International Magazine of Theatre, Film & Media

April 2003

Bumper Cars
The Steiny Road
to Operadom with
Karren LaLonde Alenier

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?  

USA: Map of the Collaboration

The Stein opera, my short moniker for this work with a jazzed name, is based on my verse play by the same name. My collaborators are composer William Banfield of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Encompass New Opera Theatre artistic director Nancy Rhodes of New York City. Karren Alenier, the poet and librettist, (that's me) lives in Bethesda, Maryland. Travel is what we have to do to develop this piece.

To help you travel with me, I offer this map:

·       Three acts:
1908, Paris, the party Picasso throws for Henri Rousseau;
1935, California coast, Stein's triumphant lecture tour where she loses her Muse;
1939-1944, southwest France during WWII where Stein and Toklas sit out the war.

·       Ten voices: five female, five male.
·       The Commission: June 2000 Composer and Poet receive a joint commission from The Word Works, a literary organization in Washington, DC, and from Encompass New Opera Theatre of New York City.
·       The Music Score: January 2002 composer delivers piano and voice music.
·       Workshops: Three public workshops:
Chevy Chase, Maryland,July 12, 2001, 150 people hear selected music from Act I; 
New York City, March 10, 2002, 100 people hear selected music from act II at the Manhattan School of Music;
New York City,July 29, 2002, 50 people hear selected music from all three acts at the Cultural Project Theatre in the Women Center Stage arts festival.
·       The Premiere: anticipated in 2004.
·       More information:

PARIS: What Would Gertrude Stein Say?

I feel certain if Gertrude Stein knew what I was doing she would rise from her plot in Pere LaChaise Cemetery and ask what possessed me to write an opera about her. With a red face, I would admit that after I read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a book Ms. Stein did not consider her best work, I was smitten with the way she both played with words and played with living her life. The more I read about her and dipped into her original writings, the more I admired her independence and fearlessness not only in the face of world events, but also in the way she never let the critics stop her from writing and breaking new ground.

MARYLAND: In the Amusement Park

I remember, in the late 1970s, being on the bus home from my government job, just crossing the line from Washington, DC, into Maryland and finishing the last page of The Autobiography. I thought playground! And suddenly my writerly landscape exploded with images from the amusement park. My early Stein poems contain the seesaw (``Leo on Seesaw"), bumper cars (``Bumper Cars: Gertrude Said She Took Him for a Ride"), and a crack-the-whip (``Alice B. Toklas Comments on a Recent Phenomenon"). Next I picked up the automobile as one of Gertrude's metaphors— or should I say driving since she also owned and operated a truck that she used as an ambulance during World War I.  

In the 70s, my circle of poet friends and I talked a lot about guerilla theater, performance poetry, rebellion through the arts, and Paris in the Twenties. Deirdra Baldwin, the founding president of The Word Works was hot to create a poets' theater. In 1975, I staged a public reading of my poems outside the door of Mad Martha Ice Cream Parlor in Potomac, Maryland. I used a music stand as a podium and I had a sitar player and belly dancer backing me up. A local Maryland newspaper wrote a full-length article about the performance, the state of contemporary poetry, and me as a writer. In 1984 and '85 at Glen Echo Park in the old bumper car pavilion, I mounted Poet's Jam, a series of multi-arts programs under the sponsorship of The National Park Service and The Word Works. In one of these programs, I got on stage to recite my work in costume (complete with bells on my ankles and rings on my toes). I was backed up by two musicians playing flutes and percussion instruments. The recital included my Stein poems and my poems about Morocco.

MOROCCO: Working with Paul Bowles

In 1982, I traveled to Tangier to work on fiction with Paul Bowles through a program developed by New York's School of Visual Arts. I had 50 pages of a novel written. In our one-on-one conference, he said, ``Fifty pages isn't enough for me to discuss." So we worked on my Stein poems. As a composer, he was particularly helpful working out the rhythmic cadences of my poem ``Leo on Seesaw." (Don't let the layout of this poem throw you. It's read as usual from left  to right, line by line.)

          LEO ON SEESAW
                                     for the pleasure
                                     of Gertrude Stein     

Little Buddha                  little brooder
Kleiner Bruder               tiny brother
bitty bother                     sitting baldly
in the butter                    in the batter
   shaking philosophic digits
                   in the kitchen
                   for the Kuchen
                   has been eaten
                   by the kitten
wearing mittens        in the winter
hiding splinters         in his fingers
                 finding spiders
                 in the cracks
                 of the plaster
                 So we laughed
      twenty HA HA HA HA HA
       in metered breathing
                 something close
                   to the day
                  he was born

Bowles was a protégé of Aaron Copland and Copland introduced Bowles to Gertrude Stein. Stein told Bowles to quit writing poetry and to go to Morocco. When I showed up in Tangier with a newly printed volume of Paul Bowles's poetry (Next to Nothing: Collected Poems 1926-1977 [Black Sparrow Press]), he asked me not to judge him too harshly on this work. ``Gertrude was right,' he said, `` my poetry wasn't very good."

