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

Conversation with a Genius

The Steiny Road Poet thinks she has met a genius—director Jay Scheib, who in six months read and digested Gertrude Stein's 900-plus-page novel The Making of Americans. After the Poet gasped, she could hear the director shrugging as they each held a telephone receiver to their respective ears on January 8, 2009.


Composer Anthony Gatto approached Scheib suggesting they collaborate on a Stein-based project. Gatto wanted to use Stein's voice (i.e. text from her novel The Making of Americans] with his original electronic music set to the film Birth of a Nation. Scheib said D. J. Spooky (Paul D. Miller) had already done something similar with this film and so Scheib told Gatto that he wanted to do a "real adaptation of Stein's novel" to create a chamber opera. When Scheib asked Gatto what he thought, Gatto said he hadn't read the novel, that he was only familiar with excerpts, particularly those recorded by Stein in her voice so Scheib picked up the heavy tome and started reading. He said he had to be careful to pay attention because in Stein's repetitions were sudden bits of vital information that might be easily missed. "I could read for four hours and miss the point because I started daydreaming and missed one key sentence that may have appeared once in two hundred pages."


Less than a week before the premier of the Scheib-Gatto opera The Making of Americans, the Poet got an email from her fellow Steinian Hans Gallas. He said he just heard about The Making of Americans opera but he couldn't get there. The Poet did a Google search on Anthony Gatto and found a juggler by that name and then the composer. What clinched the Poet's decision to get on a plane December 12th for that night's first performance in cold Minneapolis was that Gatto had also written a piece of music based on Paul Bowles' novel The Sheltering Sky. Jane and Paul Bowles are the subjects of the Steiny Road Poet's second opera libretto.

One more thing that the Poet did was contact Gatto by email to get a personal vibration and see how much access she could have to him after the performance. In those exchanges—email and a brief encounter in the theater after the performance—Gatto emphasized that this opera was a collaboration with Scheib. Except for points of clarification related to who certain characters were in the opera cast, the Poet wrote her Scene4 review of the Scheib-Gatto opera without benefit of the phone interview with Scheib. The Poet had read enough of Stein's novel to know that the handling of Stein's ideas and the selection of text for the opera preserved the integrity of Stein's landmark Modernist novel. What the Poet did not know before she finished writing her review was Scheib's reputation for the use of video in his work.


In a telling article entitled "A Little of Everything" written for The Boston Globe by Geoff Edgers dated March 18, 2007, Edgers quotes the New York artist Leah Gelpe as follows, "Scheib doesn't merely use video as a complement to his plays, he makes it a central focus of the work." Also, Edgers stated, "Scheib says his use of video is an important link to his research at MIT, which focuses on integrating media with live performance."

Therefore, the Poet had no idea how large her second question was—could you talk about your use of video in this opera and how it relates to the choreography or actor movement? Jscheib1721crHowever, Scheib took this in stride saying he had "two to three things he wanted to accomplish with this opera." His approach was built on "portraiture" and "images in motion." He used the video to set up portraits of his characters and then "catch the reflection of a single performer in relation to the event on stage." In keeping with Stein's influence from Picasso and her intention to present a story from multiple points of view, Scheib's guiding motif was cubism, using video to achieve simultaneity. By processing the live video feeds, he said he hoped to delve into the deep logic of Stein's writing. For example, he explained, the ballerina would run into the house and perform a pirouette and later appear on stage performing the same thing, but this time, there would also be the video running that showed her inside the house performing the earlier pirouette.  Scheib said he wanted to immerse the viewer in the experience and he hoped that Gatto's music would accomplish this as well.


Next the Poet asked him to talk about who his dancers were. He said he has a studio workshop at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he teaches performance media and dance theater. His students are budding mathematicians, aerospace engineers, and other scientists. The dancers in The Making of Americans were selected from his students at MIT. What he worked on with this selected group of dancers was "use of repetition, how to handle architecture, tempo, use of basic ballet forms which much like in novel deteriorate over time. A ballerina gets dropped over and over. We developed this by looking at passages of the novel.  We developed an algorithm where they could improvise in time-space, how they kinesthetically react. We had nine rehearsals with the total cast but the dancers had to be ready to improvise.  


Another point of curiosity for the Poet was Tanya Selvaratnam who played the part of Mary Maxworthing. The Poet wanted to know if he selected the text she recites at the end of the play with this particular actor in mind. The text she delivered was extremely repetitious and had to be a challenge to memorize. Scheib said Selvaratnam has "photographic memory" and that he wanted her to recite the entire last chapter of Stein's novel, except he had to compromise with his collaborator and therefore only one fourth of Stein's text was used in the speech delivered by Selvaratnam as Mary Maxworthing. Respectfully, the Poet felt that had Maxworthing's recitation continued any longer than it was, the focus of the opera and the energy it had accrued would have suffered.

Additionally, the Poet had noticed after the performance that, in the actor's bio printed in the playbill, Selvaratnam had acted in the Wooster Group's House/Lights (a performance piece that mixed Stein's play Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights with a grade B porn movie) in March 2005 and that she had an intimate connection to the use of video. Up to Selvaratnam's extended recitation, the Poet kept wondering who the woman walking through the scenes with a bouquet of flowers was and how eerie and larger than life she seemed.  


One other thing that the Poet wondered about was the house that sat on the stage and how it's architectural structure affected the dramatic action and why it had been billed as a "little house on the prairie." Was this an attempt to draw in the Minnesotans, who to the Poet's experience with Minnesotans met along the way and in the crowd at premier of The Making of Americans seemed like an extraordinary audience for experimental art? To this, Scheib said the attempt to connect the house, which was a piece not specifically built for this opera by multimedia artist Chris Larson, to the Midwest and Stein's location of her novel was not fully realized. Earlier, Scheib had commented this was "the first outing with the piece and it was still an experiment for now."

To ratchet back to the bigger view, the Poet asked, "What are the critical elements in your mind that move opera into the 21st century?" Scheib answered that he saw new opera as "interesting synthesis of the experiments of the last 100 years. Somewhere between Handel and Luigi NoNo. This is what will keep opera alive." What was important to him was combining the old with the new. When asked what was the best city to present new operatic work, he said, "Boston is a great city to do that in because there are so many composers, musicians, and music lovers there. But, of course, New York City is a good place too. I wasn't in Minneapolis long enough to get a sense of what the reaction was, but the reaction of the audience seemed very strong and no one was walking out so it [The Making of Americans] seemed to have been well received." He also said he liked working in Germany, where he can present radical work for what a conductor he once worked with called the "new freaks."  

Finding what is new out of what is familiar seems to be a gift Scheib has and, for a "first outing," The Making of Americans was exceptionally well put together and emotionally compelling. The Steiny Road Poet would love to hear the music again as well as experience the next production.

Photo - N. White


©2009 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2009 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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