27: Opera News, 2014

Lucky Number

F. PAUL DRISCOLL talks to the cast and creative team of “27” — a new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek about the singular world of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The curtain goes up at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis on June 14.

Against the walls were several pieces of large italian renaissance furniture and in the middle of the room was a big renaissance table, on it a lovely inkstand, and at one end of it note-books neatly arranged, the kind of note-books french children use, with pictures of earthquakes and explorations on the outside of them. And on the walls right up to the ceiling were the pictures. At one end of the room was a big cast iron stove that Hélène came in and filled with a rattle, and in one corner of the room was a large table on which were horseshoe nails and pebbles and little pipe cigarette holders which one looked at curiously but did not touch, but which turned out later to be accumulations from the pockets of Picasso and Gertrude Stein. But to return to the pictures. The pictures were so strange that one quite instinctively looked at anything rather than at them just at first.”

— Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)

This was Gertrude Stein’s own description of the most famous room in Paris, the home of the legendary salon she hosted with her lover and companion, Alice B. Toklas. Others published their memories of that room — Hemingway, Virgil Thomson, Man Ray, Janet Flanner — but the passage from Stein’s own work is the most vivid and descriptive, its peculiarities of punctuation, spelling and rhythm redolent of the two women who made their lives there.

This month, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will offer its audience a chance to visit Stein and Toklas “at home.” Composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek have written “27, a new opera that offers a witty, affectionate and clear-eyed look at Stein, Toklas and some of the visitors to 27 Rue de Fleurus, a cast of characters that includes Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral will make their OTSL debuts as Stein and Toklas, respectively; all of the other denizens of the Stein salon will be played by three members of the OTSL Gerdine Young Artist Program, Daniel Brevik, Tobias Greenhalgh and Theo Lebow.

Gordon admits that the first draft of “27” was written at high speed. “I got the libretto and started the music on May 21,” he recalls. “I handed it in in October. It was a profound experience. Gertrude and Alice felt very alive to me — I felt as if I were visiting with them.” Stein and her world have been an interest of Gordon’s since his student days at Carnegie Mellon. “I was living in Shadyside in the east end of Pittsburgh and had this horrible flu. I couldn’t do anything except read and eat tangerines. I picked up Charmed Circle, [James R. Mellow’s book] about Gertrude and Alice and their world. I was completely transported — not only because Gertrude’s story was interesting to me. At that moment I found a frame for my own life. Everything Gertrude did to create a life for herself made sense to me. The thing about that book and that circle — the salon — is that you don’t feel a sense of people doing something for their own glory — there’s a thread in the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas of joy and amusement and engagement, that they genuinely loved these talented people who visited them and amazed them and stimulated them at their home.”

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), on February 3, 1874. She spent part of her early childhood in Vienna and Paris before her prosperous upper-middle-class family settled in Oakland, California, when she was six years old. By her own admission, Stein had no real emotional connection to either of her parents, both of whom died before she was eighteen; her closest companion in childhood and adolescence was her brother Leo, who was two years older than she. The Steins were not rich, but they were blessed with steady private income: the financial acumen of their older brother Michael, who managed their father’s estate, kept Leo and Gertrude free from the burden of having to work, and as neither of the siblings was extravagant by nature, they lived comfortably.

In 1903, Leo Stein, who had ambitions to be an artist, moved to Paris, renting spacious living quarters at 27 Rue de Fleurus, off the Boulevard Raspail on the Left Bank, not far from the Luxembourg Gardens. He invited his sister to join him, which she did, with the intention of beginning her own career as a serious writer. Paris was to be Gertrude Stein’s home for the rest of her life.

For most of her early years in Paris, Gertrude was better known as an art collector than as a writer. Gertrude and Leo began their serious collecting of art in 1904, when they purchased paintings by Gaugin, Cézanne and Renoir from the Paris gallery of Ambroise Vollard. Within a few years, they had assembled one of the most important private collections of early-twentieth- and late-nineteenth-century art in France.

