One day in April 2007, David Kodeski got an e-mail from his friend Rachel Claff about a listing on eBay. Nothing remarkable there: The two share a keen interest in what they call "found material"—other people's old or abandoned stuff—and often swap interesting leads with each other. The e-mail included a video titled Curious Box of Letters and a note from Claff saying it looked pretty crazy. Kodeski clicked "play" and watched.
The video shows a thin, elderly man standing in what appears to be an indoor storage facility, flanked by rows of shelves. Next to him sits an old suitcase. The man pops it open and says, "Ladies and gentlemen, my name is George Woods and I have this box of letters here. They've been treasured by me for many years and it's time for me to sell and I hope you find them as interesting and enjoyable as I have."
Woods reaches into the suitcase, pulls out what he calls a "love letter from Maria to Gustav," and begins to read: "Last night, when you penetrated my body with your thoughts and with your body—" Woods stops short, apparently flustered. Chuckling self-consciously, he says, "I don't want to go into this. That's too much. But anyway, there's a lot of good letters here, and you'll find them intriguing. You don't have to read the dirty ones. And it's not that expensive."
For most, the kitschy, offbeat video might've fetched a laugh and a forward to a friend. For Kodeski, it was like mainlining China white.
"I was fascinated and I had to have it," he recalls as he sits in the north-side apartment he shares with writer/performer Edward Thomas-Herrera, which is decorated in found furniture, paintings, photographs, china, and other objects dating from the mid-20th century to the present. "That moment when an item's history gets broken—when it's separated from its origins—is what fascinates me. How does it get broken? We create these museums of our lives and then they get dismantled. What gets left behind? And why?"
A 49-year-old performance artist whose day job is producing medical education events for a company in Evanston, Kodeski thought the letters might provide grist for True-Life Tales, his continuing series of one-man shows about the lives, memories, and oral histories of real-life Americans. He bid $100 for the suitcase—his limit—and won it.
The greenish, cardboard piece of luggage arrived several days later. Kodeski says that, when he tried to remove it from the box it came in, the suitcase disintegrated. But what spilled out captivated him: letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, play scripts, and short stories, all at least 60 years old.
"I'm sort of pawing through it," he says, "and I'm noticing names written in the letters"—primarily those of gay American arts figures such as Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and poet/publisher Claude Fredericks. "And there are two letters from Anaïs Nin, addressed to Jimmy, the guy who wrote the other letters. I'm online, looking for examples of her signature, and comparing them to the actual paper. They look the same. They match the examples from book dealers and her archives. There are letters from Jimmy to Nin in her archives. If this is a hoax, it's a good one.
"The bulk of the letters are apparently from one gay man to another, and they're detailing a point in time in New York gay culture—postwar, post-Kinsey, pre-Eisenhower—that you don't hear much about. And I'm like, 'Holy shit, what is this?'"
As it turns out, it was the makings for an opera about a suitcase, a life, and an era.
Written by Kodeski and composed by Chicago Opera Vanguard artistic director Eric Reda, The Suitcase: An Opera is a work in progress that borrows liberally and verbatim from Jimmy's letters. It received two workshop presentations at the DANK-Haus in Lincoln Square late last month, under the guidance of COV associate artistic director Karen Yates. Then it went to the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for another workshop showing on February 19. The creators hope to finish the opera and premiere it in Chicago inside of a year.
Got your last long letter yesterday—be patient now—you'll be free soon. . . . [H]ow terrible it is that one cannot import one's experience—you will have to go through all your infernos. C'est triste. What is the good of gaining one's fulfillment if you have to watch those you love suffer from guilt and atonement? This is no religious language, though it sounds like it! Gore is happy in Rome—I am going to visit my favorite city, Fez—in Morocco—returning to NY in June.
I kiss you—
—Anaïs Nin to Jimmy, 1948
There was no love note from Maria to Gustav in the suitcase. That was George Woods's little joke, it seems, possibly referring to a 17th-century Swedish royal couple. Except for Nin's correspondence, the 49 letters Kodeski found were all sent by Jimmy to his friend Howard, a native of Rockford, between early 1948 and late 1950. When the letters start, Jimmy is an 18-year-old marine who will soon be dishonorably discharged for homosexuality; Howard is living with a boyfriend in Los Angeles. Jimmy later moves back to his native New York City, where he works at the Gotham Book Mart and the Living Theatre and chronicles the doings of the gay literati for his west-coast pal.
