Viewpoint: Letting Genius Sing
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Viewpoint

Viewpoint: Letting Genius Sing

by F. PAUL DRISCOLL

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Stein and Toklas with their poodle, Basket
© Bettmann/CORBIS 2014

Gertrude Stein's place in opera history was established in 1934, with the world premiere of Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. One can argue over whether Stein's libretto for Thomson's opera is a thing of genius or an act of self-parody, but its insouciant elegance — along with the laconic simplicity of the score — has kept Four Saints sounding modern for more than eight decades. Thomson, who had met Stein in 1926, during the early years of his residence in Paris, had discussed with her a variety of possible subjects for an opera before they decided to concentrate on Spanish saints of the Counter-Reformation. Thomson presented the first act of the opera to Stein and a group of her friends in 1927, but the opera was not orchestrated until 1933, when it seemed likely that Four Saints would finally receive a full production. Stein pronounced Four Saints "completely interesting, both as to words and music." Thomson believed — as many others did — that Stein identified herself with Teresa of Avila, the prominent Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun who heads the cast of characters in Four Saints, much as Stein later identified with suffragette Susan B. Anthony, the heroine of her second opera with Thomson, The Mother of Us All.

The premiere of Four Saints was one of the events in Stein's life that set her up as an international celebrity. In 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her first best-seller in a writing career that had begun with Three Lives in 1909. The inaugural production of Four Saints moved to Broadway in late February 1934; Stein was childishly excited when her friend Carl Van Vechten showed her a picture of the marquee of the Forty-Fourth Street Theater in Manhattan with her name in lights. In October 1934, Stein and Alice Toklas arrived in New York to begin a lecture tour of the U.S. that lasted until April of the following year, covering thirty-seven cities in twenty-three states. She returned to Paris a bona-fide star at the age of sixty-one. "It was pleasant being a lion," she wrote, "and meeting the people who make it pleasant to you to be a lion."

Stein reenters the opera house this month in St. Louis, when Opera Theatre of Saint Louis presents the world premiere of "27". The opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek about Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and their salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris looks at the partnership of two remarkable women who were, in Gordon's words, "profoundly present in their own lives, and when they met each other, they suddenly had a sort of whole to be entirely present for. This is a celebration of their love. Gertrude Stein was someone who took delight in the world. She was not a snob. You get the impression, the more you look at her life, that she believed everyone had something to offer — and when they offered it to her, she received it like a gift. She was wide open." spacer 

F. PAUL DRISCOLL

CORRECTIONS: The director of Le Jour Se Lève and Les Enfants du Paradis is Marcel Carné, not Michael Carné, as stated in Viewpoint (May).

Paul Appleby did not sing "Ah, lo veggio" in Canadian Opera Company's staging of Così Fan Tutte, as stated in In Review (May).




The opinions expressed in OPERA NEWS do not necessarily represent the views of The Metropolitan Opera Guild or The Metropolitan Opera.




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