In his lecture at the Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA, cultural historian Steven Watson talked about the operatic collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson. His lecture was a prelude to the Ensemble Parallèle’s production of “Four Saints in Three Acts,” which was presented the following weekend, Aug. 18-21. The opera was part of the museum’s very extensive program of discussions and events around the exhibition, The Steins Collect, which continues through Sep. 6.
What Watson revealed was that the writer and composer followed a very loose collaboration, one fueled by Thomson’s ambition and youth and unhampered by either Stein’s highly personal notion of art or the protective jealousies of Stein’s partner, Alice B. Toklas.
The museum chose a well-known quotation from Thomson to describe not only the opera but also the dynamic between himself and the older, well-established Stein: “Why did Gertrude Stein and I decide to write an opera about saints? Simply because we viewed a saint’s life as related to our own. In all times the consecrated artist has tended to live surrounded by younger artists and to guide them into the ways of spontaneity. And thus to characterize one’s gift is indeed to invite ‘inspiration’ and just possibly, through art, make ‘miracles.’”
The true miracle of “Four Saints” began when Stein handed over her text to Thomson. What she wrote was a continuous prose piece with no characters indicated. It was up to the young composer to make theatrical and operatic sense out of what he was given. Here is one of the more famous excerpts from that libretto: “Pigeons on the grass alas./ Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons/ large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the/ grass.”
Perhaps not an easy text to handle, but handle it Thomson did. Wonderfully: with evanescence, ease and great humor so that the music glides from tempo to tempo without ever losing its own coherence. The Ensemble Parallèle, directed by the vivacious and passionately committed Nicole Paiement, emphasized the music’s restless brilliance and provided the cast’s beautiful voices with dazzling support.
Singing plotted in red, yellow, black and white
Eugene Brancoveaunu, decked out in fire engine red down to the tips of his shoes, sang St. Ignatius. St. Teresa was divided into two parts, the soprano part, Teresa 1, sung by Heidi Moss and the mezzo, St. Teresa 2, by Kristen Choi. Excellent singers, all three with richness and tonal warmth, but the trios were remarkably gorgeous, as was the duet between the sweet-toned Maya Kherani, as Saint Settlement, and J. Raymond Meyers, as Saint Stephen.
Wendy Hillhouse sang the Commère cleanly and warmly, and baritone John Bischoff sang the Compère—both infused their music with a kind of dead-pan élan that suited the opera’s zany language.
Hats off to Director Brian Stauffenbiel, Matthew Antaky, stage and lighting designer, and Christine Crook, costume designer, who captured the oddity of the libretto and transformed it into a playful narrative in which the mysteries of Stein’s multiple textual codings needed no translation. It may be that Stein, who called her Alice Teresa after their trip to Avila, had written a long love letter to her partner, embellished with her characteristic linguistic play and sound riffs. But alas, Alice, all that is lost with the intricate mind of Stein. With much grace, however, Stein and Thomson have left us a small wonder capable of engendering other wonders. With luck and skill, others will be as charming as this one.
Photo: Brooke Muñoz, Nicole Takesono, J. Raymond Meyers, and Brendan Hartnett (clockwise from the left) surround red-garbed Eugene Brancoveanu, who sings St Ignatius in the Ensemble Parallèle production of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson’s avant-garde opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, presented by SFMOMA in association with YBCA. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo, Westside Studio Images.