Whereas the first installment of my opera story moved around the map of the United States, Europe and North Africa, this part of the story of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On is more a head trip. People keep asking me, “how does one get from poetry to opera libretto?” So without getting into the blood and guts of my quirky creative birthing process, I will provide the basic ingredients that spur or spurred me on within the philosophic framework Gertrude Stein set out for her writing, including her considerable theater work which numbers 80 plays and libretti.
One Map of Gertrude Stein’s Theater
In Gertrude Stein’s essay “Plays,” which was part of her Lectures in America, she said that plays written in poetry are more “exciting” than those written in prose. Moreover she said the poetry in a play is “livelier” than poetry not connected to a play. To understand and absorb this better, I suggest that you, the reader, take a few deep breaths and reread this paragraph, leaning this time into Stein’s words exciting and livelier.
I interpret this distinction—that is, not only is poetry used in a play more exciting than prose but also poetry used in a play rises above itself with more life—as part of Stein’s tenets about the continuous present and how one would bridge the time gap that she called syncopation. Syncopation in Stein’s psychological observation related to the lapse between an actor delivering his or her line and an audience member receiving and understanding that line.
To venture further out on this limb of interpreting Gertrude Stein’s meaning about the vitality poetry brings to a play, I suggest that Stein’s methods of using the present participle of a verb (in other words, the ing form of the verb, such as exciting) and her insistent repetition (such as “rose is a rose is a rose”) to achieve the continuous present relate to music and song. The most important question of Stein’s theater (and all her work) was how to immediately communicate with the audience.
The Bridge from Poetry to Libretto
So what bridges the gap between human beings better than the playing of music and the singing of songs? To this I say poetry, like music, plays in that gap because of its rhythmic, metric, and metaphoric reach into the human brain and heart. The music of poetry is the bridge that allows me as a poet to cross into the world of opera libretto.
InGertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, I use poems as a springboard into the story of Stein’s struggle to become an artist and what happens once she is recognized. The poem establishes a mood and gives clues for what is to come, much like a composer does with his overture. I open the Stein opera with this controversial language play poem.
COMING TO THE OTHER
do you hear
with a love
out with you
The risk I take of using profanity in this poem is not about trying to shock my audience awake, but to show how innocent words like Da and Ma can form a profane oath like damn or to show a Freudian slip that begins with father and progresses to the abusive sexual act or to show that an ugly word that describes the female genitalia has sounds in common with beautiful words like concert, kiss and touch. Once having shown the whole landscape of words from the simple first words of a child to the ugly swearwords of a sexually fixated adult, the writerly palette is liberated to work with the words in between. What Stein was doing with her writing was liberating words from overuse and trying to bring back the pure joy of language. I try to work within that model whenever I can.
Navigating the Stepping Stones
Music was the central ingredient of my family life. My dad played drums in a Italian-American dance band (he was descended from German and Polish Jews), mom had a stash of sheet music from the 1940s with comic lyrics like “I said my pajamas and put on my prayers,” my brother Jay with his photographic memory went from Bach inventions to ornamented jazz in the style of Art Tatum, my sister Nancy with her perfect pitch played a tiny violin with the concert master of the National Symphony Orchestra, and my sister Lisa tapped away on stage and in front of our full length mirror day and night. All eight of us, including my brother Michael, my sister Honey, and me who had no special musical gifts, loved to watch Name that Tune, competing to be first with the name of the next song after only a few notes.
I started going to theater and reading plays when I was in high school. At that time, I had a friend named Patty who wanted to be an actress. For my graduation, I asked my parents, who often let bills go unpaid for lack of funds, to allow me to travel with Patty to New York City and to give me enough money to go to theater there. (I had never been very far from home and certainly never had taken any trips without a parent present.) My great-uncle Benny gave me two tickets to I Had A Ball starring Buddy Hackett. Patty’s parents supplied tickets to The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd with Anthony Newly. What I remember most about I Had A Ball was how our 5th row seats were behind a man and woman with giant Afros. However, my heart belonged to Cocky (Newly) and his co-star Sir (Cyril Richard). I loved everything about this whacky musical where Sir kept changing the rules of the game and yet none of Sir’s cruel tricks could stop the undauntable Cocky.
Other experiences that I believe influenced this poet to take her work to the stage occurred in the early to mid 1980s. I took a videoed improv class that unleashed more of my sense of the absurd—in one exercise, I got some classmates to do a tiny skit where we expressed our ideas in barks. Later I signed up for a screenplay-writing course that was run in London jointly by the Berkeley Extension Programs, the British Broadcasting Company, and the Royal Television Society. Both of these classes improved my ability to write dialogue, which at the time I wanted for my fiction. Additionally these classes taught me that I didn’t want to be an actor and that I had better be very careful if I ventured into script writing because collaborations were likely to produce work that looked nothing like my original idea.
What’s Next on the Itinerary?
Now that I have opened the Pandora’s box of how I started my libretto-writing with poems, the next logical stop on the Steiny Road to Operadom is the collaboration process and how that has worked for Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. The next article also will involve more discussion about how an opera gets written. If there is one principle that dominates all others in collaborations, it is that no formulas, no rules, no models exist about how these fragile and volatile relationships work.
©2003 Karren LaLonde Alenier
is the author of five collections of poetry,
including Looking for Divine Transportation,
winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature.
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