Stein’s Opera Four Saints in Three Acts
It had to happen. A let-down after the high excitement of the landmark Stein exhibitions. (Although there must have been others duds in the myriads of lectures, panels, and even performances surrounding the shows.) But a performance of Stein’s famous 1934 opera was supposed to be a high point. Expectations ran high. Through the SFMOMA grapevine I had heard rumors that the largely uninspired music by Virgil Thomson would get a blast of refreshment: the modern composer Luciano Chessa, the performance group An Ensemble Parallèle, and even a video and drag performer from New York, Kalup Linzy, would take the dinosaur in hand and breathe new life into it. Cooked up in a co-production between SFMOMA, An Ensemble Parallèle, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where it was performed, this great idea ran smack into the Virgil Thomson Estate. There was no permission to touch the saintly score or even break it up for some relief from its repetitive Baptist hymns, all-American choruses devoid of any polyphony, and naive oom-pah-pah marches. Four Saints must apparently be performed untouched! Anything radical and irreverent can only be smuggled into the staging or else, has to be added as a separate piece. As an “opening act,” a mere hors d’oeuvre, the new work, titled A Heavenly Act, with its beautiful queer circus waltzes, microtonal passages à la Satie and quasi-Gregorian chants seemed lost in space. Nothing much happened on stage: a dozen monks in hoods shuffled about, whispering and mumbling text (supposedly by Stein). Kalup Linzy was fun when he sang a “soul” number to a perilously disharmonic orchestra accompaniment, but otherwise he had nothing to do but shuffle around with wings, looking like a big, surly turtle or, with sun glasses on the video screen behind the stage, like a big menacing turtle. There was a lot of obvious “saintly” behavior, singers looking upwards blissfully or downwards thoughtfully, both onstage and composed to iconic groupings in cloudy black and white video sky-scapes on the screen.
See a moment of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoYc-5bZMPA&feature=related
But where was he when a big, menacing turtle was really needed? He ought to have been Saint Teresa of Avila. Or Saint Teresa II (Stein put in two so that there could be a duet!). Or at least the male lead, Saint Ignatius Loyola. But no. Among the nice and charming singers of the “real” opera, representing throngs of saints (among them a “Saint Settlement,” “Saint Plain,” and “Saint Answers”!) there were no characters coming to life. They were just … singers. Saint Teresa – clearly meant by Stein and Thomson to be a stand-in for Saint Gertrude Stein — was a flute-voiced, petite blonde (Heidi Moss). Oh dear.
Why saints? Why “four saints”? Virgil Thomson thought saints were in, Stein loved Spain (Picasso!) and Avila (one of her nicknames for Alice was Theresa), and she loved the black-and-white magpies hovering flat against the sky over Avila, just like nuns in habits: there you have the interest of a Jewish author in Catholicism. However, what Stein really had in mind was the saintly work of artistic creation (and maybe artistic martyrdom), and so we wouldn’t stray far from the path to surmise that the “four saints” in truth were Gertrude and Alice and Virgil and his lover, the scenarist of the opera, Maurice Grosser. Imagine my surprise then, that there wasn’t the slightest allusion to any queer subtexts in the staging by Brian Staufenbiel, artistic director and conductor Nicole Paiement, and their Ensemble Parallèle. The modernist take on Four Saints had ended with A Heavenly Act, and now we were down to the pedestrian realm of getting through the rest. Even though Ensemble Parallèle had opted for the shortest (oratorio) version of the opera, calling it Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation, it proved still way, way too long. In the course of writing this first opera, Stein seems to have had doubts herself about the length of the thing and when to stop. “How do you do,” the libretto asks. ”Very well I thank you. And when do you go. I am staying on quite continuously. When is it planned. Not more than as often.” Haha. Her saints repeat repeatedly, “Ask Saint Therese how much of it is finished. Ask how much of it is finished.” A question also very much on my mind.
Yes, it’s a challenge to perform an abstract opera with such unsophisticated music and make it interesting – just what the original très gay collaborators of Virgil Thomson and his sensational all-black cast (knowing how to move and dance on a stage!) managed with panache. You can see it in the filmed excerpts playing at both exhibitions, and you can tell right away why this was a huge success and why Four Saints had the longest Broadway run of any opera in American history to that date. It was wildly eccentric, sexy, outright queer, colorful and demented. Why do it again, unless you have a truly new idea?
The singers were doing a fine job, concentrating on singing instead of moving, getting through the nonstop, nonsensical Steinese wordiness — to not much avail, however, as one didn’t understand a thing. This, of course, is hardly different from any other opera sung in English, only here it’s worse as there is no story, drama, symbolism or other known reality to hang onto and perhaps guess what is being sung. Well, there are passages that get across all right because they are repeated twenty times, like the line “Once upon a time,” but as no story follows you are soon on your own again. Lost were many lines that are really funny when you read the text: “If it were possible to kill five thousand chinamen by pressing a button would it be done. Saint Therese not interested.”
If there was not enough production money to offer supertitles, why not invent some scenic equivalent of written words that would have brought home a joke or two? Why not sometimes use sprechgesang, the half-spoken voice, instead of staying glued to the written score with the earnest application of a grade-school pageant?
The only slight laughs in this stagnant “installation” were created by occasional recognizable bits of Steinese poetry: “Then. Then. Men. When. Ten. Then. When. Ten. When. Then. Then.“ (etc.) Or, “How many acts are there in it. Ring around a rosy. How many acts are there in it. Wedded and weeded. Please be coming to see me. When this you see you are all to me. Me which is you you who are true to be you. How many how many saints are there in it. One two three all out but me.” (etc.) Friendly chuckles met the pigeons-on-the-grass-alas, performed by St. Ignatius with a doo-wop chorus of four male saints behind him doing some sort of synchronized steps. And there was laughter about the “circus”-announcer-characters Commère and Compère who spell out the numbers of acts and scenes in the wildly absurd disorder Stein had divined for them: “Act I. Scene II. Act I. Scene VII. Act II. Scene II. (‘Would it do if there was a Scene II.’) Scene III and IV.” Etc.
I counted one detectable idea for each of the acts (thee are in fact four in Stein’s text). In Act I, Saint Teresa rolls in on a beautiful white Spanish baldachin bed on a white stage. In Act II an unspeakable act does occur on this bed when she dies from a euthanasia injection. (Don’t ask why.) In Act III Saint Ignatius performs a funny autopsy on her body (a dummy doll), while Saint Teresa (still alive in the libretto) twitters on from “above.” He gets his comeuppance on an improvised electric chair in Act IV. Bravo, I want to say. More aggressive handling, even yes, more killings, and more radical dissections could have done miracles to these saints.
Stein’s text is so free and open to interpretation and action that there is no limit to contemporary, post-modern poetic or even politically relevant stagings. Anything goes. This was the intention and this was how it was done at the opening, in 1934, as Stein expert and author Steven Watson (Prepare for Saints, 1995) charmingly explained in a gallery talk at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Back then, it was done brilliantly. It created a society fashion frenzy. It was the most written-about production in America in ten years. It was the first major Gesamtkunstwerk in America in the vein of Wagner and Diaghilev.
What he told us was mouth-watering, but then we went off into the desert.