Vavrek’s libretto for “27” puts the audience in the Stein salon itself — one of Stein’s first lines is “Who invited you?” — and the text makes use of the art that crowded the walls of the home that Stein shared first with her brother and then with Alice. The paintings sing and comment on the action; the creation of Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude forms one of the central episodes of the opera. Stephanie Blythe notes, “The greatest collection for Gertrude was the people in her life, the lists of people who would come to her salon. She was this outsized, outrageous, self-important personality. Who on earth would have the nerve to say, as she did, ‘You are a genius — but you are not’? She was entirely her own creation. Her greatest contribution to art and literature is that person she created — Gertrude Stein. If I were to compare her to anyone today, it would be to David Bowie, who has constructed and reconstructed and reinforced a persona as an artist, as an actor, as a writer. He is his own invention, and Stein was her own invention.”

p style=”text-align: justify;”>Conductor Michael Christie, whose resumé includes the world premiere of Kevin Puts’s Silent Night at Minnesota Opera, where he is music director, leads the run of “27” in St. Louis. Christie says he knew “relatively little” about Stein before he began working on the opera. “But that is one of the interesting things about any new operas I’ve been doing, especially when there is a direct literary source. What’s the real story we are telling? Ricky has created something that comes from such a natural place. I’m happy that the orchestra provides lots of little emotional clues that heighten the story and let you know when a change is about to happen in a character. I look at the page and hear Ricky’s voice singing every line. That’s what is invaluable about having the composer right there in rehearsal — you know what he means, you know what he wants. It makes me feel more confident about what the musical side of it all is going to be when we get to performances in June.” Gordon’s score for “27” is profoundly lyrical, by the composer’s admission a “celebration” of the life that Gertrude and Alice shared: the first act of the ninety-minute opera ends with an extended duet for the two women that uses the imagery, within the text and within the music, of chiming bells, evoking Alice’s confession that she “heard bells ringing” when she met Gertrude for the first time, in 1907 — proof, Alice said, that she was in the presence of genius.

Alice Babette Toklas, a native of San Francisco, was on a visit to Paris when she was introduced to Stein by a mutual friend. The attraction between the two women was immediate and uncomplicated: Alice was enchanted by Gertrude’s “enormous sense of life,” and Gertrude was charmed by Alice’s thoughtfulness, her scrupulous manners and her immense capacity for devotion. Soon after she met Gertrude, Alice began to spend mornings at the Rue de Fleurus, transcribing Gertrude’s writing on a Blickensderfer typewriter while Gertrude, who preferred to write late into the night, was still in bed. She cooked the American-style food that Gertrude longed for — roast turkey, chicken fricassee and apple pie. Within a year of their first meeting, Alice had — in the words of their biographer Diana Souhami —”started on her career as Gertrude’s editor, amanuensis, secretary, housekeeper, lover, wife and friend.” Their partnership lasted until Stein’s death, from cancer, in 1946. As Futral says, “It doesn’t seem that they cared what people thought of their life choice. They made their life together, and it was the most normal thing in the world for them. I love that about them.”

Alice was an accomplished cook, an expert needlewoman and a fierce housekeeper who dusted all the paintings at the Rue de Fleurus herself, because she would not trust the care of the collection to a housemaid. Although it was clear to all visitors that Stein was the resident genius at 27 Rue de Fleurus — Gertrude conversed with celebrities while Alice entertained their wives — it was Alice who “managed Gertrude’s life,” as Futral puts it. Blythe concurs: “Gertrude Stein would not have been Gertrude Stein had it not been for Alice.” Alice’s belief in Gertrude’s genius never wavered. Leo Stein eventually grew contemptuous of his sister’s writing and her experiments with language; Gertrude refused to accept his criticism, preferring the unconditional praise she received from Alice. By 1914, the rift between brother and sister was complete. When Leo decided to leave Paris for Italy, their art collection was divided — an incident that provides another striking scene in Act I of “27” — and brother and sister never spoke again.

Blythe admits, “I’ve never really been a big fan of Gertrude Stein’s writing — at least not on the page. But Royce’s libretto is Steinine in flavor. He really captures Gertrude’s voice in a playful way. He plays with language, as she did. I find that the content of Stein’s writing — especially her poetry — is not important. It’s the rhythm of it. I found it fascinating that when I listened to recordings of Gertrude reading her own work, I totally got it. And Royce’s libretto is brilliantly singable.

