Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

The Ever Best of Virgil Thomson

Promoting American opera is the torch that the Steiny Road Poet carries. Concrete evidence of her support for American opera is embodied in her book The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas which is what led her to pay an impromptu visit in early February 2008 with Dr. Frank Hentschker, Director of Programs at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY). Out of that short meeting came an unexpected big plan: the 75th anniversary celebration of the 1934 Broadway premiere of Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's seminal opera Four Saints in Three Acts.

In two sessions on February 20, 2009, the CUNY Graduate Center will host in Elebash Recital Hall (session 1 from 2 to 5: 30 pm) a screening of Steven Watson's documentary film Prepare for Saints, with an introduction by Watson, followed by talks and discussions with poet Karren Alenier, Encompass New Opera Theatre Artistic Director Nancy Rhodes, author and filmmaker Steven Watson, composer Scott Wheeler, and American art historian Wanda M. Corn. Session 2 starting at 6:30 pm will see Encompass New Opera Theatre present a fifty-minute version of Four Saints in Three Acts followed by a moderated discussion with composer Charles Fussell, Nancy Rhodes, and others. Gertrude Stein memorabilia from the collection of Hans Gallas will be on exhibition. What's remarkable about this rare opportunity to experience Four Saints, see original film footage from the 1934 opera in Watson's film, and hear from scholars and artists who have spent years of their lives fascinated and immersed in the work of Stein and Thomson is that the whole seven hours of programming is absolutely free and open to the public as well as being in an easy-to-locate midtown Manhattan venue on Fifth Avenue.


On November 10th and 11th, 2008 the Steiny Road Poet interviewed respectively Frank Hentschker and Charles Fussell to learn more about them and the contribution as the producers each will make to the Four Saints celebration.  


Hentschker, the mastermind of this celebration, is the founding Director of Programs at the Segal Theatre Center (MESTC), which was created in 2002 at the CUNY Graduate Center. At MESTC, the emphasis for Hentschker is to connect international and American cultural institutions as well as the professional and academic theater worlds. The scope of his work includes theater, dance, and film-related programming.  

On a personal level, Hentschker grew up in a working-class family in Germany. He never expected to pursue a career in theater, but social service, an alternative to military enlistment, opened up doors that provided an opportunity in Italy where he developed a play, learned Italian, and experienced Commedia dell'arte and many other aspects of theater. In Germany at the University of Giessen, he received his Ph.D. in Theatre Studies and his Masters in Performing Arts. He became friends with dramatist Heiner Müller and acted in one of his plays, which to led to an introduction to the American theater experimentalist Robert Wilson. Hentschker worked as an assistant to the avant-garde theater director, touring with Wilson's productions internationally for Hebbel Theater Berlin. Hentschker turned this experience with Wilson and his work into a doctoral thesis that explored both German and American avant-garde theater.

What Hentschker loves about his job at MESTC is that he gets to connect artists of merit, particularly those who are unknown. He particularly likes to support new and unconventional work. th.prelude.ope-crHe said New York City is no longer the center of theater development. New York theater is alive and active but "It's too expensive. It's much easier to be born in New York City, but it's hard to grow up and find the subsidies. It's why a lot of American artists end up working in Europe."

In the case of the Four Saints celebration, Hentschker feels drawn to it by the work Robert Wilson has done, including a production of Four Saints that was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera and later came in 1996 to New York's Lincoln Center Festival. Hentschker was hoping to link the Four Saints celebration to an outreach program at MESTC related to New York City Opera's planned but now cancelled revival of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson work Einstein on the Beach. (The skinny on this disappointment is that European-based Gerard Mortier quit as general director of NYCO early in November after NYCO failed to raise the $60 million promised him for his first season of productions.)  

What Hentschker hopes as a possible outcome of the Four Saints celebration is that attendees (he sees the audience as a unique mixture of young artists, Stein and Thomson devotees, and music and opera people) will either learn about or remember the "astonishing achievement of this opera—how it cast a bridge to the Harlem Renaissance and that it was something that was so entirely American that it could never have been done in Europe." He would also like to see the production that Encompass New Opera Theatre does get a second performance in Harlem, possibly as a rent party.