VIRGINIA: A Spark from The Mother of Us All

In 1983 at the Barns of Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, I saw a production of Gertrude Stein's second opera with Virgil Thomson, The Mother of Us All. What sparked my interest was the tableau vivant style of this production. From a still life pose came action. With the work of Gertrude Stein, I often feel the reader has been invited into the middle of the action, that some how the still life painting has begun moving. Some time after I saw The Mother of Us All, I wrote a one-act play about the raucous party Pablo Picasso threw in honor of Henri Rousseau. At this party everyone got drunk since Picasso neglected to get the food on time, pranks were played on the elderly Rousseau, Alice's feather fantasie from her hat was eaten by a donkey and, eventually, in my development of this play, Gertrude and brother Leo fight over her writing about which Leo is sorely embarrassed. This one act became the working basis for Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. However, twelve years elapsed before I took it out of a drawer and decided it might have some potential.

WASHINGTON, DC: The Birthday Party for Gertrude Stein

In 1995 I was working on a presentation of my original work that would celebrate Gertrude Stein's birthday, and I had convinced the owner of Chapters Literary Book Store in Washington, DC, to host the program.  After getting comments from poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri on the draft play, I enlisted a dozen poets to read the parts. So on February 3, 1996, with Hilary Tham as Gertrude Stein, Jacklyn Potter as Alice Toklas, and Miles David Moore as Leo Stein, fifty people who had trudged through two feet of snow heard the beginning text for my opera.  The comments were that was good but where's the rest of it?

FLORENCE, ITALY: Outrageous Arrangements for Writing

Whereas Gertrude Stein did most of her writing by hand after Alice Toklas went to sleep for the night and then had Alice type up the work in the morning while Gertrude slept, I decided impetuously that I would write two more acts to my play about Stein in Florence, Italy. This decision was based on having made an outrageous promise to poet Jeff Brown who ran the Grace Church Poetry Series in DC's Georgetown that I would present the completed three-act play in April 1997 at his forum. Having only one week to work on this project (I was employed full time by the United States Department of Agriculture as a computer specialist manager not to mention that the following week I was leading a writers' retreat in a medieval castle in Tuscany), I miraculously was able to draft Act II—handwritten as Gertrude did (I think most poets like the feel of ink flowing on the page). Each afternoon while the Florentines snoozed during their siesta, I would fling open the great big shutters of my apartment window and write. However, I discovered I needed research materials I didn't have access to in order to write the third act, which is set during World War II. By the end of winter 1997, I had three acts and the idea that the work had potential as an opera. I invited a few composers to the Grace Church performance and got confirmation that the work did indeed suggest possibility as an opera libretto.

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA: The Five-Minute Call

I knew I wanted to work with a classical composer who had jazz influences in his work. From July '97 to June '98, I discussed the project with composer Jeffrey Mumford. Because we couldn't figure out how to get sponsorship or funding, we amicably broke off the relationship. In 1998, The Word Works, the literary organization I am affiliated with both as an author and an officer, awarded its Washington Prize to Nathalie Anderson, a poet who was working on The Black Swan, an opera that got produced at Swarthmore College under the direction of Sarah Caldwell. Through Nathalie in August of 1998, I got a chain of referrals that led me to William Banfield of St. Paul, Minnesota.

In a five-minute conversation, I introduced myself, told him about the project and asked if he was interested in composing music for the libretto I had written. Without committing himself, he told me to call Opera America, get names and phone numbers of half a dozen small opera companies, tell them about the project, and see what happens. Within four calls after I hung up with Bill, I had the ear of Nancy Rhodes, the artistic director of Encompass New Opera Theatre. It turned out that one of her theater group's founding directors was Virgil Thomson. In June of 2000, Bill and I received a jointly sponsored commission from The Word Works and Encompass New Opera Theatre to develop our opera.

NEW YORK CITY: Getting the Principals to the Premiere

Four Saints in Three Acts, Gertrude Stein's first opera with Virgil Thomson, had 60 consecutive performances on Broadway and is today still an unbroken record for opera. Ms. Stein arrived from France too late to see her opera in New York. However, her promoter and literary executor Carl Van Vechten, who Gertrude affectionately called Papa Woojums, convinced her and Alice to fly to Chicago to see the opera there. In 1934, few people had had the experience of flying and for Gertrude it was eye opening. Seeing the landscape from an airplane made her understand more profoundly the Cubist art of her friends Picasso and Braque.

I am learning that every opera has its own development path and landscape. Money and personalities are the biggest impediments to getting an opera on stage for its premiere. Opera is the most expensive and complex performing arts genre. We have had three public work-in-progress performances. The first one was held in the Washington, DC, area where most of our benefactors reside, and the other two were held in New York where our theatre group is based. We will probably have two more informal working sessions before we present the New York City premiere in 2004. Right now I have enough material to write an opera about the struggles of developing this opera. As I told the audience at the Manhattan School of Music where our second workshop presentation was made, Bill and I have a long distance relationship and we fight like brother and sister. Nevertheless, I adore his music and the music written for Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On and, likewise, he has always been most complimentary about my words. While Nancy Rhodes dances around this project in her soft shoes, I think Bill and I both have sturdy running shoes. We need them in this business of mapping an opera.        (... THE SAGA CONTINUES NEXT ISSUE)

 ©2003 Karren LaLonde Alenier


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.

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