The photographs in the suitcase are mostly images of people and places that may no longer exist. The rest of the inventory consists of newspaper want-ad clippings, a couple of Broadway Playbills Jimmy sent Howard, and several script drafts and short stories apparently authored by Howard.
Although both men are now dead, Kodeski declines to identify them publicly out of deference to Howard's heirs. While Jimmy's family apparently knew he was gay, Howard kept his homosexuality on the down-low. He married, had at least one child, and doesn't seem to have been outed in his lifetime.
The letters are liberally sprinkled with gossip about the queer cultural elite of postwar Manhattan, but they're hardly the vapid meanderings of a club kid. Erudite and philosophical, sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes funny, they record a young man's reflections on self and society as he moves from his late teens into his early 20s. Jimmy writes on subjects ranging from his military dismissal to his growing understanding of Proust, details his sexual adventures, his first gay-bashing experience, the struggle to hide his orientation from his family, and his yearning for love.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the letters is that they exist at all. At the time they were being sent cross-country, the U.S. Postmaster was actively censoring mail under the Comstock Act (an 1873 law, still on the books, originally designed to combat contraception and abortion) in an attempt to root out "obscene materials"—especially anything having to do with homosexuality. A letter that looked suspicious to a local postmaster could be opened, and the people sending or receiving it were vulnerable to harassment and possible jail time.
"It became clear to me that this material has a life and a purpose," Kodeski says of the suitcase trove. "When we're done, it should go to a library or an archive. This is really commentary on an era.".
There is much more than meets the eye: There is a very tight "secret society," made up primarily of the permanent personnel. A certain quick glance, a subtle word, or revealing action—now, my eyes have been opened. Perhaps there will be more to tell. Soon.
—Jimmy to Howard on gay life in the marines, 1948
K odeski showed Reda the suitcase letters a couple years ago. The two friends initially discussed writing a song based on them, but Reda saw Jimmy's chronicles as worthy of more. He'd already written Reagan's Children, an opera-oratorio that premiered in 2009 at Northwestern University, with a libretto consisting of comments made by the former president's kids about their famous dad. Here again was subject matter offering a strong voice, cultural resonance, and natural dramatic flair.
"I was just blown away," Reda says. "This was just begging to be an opera."
Kodeski wasn't immediately convinced. "There was so much material," he says. "Whenever I encounter this kind of material, I never want to fictionalize it—these were real people, and I feel like I have to be true to them. How the hell was I supposed to cut it down for a libretto?"
But as Reda and Kodeski combed through the letters, they saw that there were plenty of themes to build on: celebrity, mortality, sexual repression, cultural dissonance, prejudice, coming of age, love. They were particularly impressed by what Jimmy had to say about getting kicked out of the military for being gay, and how he said it. "It was this really beautiful account," Kodeski says. "Rather than reminiscing about the event, there was the immediacy, completely without guile, of someone getting down their thoughts. Jimmy lived this larger-than-life life that lent itself to something big. I knew that after Reagan's Children Eric knew how to do this and had a sensitivity to the material, so I said, 'Well, OK.'"
I went before "Investigation"—and the colonel. The officers were very nice. The colonel gave me cigarettes when I became too nervous. The only thing that embarrassed me was a young private taking notes. . . . Confronted, what could I do but plead guilty to their charges of homosexuality? The investigation, which lasted about 40 minutes, made me cry. There were two choices: Undesirable discharge or general court martial. Took the first naturally.
—Jimmy to Howard, 1948
Still, the opera hovered in limbo as Kodeski and Reda focused on other projects. Then came a push from Mark Caffrey, an artist from Northern Ireland who'd interned with Reda at the Goodman Theatre in 2002. Returning to Chicago seven years later, for a residency at the School of the Art Institute, Caffrey had been enchanted by COV's chamber opera version of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit and started looking for ways to bring the company to Belfast.
Reda, 36, describes COV as a "storefront theater company that just happens to do opera." Founded in 2008, it specializes in new creations and radically reworked classics. The company won raves for its 2009 staging of Greek, Mark-Anthony Turnage's punk version of Oedipus, and—partnering with Caffeine Theatre—snared a Jeff recommendation for the 2010 U.S. premiere of Boojum! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll, which takes a hallucinatory look at Charles Dodgson (aka Carroll) and his relationship with his muse, Alice Liddell.
