You can call him a theater composer, a writer of art songs, or an originator of operas. It’s all the same to Ricky Ian Gordon, who is visiting San Francisco for the West Coast premiere of “Green Sneakers” at Fort Mason on Tuesday.
“I don’t really see them as different,” says Gordon, who grew up listening to Kurt Weill, Gian Carlo Menotti and Marc Blitzstein.
“It was the music that I was drawn to, and it was the kind of theater that I was drawn to. Then when I was a teenager, Stephen Sondheim came along. He felt to me like an organic, natural progression out of those people that I really loved.”
Gordon is part of a coterie of composers — including Jason Robert Brown, Adam Guettel and John Michael LaChiusa — who are often described as Sondheim’s successors. They are admired for writing smart, complex music that draws artists such as Audra McDonald, Betty Buckley and Rebecca Luker into recording studios.
Described as a mini-opera, “Green Sneakers” is a progression of sorts for Gordon. Written for baritone and string quartet, it is inspired by the AIDS-related death of Gordon’s lover Jeffrey Grossi.
The experience also suggested the context for his two-act song cycle “Orpheus & Euridice,” inspired the musical “Dream True” and informed “Late Afternoon,” a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and piano.
“There’s like a decade of work in there,” Gordon says. “Though ‘Orpheus’ is absolutely about it, I couch it in the mist. ‘Green Sneakers’ is just bald-faced what happened.”
The music, for which Gordon also wrote the libretto, premiered in 2008 in Colorado and was recorded in 2009 by opera singer Jesse Blumberg and the Miami String Quartet.
Blumberg performs here accompanied by the award-winning Del Sol String Quartet. There will be a question-and-answer session with Gordon before the concert.
It’s a deeply personal work that some have likened to a kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
“I’m a Jew,” Gordon says, “and I feel strongly Jewish inside of myself. However, I am not in any way steeped in the ritual, though interestingly, a lot of my work now is about Judaism like my opera ‘Garden of the Finzi-Continis,’ my new opera for Cincinnati [Opera] and my musical ‘Sycamore Trees.’
“But when I say a kaddish, the idea of something being a prayer for the dead, by telling the story it’s a way of keeping him alive because in this piece, I say his name. In the other pieces I tell the story, but finally in this piece, I say, ‘I love you, Jeffrey, forever.’”
Where: Southside Theater, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: $45 to $75
Contact: (415) 345-7575, www.fortmason.org