Hailed as “a masterpiece” by Opera Today, “Green Sneakers” is a 19-part song cycle for a baritone plus string quartet written by Ricky Ian Gordon concerning the loss of his partner, Jeffrey Grossi, from AIDS in the 1990s.
“I missed him so badly,” said Gordon in an interview with 429Magazine.
“I was in so much pain and I could not bear remembering any moment where I was cruel to him. I looked desperately through photographs where my arms were around him because I needed to see me being kind to him. He loved me so much and it was incredible.”
The story begins with the day Grossi buys the notorious pair of sneakers until the moment of his passing, and was written by Gordon as he transitioned through the different stages of grief.
The pivotal moment from which “Green Sneakers” was born stemmed from an instance of “sheer desolation,” Gordon said. He described sitting on his bed and looking over at the pair of shoes in the closet.
“When someone dies in your own room in your own home, it’s very strange and it changes the atmosphere,” Gordon said,describing how Grossi went from “animate to inanimate.”
Grossi’s service was held in their home as he had requested. Gordon described it as an “intense morning” where he and Grossi’s mother prepared the body in their bed. They had Gary, a good friend and priest, come for the ceremony.
“He threw holy water on Jeffrey, like a gesture, but Jeffrey’s eyes were open and water got into his eyes. I had a breakdown,” said Gordon. “The fragility … and then I was sort of in shock for five years. I was not prepared mentally, physically, or emotionally.”
It was in that same state that Gordon began writing, courageously exploring death and grief with a direct and devastating first person narrative that catches audiences off guard and sweeps them off their feet, leaving them in tears.
Gordon described a conversation with a friend who had recently lost her husband, who reminded him that it is important to remember the moments of trial as well as joy. This helped Gordon realize that he did not need to sanctify Grossi after his death, and that it was important to explore the times of exasperation.
“I was looking at those sneakers in the closet … and what happens when someone first dies, for some reason for a little while, you focus on the moments that were difficult,” said Gordon. “Then eventually the whole person and the whole experience becomes the memory.”
Perhaps Gordon’s most intimate and personal work, “Green Sneakers” became a cathartic piece that is said to leave the audience “transformed and uplifted.” It stands as a poetic monologue with a solitary singer playing the role of Gordon reflecting on times past, stirred by the eponymous pair of shoes, a wearisome reminder of Grossi’s last months.
Now, Gordon is in a new relationship with a partner whom he loves, but he knows that it’s hard on his partner at times to embrace everything Gordon had been through with Grossi.
“It shook me,” Gordon said.
“It cracked me open and it turned me into someone else. Grief is an enormous part of my story and what I have to say. I don’t hide from it, I just try to include it.”