When he learned about the Suitcase idea, Caffrey told Reda and company to put together a proposal he could shop around. They did so, even though they'd yet to produce a script or a score, and Queen's Quarters Weekends—an initiative designed to bring more arts events to the neighborhood surrounding Belfast's Queen's University—bit. With backing from an anonymous donor, QQW green-lighted a workshop performance of The Suitcase, along with two master classes in creating opera.
The QQW date was a match to dry brush for Kodeski and Reda. By early fall Kodeski had turned the 49 letters into a 40-page libretto, and Reda had begun scoring it for piano and clarinet (instruments that would permit easy touring).
But the opera as it stood felt static. "For the story to have weight and transcendence, we needed a spine," COV's Yates says. Jimmy's fragmentary letters "needed to be connected. We realized David had to be the spine." So Kodeski wrote himself into the piece, adding monologues that detail how he acquired the suitcase and discovered the history within it.
During lunch hour today I sat down with a notebook to try to begin to discover some things about love. The only thing of any value was a vague conclusion—love means happiness. But what do I mean by happiness? I couldn't answer that.
—Jimmy to Howard, 1950
The second eldest of seven children, Kodeski grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, surrounded by several generations of a tightly knit Polish-American family. He believes his attraction to other people's leavings likely stems from the loss of his brother Tom, who died of brain cancer at age six, when Kodeski was 14.
"It was devastating for the whole family," he recalls. "My parents were kind of hoardy before my brother died, but afterwards it just got worse" as they collected things in what he believes was an unconscious effort to reclaim their lost son. Kodeski, too, found comfort in collecting bits of other people's lives.
After earning a theater degree from West Virginia's Davis & Elkins College in 1987, Kodeski came to Chicago and started acting professionally. He honed his writing skills by contributing pieces to the long-running Neo-Futurist show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, then branched out into evening-length monologues about real people when he left TMLMTBGB in 1997. He's performed at the Neo-Futurarium, Live Bait Theater, and with BoyGirlBoyGirl, an ensemble of solo artists that also includes Claff and Thomas-Herrera.
Kodeski finds many of his subjects through diaries and scrapbooks purchased in secondhand shops and flea markets. For him, they're fascinating mysteries that demand constant digging. The Suitcase has kept him busy. He's not only scanned the entire contents of the suitcase into his computer but transcribed all the letters. Every person mentioned—even in passing—in the letters or Playbills has his own folder, filled with any information Kodeski can hunt down to help him understand Jimmy, Howard, and their world.
The account through which Kodeski bought the suitcase, by the way, was closed out soon after he received it. "I did my usual due diligence and wrote back and said, 'Got it, great collection, very interesting, five stars,'" Kodeski recalls. "No response. Zip. Zero. The only other thing they were selling at that time? A stapler and an exercise ball. And now that account no longer exists."
A week or so ago I listened to a recording of [Puccini's Madama] Butterfly with the libretto and saw it Saturday night at the Met. Listening to it by recording was better; one doesn't have the abominable sets and lightings of the Met to contend with, and the seats which are uncomfortable. The recording allows one to create for oneself the world as the composer imagined it, and not forced to accept many other persons' ideas.
—Jimmy to Howard, 1949
The Suitcase is singular among contemporary operas. Some, notably Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humane and Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung, employ the monologue form. Some, such as Satyagraha, Philip Glass's portrait of the young Gandhi, lift historical speeches and traditional texts. And some have a documentary component (Nixon in China, Jerry Springer: The Opera, and the new Anna Nicole). One–Melissa Dunphy's The Gonzales Cantata—even boasts a libretto made up almost entirely of testimony given by former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the Senate Judiciary Committee. But The Suitcase is a groundbreaking hybrid. Its use of the actual, physical detritus of a life; its portrayal of its main character by means of quotes from his surviving letters; and the inclusion of a narrative monologue about the discovery of those letters—delivered, no less, by the person who discovered them—make it extraordinary.
While "each element separately can be found in the repertory, all taken together make the project one of a kind," says Harry Silverstein, director of DePaul Opera Theatre.
"I've never heard of anything else like it," adds Bruce Hall, a baritone who's sung internationally and teaches at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music. "I believe that this opera is unique in everything it includes. "
The Suitcase also provides a snapshot of pre-Stonewall gay culture not seen before on the operatic stage. "It was such an interesting time," says Reda. "And the military stuff in Jimmy's letters is so relevant right now, with Don't Ask/Don't Tell being repealed."
