Word gets around whenever there is a new Gertrude Stein inspired piece. This news thanks to Dr. Wanda Corn:
May She/She May, an
18-minute chamber opera, by Peter Dayton premiered April 25, 2016, at the Peabody Conservatory (or Peabody Institute) of Music under the development and direction of Roger
What the Steiny Road Poet finds particularly interesting about this piece, which was written for graduate course work at Peabody, is how
efficiently Dayton captures Stein’s last days at Johns Hopkins medical school and her psychological turmoil over May Bookstaver, Stein’s first same sex lover.
Three real life characters populate Dayton’s opera: Gertrude (Stein), May (Bookstaver), and Mabel (Neathe). Mabel is also intimately
involved with May. In Scene 1, Gertrude complains about the medical school teachers who aren’t allowing women unfettered study [the health and diseases] of women.
Those hostile Hopkins tyrant teachers,
Those hippocratic hypocrites:
Teaching women, but only to men!
What keeps a woman
From studying women?
If men may-
May study women, Mabel: And women may not,
May study their bodies and minds,
And women may not,
Mabel, may not a woman know herself?
MABEL [to herself]
Do you, Gertrude?
It is a deadlock.
I may leave, go abroad, withdraw,
[from Scene 1 where Gertrude is visiting Mabel’s apartment]
In Scene 2, May asks Gertrude “Could you track your moral sense/even through passion’s mud puddle?”
Throughout the opera, Dayton uses Mabel as a narrator to connect events across time relative to the relationship between Gertrude and May.
After a period apart, Gertrude writes to May:
May, this letter finds me changed,
As the sun, May, comes with spring!
It’s been so long,
My pen has kept me strong.
But I’ve come into flower,
Into full-throated bloom!
May, may I come to your room?
I am your rose, your rose-hued,
[from Scene 4]
In an an email written June 13, 2016, Dayton explained how he got interested in Stein through a lover who introduced him to the corrected Stanzas in Meditation (edited by Susannah Hollister and Emily Setina with introduction by Joan Retallack). “My interest and deep resonance with
Stein's Stanzas coincided with this Opera Etudes project, a collaborative program at the Peabody Institute, from which I recently received my
Master's. The theme of this project was Baltimore, so I chose this episode from Stein's life when she was in Baltimore, at Hopkins.”
Not many composers can write acceptable libretti. Dayton said in a phone interview June 14, 2016, that he “Looks toward Stephen Sondheim
and his use of internal rhyme. Sondheim’s rhyme doesn’t sacrifice cognitive meaning.” Dayton said he himself writes
poetry but he has not pursued publishing his poems.
As to his music, Dayton takes inspiration from Maurice Ravel as in “L'enfant et les sortilĂ¨ges” (“The Child and the
Enchantments”) and Aaron Copland’s “12 poems of Emily Dickinson.” YouTube has a rudimentary record of the premier of May She/She May.
What’s next for this young composer is participation as a featured composer at the Wyoming Festival in Grand Teton
National Park. For this festival, Dayton is composing a work for solo double bass. Future projects may draw inspiration from
Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle” and Tennessee Williams’ short story “One Arm.” Because Peter Dayton does his
homework and digs in deep, Steiny recommends this composer/librettist as an artist to follow.