May 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


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he 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.  

Until a new theatrical work goes on the stage in its entirety, a third-party director lacks full information about the work. To quote Gertrude Stein, how many acts are in it? Does the Stein opera have three acts (as labeled) or three scenes? What is the playing time? Given that the Stein opera has new material in the first and third acts that has not yet been learned by any singers, the playing time can only be approximated. What have the critics said? Did the work draw audience? Was the house full each night? These are things that will be learned in June when Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On by poet Karren LaLonde Alenier and composer William Banfield premieres at Encompass New Opera Theatre under the direction of Nancy Rhodes and conductor John Yaffé.  


Recently the Steiny Road Poet received notice that a jazz opera she saw in a workshop production in May 2003 has not only had its premiere in 2004 but will have a new production in September 2005. The work is called Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant with music and lyrics by Steve Jones. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Forgotten explores the events leading up to the unresolved death of the real life pastor Lewis Bradford who participated in the unionizing of laborers at the Henry Ford automobile plant in Detroit. Although Forgotten is anchored to historical events, it addresses issues that concern most people today – earning a fair wage and being able to afford the expense of health care. With subject matter and music that speak straightforwardly to any audience , the Steiny Road Poet would say this is Opera for the People.

In several ways, Forgotten is a work that Gertrude Stein might have paused to consider, especially if she were alive today and able to read the Forgotten website that documents the process Steve Jones has evolved in creating this work. (Most people probably do not know that Gertrude Stein had to self-publish her early works.) Although Stein’s approach was experimental and not necessarily comfortable for all audiences, she selected simple straightforward nouns and verbs that belong to everyone’s vocabulary, so that anyone could understand her words. The problem Stein still poses to audience is how the words in combination form meaning. As to Forgotten’s subject matter, Gertrude loved cars – she even named her cars, including Auntie, her first Model T. “Auto Love” is one of the stand out songs from Forgotten. Stein also loved murder mysteries and wrote some herself. Her short murder mystery Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters with music by Ned Rorem will play on the same bill with the Stein opera premiere.   


After the first workshop of Forgotten, which took place at the National Labor College’s George Meany Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, the Steiny Road Poet spoke with Steve Jones who was concerned that his opera expand beyond the support of organized labor unions.  The Poet replied, “But you have a niche audience and it’s quite large.”

So far Jones has taken his opera either in its entirety or in excerpts to Detroit, St. Paul, and Cincinnati. New York City is the next destination. This is remarkable given that Forgotten requires a cast of over thirty people. Who are the supporting sponsors? Sponsors include big organizations like Michigan Labor History Society, labor studies programs at Wayne State University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Labor Heritage Foundation, and the George Meany Center-National Labor College. So what if most of audience members belong to labor unions! Perhaps Jones’ concern is embodied in this question: is this an opera or a musical? With musical inflections that echo Motown, pop, rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz, one might settle on musical without asking the question are any of the singers trained in operatic techniques?  It’s clear that Steve Jones has a formula for success. His house is full according to the critics.  If Jones is looking to do another opera (I hear he is), he should find another labor related topic that he can put as much passion in as he has done with Forgotten.


One thing the Steiny Road Poet knows is that Gertrude Stein remains a mystery to most Americans who would rather wade into a mob of thousands to get into a baseball stadium than to buy a ticket to an opera, much less an opera that illuminates Gertrude Stein. Ask composer Libby Larsen who wrote Barnum’s Bird what the American public will support. Circus maestro P.T. Barnum brought the opera diva Jenny Lind to the United States. In her opera Barnum’s Bird, Larsen explores Barnum’s tactics in getting the ordinary man on the street to come hear his singer. My friends and family say I must serve Alice B. Toklas’ brownies and create a scandal. Bake those fudge brownies laced with hashish and they will come to the world premiere and future productions.  


©2005 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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.
Much more at

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