Last night a party at Ralph's: there was the weirdest crowd there. Saw Bill . . . who is having "a thing" with a designer on Central Park South. Dear old Dwight was there; he has put on weight. John is in Chicago, doing something. Also there: Gore, Tennessee, Paul Bowles. Also, the dancer, Johnny Kriza, who next to Gore is the most disliked person in New York. I had fun cruising him—every little belle there was doing the same thing. I still like Gore, though his influence on me is waning. All I had time for was: Hello. Where are you staying now? I'll call you. And here I had made up my mind not to have anything to do with him, not even see him if possible. Perhaps it has something to do with anger for not being invited to sleep with him, mixed with admiration for a person who has published four novels before he is 24. Envy, like a sponge, soaks up the drinks I consume.
—Jimmy to Howard, 1949
Auditions for the Chicago workshop presentations of The Suitcase took place in November and weren't heavily attended, even though notices went out online and to music and theater publications. "I did wonder if it was the subject matter," says Yates. "Homophobia's pretty deeply rooted in our culture. We like to live in this fairy-tale world where we're all artists and we're all cool, but that's not the case."
Justin Adair, whose rich baritone won him the part of Jimmy, says he sees his participation as a chance to honor sexual diversity. He and a chorus of seven worked with Yates and COV music director Myron Silberstein to stage the songs, often developing choreography as they went. "I had a lot of it sketched out before we started rehearsals," Yates says, "but I found that giving the singers room to develop their characters worked beautifully."
Change was constant. Just 12 hours before the second performance, Reda sat down at his piano and banged out a duet that capped the opera with a moving, requiem-like epilogue that had more than a few in the audience crying. The coda was inspired by the death two weeks before of Kodeski's friend Mary Scruggs, the 46-year-old director of writing and education at Second City.
About half of the opera remains unscored, but Reda plans to add some Cuban sounds and an homage to composer John Cage, the better to capture the era's zeitgeist. He toys with the idea of adding a female voice to play the part of Anaïs Nin, but knows that could change the dynamic, "so we're not sure yet." Yates says she'd like to introduce some scat singing.
Closets filled with the ghostly shapes of our clothes. Impressions of our gait pressed into the leather of our shoes.
—Jimmy to Howard, 1950
Kodeski added three new monologues for the Belfast workshop performance, Yates staged more movement, and Reda introduced a backing track of city soundscapes and voices to conjure postwar New York. They also took advantage of sophisticated tech facilities at the Belfast venue to do more with projections of letters and photos from the suitcase. The additions, says Kodeski, "gave the piece quite a bit more texture. It was a lot more visual and exciting."
Adair was present to play Jimmy, but since it was too costly to bring the rest of the Chicago cast, the chorus appeared in prerecorded digital form. Three local artists performed spoken-word parts.
As in Chicago, the Belfast audience of 111 got the chance to give feedback. Seven did so with their feet, walking out early. One of them found The Suitcase inappropriate for his son, who was with him. Four others apparently thought it wasn't inappropriate enough: Caffrey says they told fellow audience members that they'd been expecting something more explicit.
But those who remained dubbed the venture a success. "It was a chance to test the piece out with an audience entirely unfamiliar with the work of any of the artists," notes Caffrey. "I was surprised at how polished some sections came across given that the company had a week, working with new surroundings, a new dynamic on stage, and new themes."
He was also surprised that The Suitcase seemed to open some Northern Irish eyes to both opera and homosexuality. "It was a journey to self-discovery of sorts—David's search within Jimmy's life, and Jimmy's search for something to salve this gnawing sense of isolation and loneliness in a crowded city."
The Belfast Suitcase happened to fall during Northern Ireland's LGBT History month, and the show got a lot of buzz on that account, according to Caffrey. Although Ireland can be intensely homophobic, he says, "we love a good story, and this definitely has it."
Back in Chicago, Reda, Yates, and Kodeski are aiming for another workshop this summer, with a full production to follow in the fall or early 2012. That won't be easy. COV managing director Dan Cox says the ensemble will have to raise $15,000-$20,000 for the five-week world premiere run alone.
Meanwhile, Kodeski is racing to track down those who knew Jimmy and Howard and might be able to identify some of the suitcase's contents. He's wistful that technology has already started erasing the leavings that define us after we're gone. "With everybody e-mailing," he says, "future generations will never be able to do this."