The Steiney Road To Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | Scene4 Magazine | December 2016 |
Karren LaLonde Alenier


Given Donald Trump’s verbal agility with packing a criticizing wallop in every tweet, the Steiny Road Poet reopens her essay on critics and what critics meant to Gertrude Stein.



Critical essays and books are still being written about Gertrude Stein's work. For some, their work on Stein is for a Ph.D. dissertation; for others, it is their life-long passion. During Stein's lifetime, few understood or attempted to understand what her experimental work was about or what she was trying to achieve. For the most part, critics dismissed her work and labeled it nonsensical. Some still do. Many of her major works were not published until after her death and, until 1933, she either self-published her work or paid a small press publisher for printing costs.

Among the intelligentsia, critical commentary played a significant role in the life of the mind during the 1920s that, despite the Depression and World War II, continued until television viewing replaced reading for a large segment of the American public. The Algonquin Round Table lunches, for which Dorothy Parker and her outrageous comments are associated, began as a roast of the New York Times drama critic, Alexander Wollcott. Gertrude Stein participated in literary bashing by writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Without donning the hat of literary critic, Stein managed to enrage most of the people she knew with what they considered unfair criticism. Ernest Hemingway retaliated by bashing Stein in his book A Moveable Feast, which was published in 1964 after his death.

Gertrude Stein had significant relationships with several critics. They included her brother, Leo Stein, an art critic who wrote a book entitled Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose; her collaborative partner in two operas, Virgil Thomson, who was a highly respected and feared music critic from 1940-1954 for the New York Herald Tribune; and her literary promoter, Carl Van Vechten, who began his career as assistant music critic for the New York Times.

The literary commentary on Stein, the exchange of literary barbs among writers during Stein's lifetime, and the three men who were critics—Leo Stein, Virgil Thomson, and Carl Van Vechten—merit much more attention than I have given in this essay. My intention is to show how large and important the subject of critics and criticism was to Gertrude Stein and then to tie it to Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.


So what is my opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On about? It's about the artist's struggle to establish herself as writer, develop a body of work, face the critics, and deal with overwhelming notoriety from a public that focused on her life and her more accessible work, such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, or her public work, such as the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. The dramatic tension in my opera is between Gertrude and her brother Leo. He is an art critic, and he tells her that her experimental work doesn't make sense and that it embarrasses him.

Having a professional critic in the same house where an artist lives and works spells trouble. Moreover, sister and brother studied with the same Harvard philosophy professor, William James, who shaped both their views of the world. What Leo wrote in his book Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose shows how similarly the two siblings approached their respective métiers. Leo talked about meditating on an object to appreciate its possible value. Tender Buttons is Gertrude's meditation on objects. Leo also wrote about a childhood pastime where he repeated a word so many times it lost its meaning. In her writing, Gertrude was intent on reinvigorating language from overuse by repeating words to the extreme.   

Leo stated in his book that he liked Gertrude's portraits, but it was her friendship with Picasso and his Cubist influence that upset Leo. Leo did not find Cubism to his artistic tastes, and he was annoyed with Picasso who attempted to present himself as knowledgeable about metaphysical subjects. The entrance of Alice B. Toklas in Gertrude's life allowed the fledgling writer to break off the relationship with the brother she was dependent on for approval and for living arrangement comforts. Gertrude then transferred her dependence to a woman who would not only keep house for her, but who would serve as her secretary, confidant, and literary cheerleader.

Stein said of the Nazis that they were a fog you just had to get through. Literary critics were such a fog for Gertrude Stein and maybe that was because they were not tapped into the philosophy from which she worked. However, her brother Leo's criticism was unsustainable because they shared so much of the same view of the world. What Leo said to Gertrude hurt her so badly that despite what they had been through together (loss of their beloved mother, orphaned as teenagers, years together at Harvard with some of the same teachers and friends, and years sharing the same apartment and art collection as young adults), she refused to reconsider relations after they broke with one another in 1913.

Audience is another form of the critic. Despite Gertrude saying that she wrote for herself and strangers, audience reaction to her work was profound enough to cause her writer's block. What Gertrude Stein found out after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was that her audience did not know or understand anything about her serious work. Her audience was more interested in her life and, therefore, she had achieved notoriety but not respect.


Opera America's Newsline magazine featured an article a couple of years ago that said developers of new operas should invite the critics to their workshops and allow them to provide feedback early on. This poet-librettist followed that advice. That brazen and risky action produced encouraging commentary for the first workshop of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.

How does a critic provide encouraging comments to a new work? What Joseph McLellan did was describe the basic plot of what he heard presented and test it against what opera plots normally do:

"Drama flourishes on conflict, and this opera, Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, doesn't have a second act yet. But it has plenty of conflict. As an art critic, Leo Stein feels, his job is to make things clear. Gertrude does just the opposite.

"But whatever confusions and complications may be found in her writing, Gertrude keeps the argument with her brother clear and simple. 'I am a genius,' she sings. 'She is a genius,' agrees another voice, that of Alice B. Toklas. They sound more confident than they really are; they are searching for a kind of reassurance and reinforcement—not unlike the creators of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, The opera, by librettist Karren L. Alenier and composer William Banfield, is reaching out to an audience early on."

McLellan also made it clear in his article that the opera was a work in progress and that he appreciated how the audience was invited into the process.


Critics often play God, making pronouncements that can affect box office income for a new work, future financial backing for a theater, and career paths for performers, composers, librettists, artistic directors, producers, and set designers. This is what I want to see in a critical review of opera:

    A statement about the production. Is it a premiere? Is it an unusual interpretation?

    A brief plot summation.

    A statement about the size and scope. How many characters/singers are there? How big is the orchestra or is it a small ensemble? Is this a full-length opera taking 2 or 2 and a half hours? Is this a full-staged production, a concert presentation with no costumes and sets, or a workshop? [Most opera reviews concentrate on finished work but this isn't always the case.]

    A description of the music. Is it lyric or dissonant? Are there distinct arias? Is there any spoken text?

    A statement about the singers and their music. Is there anything significant about who has been selected to perform ? How difficult are the various roles? Can the singers be heard and understood?

    A statement about the look of the production: costumes, sets, and lighting.

    A statement about the management of the work. How effective was the stage direction? How effective was the conducting? How well does the orchestra or ensemble work with the singers?

    A statement about background context. Who does this work appeal to? Does it take special knowledge to understand the subject or music of this work? What comparisons to other operas or composers would be useful in understanding this work?

    A statement about relevancy. How does the subject and presentation of this work speak to current day concerns?

Because of the publishing space allotted to reviews, a reviewer may not be able to address everything on this list and may not need to if the work has had multiple productions. Reviews are subjective but one hopes reviewer opinion is based on relevant experience and knowledge. What I can do without from a critic is snarky turns of phrase that are meant to show how erudite, contrary/snobbish, or hip the critic might be. Given the cost of opera and the demands on most people's time, I believe that most people read opera reviews to obtain information that will help in their decision to purchase tickets or to spend the time seeing a particular opera. Linguistic pyrotechnics, while they might be viewed as entertaining, are more about the critic and his or her reputation then they are about the work under review.

Would this poet-librettist invite critics to a workshop again? Maybe, but it would depend on how open the critic is to new work. Here the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom will leave the book open on critics.

One final thought from Gertrude Stein:
“Remarks aren't literature.”

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier's most recent book is
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Read her Blog.
For her other commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2017 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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