The idea of a rent party in Harlem also excites Charles Fussell who initially suggested this to Nancy Rhodes when they met to discuss the Four Saints celebration and his role in the evening panel discussion that follows the stage performance. As with most artists, Fussell wears more than one hat.  fussell2-crBesides being a composer of orchestral and voice compositions that have made him a winner of prestigious awards from the Fulbright, Ford, and Copland Foundations, he is a founding board member and vice president of the Virgil Thomas Foundation. The Thomson Foundation grants financial support to organizations that promote American classical music, especially the music of Virgil Thomson. The Thomson Foundation will be supporting the Encompass production of Four Saints at CUNY and much to Rhodes' delight, the funding will allow for an orchestra.

Like all charitable organizations these days, the Thomson Foundation has had to re-think their strategies for how they spend their funds. In the past, they have funded small organizations with many small donations but now they feel in order to make a "bigger difference," they must support larger organizations and projects with larger donations. Fussell commented about supporting the Encompass production, "It's quite a lot of money for a one shot deal. Wouldn't it be nice to do some secondary concert in a different venue, even with just piano accompaniment?"


In the early 1970s, Fussell met Virgil Thomson at a dinner party In Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Subsequently, Fussell helped Thomson with his book of essays Words with Music, which was published in 1989 as his last book. Although Fussell's musical style was well developed when he met Thomson, he said he learned a lot, including new methods of setting text, the importance of paying attention to voice types, and how to write dissonant music that remains clear. For Fussell, his association with Thomson "crystallized how [a composer] works with the English language."

Recently Fussell with the late Wiley Hitchcock published a scholarly edition of the complete orchestration of Four Saints in Three Acts. In the work that was done, Fussell and Hitchcock looked at Thomson's original orchestration that included saxophones as a "new color in the orchestra that was popular at that time." Ultimately, Thomson replaced the saxophones with French horns. Although various people, including Frank Hentschker, have expressed interest in this original orchestration scoring, Fussell said that Thomson changed his mind about use of the saxophones because he "changed the voicings of chords—for example, who played what notes between the horns and the bassoons or the saxes. It's [the saxophone scoring] not a viable alternative," Fussell said. The scoring is available at the Yale Library and anyone is welcome to see it and work with it according to Fussell, but the score would require a tremendous amount of time and effort.


For the CUNY presentation of Four Saints, Encompass will use Thomson's 50-minute version that focuses on the choral parts. In March 2008, Bard College used this shortened version in a student production. Although Thomson created this shortened version in 1954 for a commercial recording, Fussell is hoping to capture a new recording of this version and possibly on Ever Best, a label that may be created by the Virgil Thomson Foundation. By the way, the Steiny Road Poet notes that Thomson typically signed his prolific correspondence Ever best.


Answering the question of how Four Saints relates to the Harlem Renaissance, Fussell said simply, "black cast." The original singers of Four Saints were an all African-American cast. How was Thomson introduced to Harlem? Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein's good friend who ultimately became her literary executor, first invited Thomson to present a solo composer's performance of the opera at Van Vechten's house. On the evening of February 15, 1929, Thomson played piano and sang the work for a small gathering of influential guests. Soon thereafter, Van Vechten took Thomson to Harlem where the white "downtown" artists went to party.  


According to Steven Watson's research in his book Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism, Van Vechten, who promoted many of the authors of the Harlem Renaissance (for example, he connected Langston Hughes to his first publisher), may or may not have been with Thomson when he had the epiphany about using a black cast, but clearly Van Vechten's influence had worked a certain magic on Thomson. Nonetheless, of the two stories offered about Thomson's epiphany (the other was by his long-time college friend Henry-Russell Hitchcock) both stories were told in the same way: that Thomson believed the black singers had the poise, dignity, self-composure lacking self-consciousness, and most important the resonant voices and clear enunciation needed to put across Stein's text.  

As Fussell pointed out, Four Saints, unlike George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which premiered more than a year later (October 1935), was not about black life. By choosing a black cast against the advice of most of his friends and supporters, Thomson distinguished Four Saints from every other American opera in a way that is just coming into a time when the entire radicality of this work can be more appreciated.  

The Steiny Road Poet who saw the Robert Wilson production of Four Saints in the Lincoln Center Festival expects to learn a lot more about this opera when she participates in the CUNY 75th anniversary celebration of this seminal opera and sees the production Nancy Rhodes is currently working on. For those wishing to get a good understanding of Four Saints, the Poet recommends "St. Gertrude," an essay in Bonnie Marranca's book Ecologies of Theater.


©2008 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


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december 2008

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