Gertrude Stein is hot this cold San Francisco summer. Besides being featured in two major art shows, where works collected by Stein and her family in Paris during the early days of the 20th century are on display, now an avant garde opera written by Stein and composer Virgil Thompson is set to open on Thursday, August 18 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Stein -- famous for a number of things including writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas -- grew up in Oakland, California and moved to France when painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were starting their careers. The art and music scene was flourishing, and Stein was a catalyst in bringing modern art to the world's attention. But she wanted to be more than a collector and a hostess in a popular Paris salon. She wanted to create art and be regarded as an important artist herself.
In 1926 Stein was invited by a young, little-known composer -- Thompson -- to work with him on an opera. He asked her to write the libretto for what would become Four Saints in Three Acts. It took seven years before the project came to fruition, not in Paris where it was begun, but in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1934, in a basement theatre. What was shocking and "modern" in those days was that the whole cast was black. The opera quickly moved to New York, where it played on Broadway for 70 performances, a long, successful run in the thirties, especially for an opera.
Florine Stettheimer's set for Act 1 of the 1934 production of Four Saints in Three Acts; Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare books and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven; photo: Harold Swahn
In San Francisco, I attended a rehearsal the other day for the new production of Four Saints in Three Acts, and I was surprised that the most of the cast this time is not black. That was a device Stein and Thompson used 70 years ago to shock people and appear avant garde; today nobody would be shocked, I was told.
Stein, who was Jewish and lesbian, was obsessed by the Catholic Church's saints and filled her opera with them, not just the four of the title, but dozens. The idea seems to be that artists' total commitment to art is comparable to sainthood. And as for the "four acts," one quickly loses that idea, as an operatic announcer keeps proclaiming new acts and scenes. It's almost a joke. And like much of Stein's hard-to-understand writing, the opera singers repeat phrases and names, including the word "saint." It's as though the cubism of Picasso were translated to the written (or sung) page. It takes a little getting used to.
There's humor as well. As one character is about to be electrocuted, the chorus breaks into "One, two, three, four, five, six seven, all good children go to heaven." At the rehearsal, the director told the cast to tone it down: "We don't want to be too bouncy when we're electrocuting."
The opera is being produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose associate curator, Frank Smigiel, admits that Stein's libretto is "concerned more with the sound of words than with plot." In fact, figuring out the plot, from what I could tell, is near impossible, even though the opera is in English. One might even say the libretto is nonsensical. At the opening night in 1934, the governor of Connecticut, commented: "Well, you can't read the damn stuff, but you certainly can sing it." The story -- if you can call it that -- follows the saints as they recall their lives on earth, and enjoy a heavenly lawn party.
The Thompson score is simple and easy to listen to, a little dissonant here and there, frequently even melodic. It's said to be inspired by jazz, gospel and folk music. Four Saints is an all-American show, even though it was conceived in Paris by ex-pats. The music has been supplemented by composer Luciano Chessa, who has put new music to some of Stein's words that were cut from the original production. In fact, the curtain raiser for the opera is an entirely new piece entitled "A Heavenly Act." And video performance artist Kalup Linzy -- who is known for satirizing soap opera culture -- is featured in the cast.
Kalup Linzy in Four Saints in Three Acts
The piece will certainly be a curiosity and maybe more than that, a 1934 relic that's been made modern once again with video projections and other contemporary effects, both visual and musical.
An hour and a half at a rehearsal isn't enough to get the total effect of Four Saints in Three Acts. I'm waiting for the full Monty, with costumes, video and dialogue as only Gertrude Stein could write it, and as the current crew could re-shape it.
Four Saints in Three Acts runs Aug. 18 through 21, 2011 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Novellus Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit ybca.org. The Steins Collect exhibition is at the SF Museum of Modern Art, and another exhibition about Gertrude's life is at the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco until Sept. 6th. Read a review of both on KQED Arts.