James Jorden, a feisty, influential writer and editor who brought together high culture, punk aesthetics and gleeful camp in his opera zine-turned-website Parterre Box, was found dead on Monday at his home in Sunnyside, Queens. He was 69.
The police, asked by a friend in a 911 call to check on Mr. Jorden, discovered his body, but it was unclear when he died, according to the New York Police Department. The medical examiner was to determine the cause of death.
In the early 1990s, Mr. Jorden was struggling to find work as a stage director in New York when he got the advice to try writing about opera rather than producing it.
The East Village at the time was “a little past the peak of punk music zines, fan zines,” he recalled in a 2009 interview. “And I really liked the aesthetic, even though I had no idea what it was they were talking about.”
Mimicking those DIY projects, Mr. Jorden played around at home with some text, photographs cut from magazines and a glue stick. Parterre Box — which would go on to become an irreverent, essential source of news, criticism, rabid discussion and archival recordings — was born.
With a four-page inaugural issue published in December 1993, it was likely the world’s first “queer opera zine,” as it described itself. Parterre Box embraced both the sublime and ridiculous aspects of the art form with a breathless, over-the-top tone familiar to the gay fans who kibitzed during intermissions at the Metropolitan Opera.
Maria Callas was on the cover of that first issue (and, as Medea, graced the back of Mr. Jorden’s left shoulder in tattoo form). The contents included intense poetry; parodied the columns in more strait-laced publications like Opera News; imagined Cecilia Bartoli starring as the Long Island temptress Amy Fisher in “Cavalleria Suburbiana,” a takeoff on “Cavalleria Rusticana”; and made cutting observations about less-favored divas.
“Parterre Box,” Mr. Jorden wrote on the second page, “is about remembering when opera was queer and dangerous and exciting and making it that way again.”
At first, Mr. Jorden distributed copies of the zine at the Tower Records store near Lincoln Center and at the Met — tucking them into brochures in racks in the lobby and leaving them in bathroom stalls. On one occasion, caught stuffing the racks before a performance of “Salome,” he was ejected from the theater by security guards.
That pugnacious, underground spirit fit the era. “It was a very activist time in the gay community, in terms of fighting back against AIDS,” Richard Lynn, a longtime contributor, told The New York Times in 2018. “And I view Parterre Box as part of that bigger cultural trend. It wasn’t afraid to be in your face or confrontational or angry. I felt it was therapeutic.”
James Glen Jorden was born on Aug. 6, 1954, in Opelousas, La. His father, Billy Wayne Jorden, worked for the Louisiana State Highway Department, and his mother, Glenora (Jory) Jorden, was a high school teacher as well as a local theater director and actress. (He is survived by two brothers, John and Justin Jorden.)
Mr. Jorden got his start in opera modestly, costuming a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” when he was in a gifted-and-talented program in his teens; his co-designer was a young Tony Kushner. After Mr. Jorden’s mother grew tired of his constantly playing his recording of “Pinafore,” she bought him “Carmen,” and his obsession turned to opera in general.
In 1976, while attending Louisiana State University, he hitchhiked to Dallas to hear the Met on tour and saw the soprano Renata Scotto in the three leading roles of Puccini’s triptych “Il Trittico.”
“That turned me around,” Mr. Jorden said in the 2009 interview. “I saw what the possibility was. And I actually choose that date as the birthday of La Cieca” — his draggy Parterre Box alter ego, named after the blind mother in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.”
After finishing college and remaining for a time in Louisiana, he moved to New York — all the while teaching, coaching, directing, acting and working day jobs, all of which continued even after Parterre Box was founded.
The zine’s length, sophistication and readership gradually grew; professionals in the field began to feed Mr. Jorden valuable bits of inside information and casting news. In the voice of La Cieca — and informed by a capacious knowledge of classic theater, music and film — he skewered Met productions, aired rumors about its administration and star singers, and took other writers to task for their vocabulary quirks and for doing boosterism instead of real criticism.
“I know that his blog was often very critical of the Met and me,” Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said in an interview. “But ultimately, he was on the side of opera, and I always respected him for that.”
With a deep love of the art form lying just under the barbs, the obsessively informed, fiercely opinionated, often hilarious tone of the zine translated well to the budding blogosphere when Mr. Jorden added a web version in 1996. Parterre.com’s blind items, fervent cast of regular contributors and often irascible commentariat of readers anticipated the influential internet style that would emerge in the early 2000s.
Mr. Jorden always tried to stay ahead of the technological curve: His podcast, started on a whim in 2005, long before the medium took off, became one of the great online resources for live opera recordings. La Cieca, the host, would announce Parterre Box’s motto in an over-enunciated blue-blood accent: “Where opera is king, and you, the readers, are queens.”
Parterre Box’s print version ended in 2001, but Mr. Jorden continued to run the website, in addition to writing criticism and features for other publications, including Gay City News, The New York Post, The New York Observer and The Times.
As its founder and editor gained more mainstream affiliations and respectability, Parterre Box mellowed a bit. Its reviews — from a lineup of critics around the country and world — grew more measured. (The comment sections, though, could still be bracing.)
At the Met, from which Mr. Jorden was once thrown out for distributing the zine, Parterre Box now has press seats. When one of its critics was granted a ticket for opening night of the company’s 2015-16 season, the moment was “a total game changer,” Mr. Jorden said. “It felt like being an adult.”