“Ricky knows how to set text. His songs are remarkable — he uses the voice to its best effect, and you never lose the text. I love the fact that there’s a big ‘wow’ factor in Ricky’s music. He understands how to build intensity in the text and the music, so that the listener arrives at someplace that is just glorious. Ricky leads your ear and your mind to that place, and there is nothing false about it.”

OTSL artistic director James Robinson, who will direct the world premiere of “27,is a champion of new works in the opera house; he will stage the U.S. premiere of Huang Ruo’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen in Santa Fe later this summer. “I’m thrilled that there are so many composers out there who are trying to write operas. Unfortunately, most of what I’ve heard lately are not really operas — they are sung plays. I don’t understand why the music is there. They aren’t written with the economy of a really good libretto — they lack the structure and the shape an opera needs to truly sing. I’m bewildered by the fact that the vocal writing just sounds declamatory — and that all the characters sing in the same voice. There’s this notion now that opera is the composer’s game — whatever he or she says goes. But if an opera is going to work, it has got to be a collaboration between the composer and the librettist. One of the great things about developing “27” with Ricky and Royce is that I love the way all of these characters sound — they aren’t all singing at the same tempo. Their distillation of a relationship of almost forty years into a ninety-minute opera is incredibly compelling — it turns the public perception of Gertrude Stein as this jolly old woman in on itself. She was very full of herself as her life went on. She became more interested in being Gertrude Stein than in being Gertrude.”

Stein managed to be a famous author without being a popular one. Stein’s carefully crafted public persona — her self-created image as an icon of the avant-garde — remains better known than her books are. She is instantly recognizable today, even to audiences who haven’t read a word of her prose.

But behind the image lies a paradox or two. Stein was an uncloseted lesbian who preferred the company and intellectual stimulation of men; she was a Jewish woman who was an uncritical friend of historian Bernard Faÿ, a notorious anti-Semite active in the persecution of Freemasons in France during World War II. Blythe remarks, “I love Gertrude, but there are many moments in her life when I flat out do not like Gertrude Stein. Politically, I believe she was completely screwed up. The fact that she was a Vichy sympathizer bothers me — it would bother anyone. She made herself part of political history, and she’s gotta take her lumps — she did not have to translate Marshal Pétain’s speeches, but she did. She could have left France during the war, but she didn’t. She would have done anything to protect herself, and her way of life, and that art collection. I admire the hell out of her for creating this salon that was her artistic family. But she had this odd combination of naïveté and arrogance — despite the fact that she and Alice lived their life out loud, she felt untouchable. Rules don’t apply to geniuses.”

At Gordon’s request, “27” does not “whitewash” Stein; in Act IV of the opera, the dying Gertrude confronts her guilt over her behavior during the war. But Stein’s imposing image remains somewhat intimidating, even to the creative team of “27”. Asked if he thought he would like Stein if he were able to meet her, Michael Christie laughs. “If I met Gertrude, I believe that I would feel great sympathy for Alice. That’s the best way to answer that. Gertrude’s world was a little bit chaotic. I would probably find Gertrude somewhat frustrating and overwhelming. When I think about it, I’m the kind of person who’d be in the kitchen, helping Alice sort it all out.”

Alice Toklas outlived Gertrude Stein by more than twenty years. She remained devoted to her spouse’s memory, choosing to embrace Roman Catholicism in her old age so that she would be able to see Gertrude again in heaven. In 1961, while Alice was away on vacation, Stein’s family removed most of the famous paintings from her apartment in the Rue Christine, where she and Stein had moved in 1938. Stein’s niece, Roubina, had gone to court and had the collection declared “endangered” by Alice’s prolonged absence from the unguarded apartment; the paintings had been underinsured because Alice could not afford the premiums. Alice, who was then eighty-four and almost blind, wrote, “The pictures are gone permanently. My dim sight could not see them now. Happily a vivid memory does.”

– F. Paul Driscoll, Opera News, June 2014 (Vol. 78, NO. 12