Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road
to Operadom with
Karren LaLonde Alenier

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10Opera as grand essay. What is it? How does it differ from Grand Opera and other forms of opera? Did Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson create a grand essay with their opera collaborations? Does grand essay apply to Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On? In the continuing Cubist education of the Steiny Road poet, Karren Alenier interviewed composer Libby Larsen who offered this term to describe her opera Barnum's Bird.

Consider what Ms. Larsen said as the working definition:

"I started researching the cultures in the 1840s that led to the Jenny Lind tour. I then decided to create a grand essay in the form of an opera. The essay would explore European and American musical culture as [they] existed then. The result of it is Barnum's Bird."


Absolutely not, and to avoid possible confusion, let's look briefly at Grand Opera. Grand Operas usually offer historical subjects that allude to contemporary issues. Violent passions prevail. Pageantry and spectacle can compete with the music for dominance. Grand Opera emerged in the wake of the French Revolution. It was an attempt to capture the growing and powerful middle class who knew relatively little about classical music and opera. Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) and librettist Eugène Scribe (1791- 1861) established the form with such operas as Robert Le Diable and Les Huguenots. Subsequent Grand Operas include Rossini's William Tell and Jacques Fromental Halévy's La Juive, which was recently produced by the Metropolitan Opera. Elements of Grand Opera are evident in the works of Bellini, Verdi, and Wagner. The influence of Grand Opera can be seen in John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versaille which was commissioned by and premiered at the Met in 1991 and was revived in 1995.

Grand essay, as Ms. Larsen further defines it, pertains to the process of delivering a work of art to the audience. Grand essay asks what is the artist delivering to the audience and, furthermore, what conversation will arise between artist and audience. Ms. Larsen sees grand essay as all-inclusive—the audience plays a role. Although Grand Opera in its earliest presentations was looking for a way to please and engage an unschooled audience, the creators then and now were not inviting two-way conversation. Grand Opera seeks to impress the audience with its magnitude of emotion and spectacle.


Larsen said, "I found the story of Barnum's association with Lind to be exactly what I needed to articulate the problem of the crossroads of arts and entertainment in our culture. Most of us who work in the fields of art and entertainment are continually at the crossroads concerning the intent of a piece. Is it intended beyond its hearing and viewing? How much beyond its viewing? A year beyond its viewing? A generation beyond its viewing?"

Grand essay is not a type of opera; it is about the results the artistic creator wants to achieve. In simplistic terms, one might call these results, a message or a lesson. Yikes! One might exclaim, what audience will subject itself to such abuse? Don't most people want simply to be entertained?  

P.T. Barnum in Larsen's opera tells a man on a train about his exciting news—a woman who sang for the Queen and for the rich is coming to America. When the man doesn't respond, Barnum prods, "What would you say?" The man answers, "I think I'll go fishing." Then it becomes Barnum's mission to market his prize singer. One thing he does is create a song contest, saying the winning song will be sung by Miss Lind. Because Lind is artist and philanthropist, she wants nothing to do with Barnum's crass marketing schemes. But eventually a satisfactory deal is struck between the entertainment magnate and the artist.

In that crossroads between art and entertainment, what is the artist working with opera up against? Here's the landscape:

  • European artists have dominated opera since its inception.
  • Opera houses in America today predominately produce European operas from the 19th Century. A quick look at Opera America's web page depicting the top ten operas produced in North America in the last ten years provides a telling snapshot.
  • Four Saints in Three Acts is considered the first American opera. This opera collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson premiered in 1934. Although it saw 60 consecutive performances on Broadway when it opened, new productions rarely occur.
  • Most new American operas, if they can run gauntlet to get produced, only see one production of a few performances to a small audience.
  • Most Americans have not received the basics to understand or appreciate classical music let alone opera.  


Let's get in a time capsule going to the winter of 1925-26 and find Virgil Thomson so we can walk around his shoes. George Anteil, that year's proclaimed genius and therefore a curiosity to Gertrude Stein, takes Thomson, a struggling newbie composer, to 27 rue de Fleurus to meet the notorious experimental writer. Neither composer had met Stein before her invitation came to Anteil, and Anteil would never be invited back. Because Thomson since college had been studying such work by Stein as Tender Buttons and because they shared Harvard and World War I experiences, a door opened that quickly led Thomson to collaborate with Stein in what might be deemed grand essay—Four Saints in Three Acts. Collaboratively in 1927, Thomson and Stein worked out what the opera would be about. Thomson suggested "the working artist's life" meaning "the life we were both living." Stein fixed on Spanish saints to fulfill Thomson's model related to Italian opera seria and the use of mythological subjects with tragic endings.


Stein produced a libretto with a static depiction of saints that revealed the artistic process of how she worked to produce an opera libretto. (When she asks, how many acts are in it? the question is not as comic as it seems.) Not only was she teaching her audience about her process, which included meditation and bringing commonplace things into her landscape, but also through her iconoclastic use of language that involves repetition, puns and unusual grammar, she was working to produce a feeling of the present moment. In Stein's theory of theater, she was always concerned about what she called syncopation, the gap between the player delivering his or her line and the time it takes for a listener to receive that line.

Because Stein used such aspects of pop culture in Four Saints as parades, circus, vaudeville, street life interactions, and singing games that suggest musical possibilities, one might speculate that this gave Virgil Thomson permission to find his unique voice and thus create an opera drawing from American folk tunes and Baptist hymns that he grew up with in the Midwest. Was Thomson consciously trying to write the first opera that drew not from European music traditions but from American? Anthony Tommasini in his biography Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle says that Thomson had as unusual an approach to writing his first opera as did Gertrude Stein. He sat at his piano, reading her words out loud again and again until a musical shape presented itself. In keeping with Stein's words, he wanted his music to be unencumbered and clear. He wrote nothing down until the next day because he said, if he couldn't remember it, then the music wasn't good enough.  


As the conceptual originator of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, my intention was and still is to elevate poetry in American culture. Choosing Gertrude Stein, a poet and writer, to carry the torch for poetry was my kismet, but who in the American literary landscape could have been a better choice? Maybe Marianne Moore? But she, a Pulitzer Prize winner, didn't have the same kind of struggle in the literary world as Stein did. And as the Stein opera collaboration evolved between poet, composer William Banfield and artistic director Nancy Rhodes, the struggle between artist and critic became clear, as did the struggle for an artist to communicate with her audience. Could the Stein opera be categorized as grand essay? I think so.


Green-eyed envy aside, everyone who is working in the field of contemporary opera wants every new commissioned work to succeed. Why? It opens doors for other new work. However, what is one to think if a well received and undemanding new opera, such as one I witnessed recently at its premiere, is based on a dumbed-down old work, in this case an acclaimed Elizabethan play, and on music that primarily reaches into the bag of established Old World forms—bel canto, medieval plain chant, French baroque overtures, Italian verismo, and a dash of Gilbert and Sullivan? Is this adding to the annals of American opera?

Part of the job of grand essay involves waking up the audience who should neither be sheep nor counting sheep. To enter the repertory, contemporary opera must balance between intellectual stimulation and undemanding entertainment. Also American opera must draw from its own treasure chest of sounds. Here the Steiny Road poet steps down from her soapbox.

©2004 Karren LaLonde Alenier

For prior installments, click here

Karren LaLonde Alenier, an award-winning Lindy Hopper,
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
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