It was a true clash of titans, a battle of enormous intellects and wills on a world-class stage, a title fight for the ages.
On one side: Robert Moses, builder of highways and bridges, destroyer of slums, visionary creator of parks. The Power Broker. On the other: Jane Jacobs, observer of the “ballet of the good city sidewalk,” champion of the human scale, preserver of neighborhoods. The Eyes on the Street.
When the two grappled over the future of New York’s Washington Square in the 1950s, the resulting conflict was epic in scale, with a city’s future hanging in the balance.
Maybe only an opera could do justice to the scope of the forces at work, and pretty soon we’ll have one. It’s called A Marvelous Order—the phrase is drawn from Jacobs’s masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities—and its creators are presenting scenes from the work-in-progress at a gala fundraising performance on November 2. The event will be staged at National Sawdust, a just-minted music venue in a former sawdust factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A “pre-premiere” is slated for next spring at Williams College.
The work is a collaboration by several different artists: music by composer Judd Greenstein, choreography by Will Rawls, and words from Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Tracy K. Smith. Director Joshua Frankel, one of originators of the project, says the team has been working hard to distill the narrative essence of the Moses-Jacobs conflict, which the opera frames as a love triangle—with both Jacobs and Moses “vying for the love of the city.”
“The biggest challenge is we don’t want to make this, Moses is Darth Vader and Jacobs is a perfect angel from heaven,” says Frankel. “It’s more interesting artistically to see them both as human beings with strengths and weaknesses. We are figuring out how to do it with Moses more easily. Jacobs is more difficult. She is just so darn right, so much.”
Frankel, a native New Yorker like composer Greenstein, says the opera draws the passion for the city that so many of its residents feel. “As New Yorkers, we have enormous emotional attachment to our city,” he says. “I think people all over the world have that kind of emotional relationship to place.”
Moses and Jacobs, he says, embody that passion, but on a level that is far above the reach of the average citizen. “They’re larger-than-life figures that are better than us,” he says. “They’re almost mythological in their capabilities, in terms of observation and thought, in their ability to lead.” Worthy subjects indeed of the grand operatic treatment.