Scene4 Magazine-inSight

June 2009

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Oh Virgil

Living as an artist means work, play, and dailyness (i.e. eating, sleeping, dressing, etc.) are a seamless flow of activities. Among the guiding lights the Steiny Road Poet walks around with are not only Gertrude Stein, but also Virgil Thomson. Thomson was a composer and critic who excelled at writing music and words.  

On May 2, 2009, the Poet had the occasion to see the world premiere of Wallace Norman's Oh Virgil: A Theatrical Portrait produced by Woodstock Fringe in association with Judson Arts at the Judson Memorial Church. The show, which was essentially a one-act play with musical moments and accented by the projections of historically familiar photographs, was made possible by a generous grant from the Virgil Thomson Foundation.


Postcards promoting the show were handed out February 20 at the City University of New York Segal Center's 75th anniversary celebration of Thomson's and Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts, which also received significant funding from the Virgil Thomson Foundation. Talk about a target audience for marketing Oh Virgil. The Steiny Road Poet tucked the Oh Virgil postcard into her bag of NYC street and subway maps and luckily New York City Opera's VOX weekend coincided with Wallace's premiere. Or did he plan the opening to coincide with VOX, not to mention that the Judson Church is practically next to the Skirball Center where VOX took place May 1 and 2?

So there was the Steiny Road Poet standing on a street just off Washington Square catching up on phone messages and trying to shake off the full day of new opera at VOX and decide what to do before going to see Oh Virgil when composer Charles Fussell came into view. So the Poet disengaged from her cell phone to greet the man with the sunniest disposition in New York and wangled an invitation to join him and a colleague friend for dinner before the show.  

Fussell, a founding board member of the Thomson Foundation, was on his way to the Judson Church to arrange tickets and meet Marjorie Merryman Dean of the Faculty for Academics and Voice Performance at the Manhattan School of Music. As we approached the steps of the church, Wallace Norman greeted us. So how does this look—the critic (i.e. the Steiny Road Poet) comes with an important financial backer of the new production and runs smack into the show's creating artist? This is the way things evolve in this artistic world where most people wear many hats and since the Poet doesn't work for The New York Times, it's just part of life on the Steiny Road. And, oh, yes, Virgil Thomson got criticized for this all the time because he often did not separate his career as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune and his life as a composer.


What Norman has created with Oh Virgil is a loving homage to the American composer who some music experts say wrote the first American opera that distinguished itself from European opera. Performed by three actors and two singers, the play woven with a selection of Thomson's art songs takes place in Virgil Thomson's bedroom of the infamous Chelsea Hotel of New York where he lived from 1940 until his death in 1989. (This is the hotel where Sid Vicious stabbed and killed Nancy, where Dylan Thomas fell into a terminal alcohol-induced coma, and where Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks, just to name a few incidents of many. However, the Poet digresses because Norman did not explore any of that history.)

The emphasis of Oh Virgil is on Thomson's predilection for composing musical portraits, an idea that he borrowed from Gertrude Stein who wrote word portraits. Her word portrait of Thomson is something the Steiny Road Poet continues to marvel at given its emphasis on what collaboration with him might mean to Stein. Norman took the opportunity to have Stein's portrait of Thomson recited early in Oh Virgil.


"Yes ally. As ally. Yes ally yes as ally. A very easy failure takes place. Yes ally. As Ally. As ally yes a very easy failure takes place. Very good. Very easy failure takes place."

Anyone who has read  Anthony Tommasini's biography Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle will not find anything surprising in Norman's play, including the "queer" incident that nearly derailed Thomson's career. However, what the play made the Poet want to do is reread parts of Tommasini's biography of this man who was both cantankerous and loveable. Just rereading Tommasini's foreword to this definitive biography clinches how complex Thomson's world was as both artist and composer:

"The subject that engaged me for the ten years it took to complete this book was Thomson the creator who dared to compose straightforwardly at a time when maximum complexity was fashionable; Thomson the critic who used his post to skewer managers, promoters, and performers who catered to the status quo (and, when possible, unabashedly to promote himself and his allies). … Indeed, Thomson had an aisle seat not just for the concerts he critiqued but also for the century he nearly lived though and reported on brilliantly."

The point that Tommasini makes in his foreword (as well as the title of his biography—Composer on the Aisle) is that you cannot talk about Thomson the composer without also talking about him as a critic. Those musical portraits were much like Stein's in that both turned a critical eye to their subjects. Therefore, the Poet applauds that Norman emphasized this aspect of Thomson's creative career.  

One other note of interest about Tommasini's foreword is that he explains that he met Thomson through Scott Wheeler who was mentored by Thomson. Did the Poet mention that Scott Wheeler sat in front of her during the performance of Oh Virgil? Wheeler is not only a composer of note (he was "discovered" by Plácido Domingo at VOX in the year 2000 for his opera Democracy and now Wheeler is under commission for a new opera by the Metropolitan Opera) but also he serves on the board of the Virgil Thomson Foundation.  


What particularly brightened the play were the insertions of Thomson's art songs, such as "The Tiger" based on the text by William Blake and "Susie Asado" based on the text of Gertrude Stein. "Sweet sweet sweet… tea. Susie Asado." However, the acoustics in Judson meeting hall leave a lot to be desired. While baritone Troy Valjean Rucker did a reasonably satisfying job of delivering his songs, soprano Watson Heintz seemed weak in the large hall.


In 2008, the Steiny Road Poet saw the Al Carmines' musical In Circles (based on a play by Gertrude Stein) in this hall and the producers of that show used a different strategy to counter the sound problem (theater in the round with partitions used as walls behind the flat-to-the-floor audience seating). Undoubtedly, Craig Napoliello (scene design), Jillian Zeman (sound design), Michael Conley (musical direction), and Nicola Sheara (stage direction) were aware of the sound problems and did what they could. On a proscenium stage, the set curved in an arc toward the bleacher-style seating. The feeling, if not the sound, was intimate and, of course, the bedroom setting made that more so.

When a friend asked what the Poet thought of the show because he wanted to send his students, the Poet said this was the perfect play to introduce Thomson to newbies. It has the historic content enhanced by the projected photos from the Four Saints production— Thomson and Stein reviewing that score, the marquis on Broadway advertising their popularly acclaimed opera, Gimbel's department store playing off the title—four suits in two acts and more.

What the Poet liked best about Norman's homage was that the last words spoken by Victor Truro playing Virgil Thomson (Truro, an actor often seen on popular tv shows, did a credible job of portraying Thomson)—"Thank you for letting me be brilliant."


The Steiny Road Poet thinks Gertrude Stein would have accepted that gratitude.

Photos - Antonio Minino


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©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



June 2009

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