June 2005  | This Issue

Karren Alenier and Gertrude Stein

Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road to
Operadom with

Karren Alenier

A travelogue of the work-in-progress opera
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On


1Put good shoes on my feet and I'm not only moving but I'm traveling to unexpected places. I'm in the middle of plotting an opera and people keep asking how did you get this project started much less get this far?
Here begins a travelogue pastiche of the work-in-progress opera
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. This installment shows the bootstraps—how did this poet, composer, and artistic director get involved in this project?

2Whereas the first installment of my opera story moved around the map of the United States, Europe and North Africa, this part of the story of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On is more a head trip. People keep asking me, "how does one get from poetry to opera libretto?" So without getting into the blood and guts of my quirky creative birthing process, I will provide the basic ingredients that spur or spurred me on within the philosophic framework Gertrude Stein set out for her writing, including her considerable theater work which numbers 80 plays and libretti.

3Webster's New World and American Heritage dictionaries define the word collaboration as either two or more artists or scientists working together on a joint project or a person or people cooperating with the enemy. To fully appreciate The Steiny Road to Operadom, one must keep in view both of these definitions. As I hinted in my last essay, collaboration can be a difficult kind of relationship. To offer perspective about my collaboration with composer  William Barfield and artistic director Nancy Rhodes, I will also talk about the collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson.

4In the last installment of The Steiny Road, my parting words included the admonition, don't go into the woods alone. In this essay, my travel advisory is about building community and finding out whose woods these are that you wish to penetrate.

5In the first Steiny Road column, I discussed how the work-in-progress opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On got started, but merely ticking off the sequence of events leading to the commissioning of the project does not tell the whole story. What I will attempt to ignite in this telling is the elusive spark that erupts when people believe in you enough to stop what they are doing and turn their attention to your project. So this column continues the thread about the importance of community that I presented in the last essay while weaving in the performance aspect.

6The Mother of Us All, the second and final opera collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, looms large in the creation of the work-in-progress opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. In this essay, I invoke a wider lens and name the spirit guides (ghosts) who also form part of the community that supports the development of my opera collaboration with composer William Banfield and Encompass New Opera Theatre artistic director Nancy Rhodes.

7Critics. In this Steiny Road essay, I will provide background on the subject of critics and artistic criticism by outlining the significance of critics in relation to Gertrude Stein and her writing as well as the significance of critics to the work-in-progress opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. Additionally, I will define what I expect an opera review to cover.

8Critical to the process of developing an opera, such as Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, is the workshop. I begin with the word critical because it suggests critic, a player who is integral to the longevity of any artistic work. Even if the critic is not favorably disposed, a published review by a critic demonstrates that the work merits consideration by the public. Since one cannot control what critics will think, opera collaborators need to test their work and hear feedback before going public.

9How does a poet on the Steiny Road to Operadom educate herself
to develop a successful opera?

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?

11Part of the process of convincing a publisher or theatrical producer to bring a creative work into public view is knowing what else has been done with your subject and what the pitfalls are. In the case of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, an opera about the life and work of an American literary radical who remains more a notorious figure from our cultural history than a revered author, this question is an ongoing research project as new works appear in public limelight. Pitfalls involve such things as copyright issues and audience receptivity. 

12Commissions are a big cause of concern on the Steiny Road to Operadom and for anyone with enough chutzpah or blissful innocence to undertake an opera project.

What is American opera? What characteristics distinguish it from its European roots? How important is it to create American opera?  What's the difference between opera and music theater? These are questions the Steiny Road poet has been pondering and has posed to several contemporary American composers, including Mark Adamo, Deborah Drattell, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Elena Ruehr, and Adam Silverman.

14Leaving no Stein, uh stone, unturned, the Steiny Road Poet traveled to San Francisco to talk with Renate Stendhal, author of Gertrude Stein In Words And Pictures, about developing an audience within the women's community for the work-in-progress opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. Making more connections related to Stein, the Poet also met or spoke with Stein aficionados Hans Gallas  and Paul Padgette and representatives of the newly developing International Museum of Women.

15Recently, the Steiny Road Poet has encountered two organizations that are engaged in building arts centers with theaters. Because the Poet and her collaborators expect not only to premiere Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On in New York City but also to take the work on the road, new theater spaces have that build-it-and-they-will-come appeal.

16The Steiny Road Poet tends to find exotic and puzzling connections and correspondences. Take for example her recent discovery that Ann Hoyt, the first soprano in New York City to debut as Gertrude of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, nurtures an intimate relationship with Venus, the goddess of love. This discovery excites the Poet because she adored the performance Ms. Hoyt gave as Gertrude and at the same time knew Ms. Hoyt would never premiere as Gertrude Stein in the opera collaboration between the Poet, William Banfield, and Encompass New Opera Theatre artistic director Nancy Rhodes.

17In creating the libretto for Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, the Steiny Road Poet has had to come to terms with this fact:  her expertise is poetry and not drama. In this installment of The Steiny Road to Operadom, the Poet will discuss some of the creative partners who contribute to the development of an opera libretto. Specifically she will define the dramaturg, director, and artistic director. However, as the discussion of making Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts stage ready will reveal, the creative partners often defy pigeonholing.

18Hubris, vanity, rejection. In an artist's life, these stations along the road called ambition loom larger than the witches Macbeth met on a Scottish heath. Gertrude Stein excised these words from her vocabulary. She openly named herself genius. She declared herself equal with her male peers that included Ezra Pound and James Joyce.

19Putting things in perspective is a constant in a writer's life – what is happening now versus yesterday and tomorrow's scheduled events and accidents. Gertrude Stein placed her emphasis on the present moment. Through her insistent repetition and use of the 'ing' present participle form of the verb, she delivered and continues to deliver her reader into a visceral connection with this moment, this breath. Breath and the creative act are what the Steiny Road Poet will address in this opera episode.

20The Steiny Road Poet has been thinking about how to get follow on productions underway. That is, when she is not assisting with the wording of the publicity for the world premiere of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, participating in the search for appropriate and affordable images of Gertrude Stein, or lining up a bookstore to sell the books of noted academics who will speak at the Gertrude Stein Salon that will precede the Stein opera premiere.  

© 2005 Karren Alenier



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