competing societal priorities that are broadly relevant.

(Animation frame by Joshua Frankel)

Throughout the decade the trio has spent on the project, ideas big enough to justify the scale of it have been the throughline—even when they manifest in seemingly small ways. The vocalists and instrumentalists will all be amplified, an evolution that is still somewhat taboo in traditional opera houses. This isn’t modernity for its own sake, though. As Greenstein explains, the bombastic style of singing most associated with opera was borne out of necessity: singers needed to be heard in huge theaters, and microphones hadn’t been invented yet.

Today, insisting on it means that productions are limited to a small set of singers who have been trained by elite conservatories in a very specific way. “Amplified singing is a completely different game, because it allows you to sing in many different styles,” says Greenstein. “Once you map that distinction onto opera, you realize there’s this whole world that’s not being explored. That same incredible feat has also become a kind of an unnecessary requirement.”

A Marvelous Order also challenges norms in its themes and arguments. Rather than romance or war, the creators were drawn to the image of two theoreticians—Moses and Jacobs—who are compelled to fight for their ideas literally in the streets. Jacobs, a woman, is the hero, and she does not die tragically, get assaulted, or otherwise present as the victim, tropes that pervade in opera as they do in most popular artforms. “She’s such a fascinating character and really a wonderful person to have as a hero of our story,” says Greenstein.

As their understanding of the story and subsequent work evolved, the trio began to present small parts of the project in various forms. Plan Of The City, the “seed” of the opera, was performed a few times as they refined those ideas. That expanded into Mannahatta, a collection of short pieces based on the Walt Whitman poem of the same name, which was performed as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn in 2013. The opera’s opening scene, “The Ballet Of The Street,” was presented to the Municipal Arts Society of New York in 2015.

Piece by piece, the creators inched toward a final product, elaborating on the unconventional principles behind the opera by allowing it to be in dialogue with an audience over the course of its creation. “Each time we do a little something, we see something and learn something and adjust,” Frankel says. ‘I think there’s a lot to be gained from that way of working.”

With the 2016 “pre-premiere” performance of A Marvelous Order at Williams College, Frankel’s and Greenstein's alma mater, the project—which was still being crafted almost entirely independently—began to inspire buzz around the arts world. Though the opera wasn’t complete and has evolved since that presentation, those in attendance left impressed. That included Andrew Hamingson. At the time, Hamingson was the president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and in charge of its River To River Festival. He left the performance at Williams convinced he needed to showcase it at the festival. “I was really knocked for a loop,” Hamingson says. “The music was so stirring, and the story that it was telling was just something that needed to be shared with the rest of the world.”

From that point, the opera’s journey into public spaces began. Clips of its animations were shown in Times Square every night for a month in the spring of 2017. That summer, two scenes of the opera were staged in the middle of New York’s Fulton Center transit hub—intentionally scheduling the 25-minute performance in the middle of rush hour, and taking over all the hub’s advertising screens with the opera’s animations—as part of the River To River Festival.

“People were coming through the turnstiles, and all of a sudden there were 500 people watching this performance,” Hamingson recalls. “We had the singers walking through the crowd, so all of a sudden those people would realize they were standing next to the singer who was playing Robert Moses.”

After that performance, Hamingson signed on as a producer. “I said, ‘I’ve produced a lot of theater, but I’ve never produced an opera,’” Hamingson says. “And [Greenstein] said, ‘Well, that’s okay, because we’ve never written an opera.’”

All the opera needed at that point was a committed, well-resourced partner who could help realize the trio’s vision the way they had planned.

Hamingson’s three-person team, knowing they would have their hands full trying to stage a multimedia opera, realized early on the resources they had at their disposal in Penn State. Beyond the on-campus residencies with dance, music, and communications students, many more engaged with the opera’s creative team via class visits and lectures. “It helps re-engage our criticality and hone the edges of like, What is this really about? Why do we make these decisions? What are we trying to do?” says Greenstein. “Students ask tough questions, and you have to be prepared to answer them.” A curriculum based on the opera, designed for local high schools, was implemented this fall, expanding the educational mission behind the partnership even further.

“All those collaborations make it a very non-cloistered way of presenting something, even if the performance itself will wind up being in a kind of rarefied space,” Greenstein says.

Though nothing is yet settled, the producers have plans for a European tour and performances in other U.S. cities. But as they organized production meetings, tried to replace cast members who had pandemic-induced scheduling conflicts, and otherwise pulled together all the loose ends of a decadelong project in time for its world premiere, the creative team behind A Marvelous Order has kept the significance of the work, and its partnership with Penn State, front of mind.

Says Greenstein, “The more we can do things like this—not just be the next thing on a theater’s calendar, but actually be embedded in the vital conversations that are happening in communities, whether it be universities or cities or anything else, the more I feel like we’re actually being successful, and reaching a place that very few other productions have been able to.”

A Marvelous Order will premier at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at Eisenhower Auditorium. Purchase tickets here.

Natalie Weiner is a writer based in Dallas.