A Travelogue Pastiche of the Work-In-Progress Opera:
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On
©2004 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.
Much more at www.steinopera.com
For other articles by Karren Alenier, check the Archives.
Unlike her role models, Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, who attended Ivy League Harvard and therefore had the best connections, this poet must run the gauntlet in the school of hard knocks. It's about feeling one's way in a risky environment. Interestingly, the curriculum is Cubist. When this poet discovers she does not understand a facet of opera-making, besides reading books or Googling the Web, she must create or seek an opportunity to amend her educational gap. As a Cubist painting of a person's head might show the face and the top and back of the head all at the same time, a Cubist Curriculum seeks expert points of view from different disciplines. Using a variety of methods, this kind of education looks at the totality of a discipline like opera.
SHOES & SHADOWING—CUBIST CURRICULUM PRINCIPLE #1
Like Gertrude Stein who was an avid walker, this poet shares Miss Stein's love of shoes. Shoes are transportation—they help you get where you want to go. In the Stein opera, Gertrude sings plaintively, "I had worn out every sole in Bilignin." Bilignin was the location of her country home in Southern France and Gertrude had worn out her shoes along those country paths trying to decide, on the heels of her notoriety for The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, whether she would come to the United States to do a lecture tour. In act II of the Stein opera, set at the tail end of her 1934-35 lecture tour, Gertrude ruminates about the tour that included a visit to a marathon dance and asks Alice to put herself in Gertrude's place, "Alice, would you dance for money?" Gertrude concludes, "I need new shoes."
Sometimes instead of new shoes, one needs to walk around in someone else's shoes to provide the brick and mortar to shore up an educational gap. Ever since the first face-to-face meeting with Nancy Rhodes, Encompass New Opera Theatre's artistic director, I, the Steiny Road poet, have been shadowing this creative partner who spent many years learning from Virgil Thomson. So, for example, when the Stein opera collaborators including poet, composer, music and artistic directors, pianist, and singers were prepping for a public workshop that was part of a women's arts festival in a small New York City theater, I followed Nancy downtown to scope out the stage.
I watched her walk foot-to-foot, measuring distances and taping the floor to indicate where the singers or furniture should be positioned. I acted as model for her as she decided where the singer playing Gertrude should sit for one of the scenes. I eavesdropped on conversation with the festival manager and the owner of the theater trying to understand what it takes to be an artistic director of an opera theater group.
FINDING SURROGATES—CUBIST CURRICULUM PRINCIPLE #2
Shadowing my collaborating composer Bill Banfield who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, has not been so easy because of our geographic divide. I live just outside the northwest border of Washington, DC. Lucky for me, many composers live nearby and can be encountered in surprising venues. I met composer Janet Peachey at the Chevy Chase Ballroom where I occasionally drop in to Lindy Hop. One night in the year 2000, the pied pipers of Lindy in the DC area, Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg, demanded that I step in and help a beginner with his lesson, but they also introduced me, the veteran Lindy Hopper, to their huge dance crowd by telling people they should talk to me about writing an opera. That's when Janet appeared and said she wanted to talk about writing an opera! The fact was she is writing one—both music and words. So we cut a deal, I would help her by commenting on the words to her opera and she would help me understand the music to Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.
When I received the piano and voice score to the Stein opera, Janet paid a visit to my piano and helped me understand some of the nuances of Bill Banfield's deceptively complex music that includes jazz syncopations. Since I met Janet, we occasionally get together to hear some new work. It's a great opportunity for me to ask questions and test what I know about music.
ACTING AS CRITIC—CUBIST CURRICULUM PRINCIPLE #3
Recently, Janet and I attended a concert by our mutual friend and pianist Carl Banner who runs a contemporary music forum called Musica Viva that is based in an art studio in Kensington, Maryland. Carl keeps expanding Musica Viva's reach, with mini-series at the Czech Embassy in DC, at the Ratner Art Museum in Bethesda, Maryland, and, his most recent series, in a DC church in collaboration with a jazz ensemble named the Afro Jazz Explosion. In fact, this last series, where classical meets jazz, made me venture out wearing my critic's hat just as if I were qualified to do so.
Seeing the world from the critic's point of view is clearly a head trip. Being a critic is not about trying to walk in someone else's shoes. Sometimes critics step on other people's feet as they express their opinions and reactions. However, acting as critic has become an important aspect of this poet's Cubist curriculum. Each time I write about a performance I have seen, whether it is opera, drama, or now concert, I learn a tremendous number of new things that contribute to the how-to-develop-an-opera education.
So far I have discovered that writing critically about a flawed production may provide the largest return of lessons learned. Flawed productions challenge the critic to find the right (sometimes meaning the most politic) words to pinpoint the problems. Also, I don't particularly relish writing about how performers work their magic. As a poet, I'm much more interested in the original creative work—the overall sound of original music, the titles of compositions, the text of plays, the words of arias and songs. I also like to ponder how things fit together and work as a whole. To this critic, the production is about the working system of performers, costumes, sets, and lighting.
Not too long ago I saw a production of Michael John LaChiusa's Hello Again done by an ambitious community theater group. Most of the singers in this production were not able to find their notes. This I stated generically in my review without naming names. Given that LaChiusa juxtaposed pop tunes against atonal composition, the overall effect made in this little theater's production was that even a singer who could sing the score properly was unremarkable.
Leaving the theater, I debated whether I should write anything about this production, but then I decided Hello Again was an extraordinary piece of new music theater rarely seen outside of New York City, that the theater group was doing a lot of things pretty well (like delivering the text and moving on stage in a theater-in-the-round setup), and that my appetite for LaChiusa's work had grown. So I sent out a short review on the Internet to people who might be near this theater and I said, despite the singing, the production was worth seeing for a variety of other reasons.
The interesting thing that happened was I got a call from the director of the production asking if I could modify what I said about the singing because one of the performers was a graduate of Peabody Institute and his singing was right on the money. I also got an email from a performer who said that because they were singing with recorded music and the music was recorded without benefit of the singers ever being present, timing was a huge problem, especially for those players who weren't really singers. Oops! Was the performer supposed to let those cats out of their drowning bags? I thanked this performer for writing, but refrained from asking any questions, like why would an untrained singer be selected for a music theater role?
INTERVIEWS—CUBIST CURRICULUM PRINCIPLE #4
I thoroughly admire New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini for his approach to critical review. The interview I made with him was a master class session and the Steiny Road poet plans to do other strategic interviews in the future. Tommasini's music criticism credo speaks to responsibility and decency. I was also surprised and delighted with his definition of a music critic. He explained, because music is hard to write about, a newspaper editor will generally pick a good writer with a flair for music who avoids technical jargon over a mundane writer who has substantial music credentials. Another surprise was that Tommasini invites people who know nothing about opera to attend, because supertitles have demystified the subject matter. I'm not sure that is true in all cases (do superitles really demystify Four Saints in Three Acts?), but I applaud this generous invitation because I believe it will bring young people to the opera.
Thus the Steiny Road poet, moving alternately with humility, hubris, awe, and a dash of the devil, constructs her Cubist curriculum in the how-to-develop-a successful-opera school of hard knocks.
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