April 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


For prior installments, click here

utting things in perspective is a constant in a writer's life – what is happening now versus yesterday and tomorrow's scheduled events and accidents. Gertrude Stein placed her emphasis on the present moment. Through her insistent repetition and use of the 'ing' present participle form of the verb, she delivered and continues to deliver her reader into a visceral connection with this moment, this breath. Breath and the creative act are what the Steiny Road Poet will address in this opera episode.


On March 6, 2005, excerpts from Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, the opera by poet Karren Alenier and composer William Banfield, aired under the direction of Nancy Rhodes and Encompass New Opera Theatre at the Manhattan School of Music in the New American Opera Previews program sponsored by Opera Index. The Poet was eager to be present not only to speak as part of a panel moderated by WQXR's Midge Woolsey, but also to meet and hear the singers Eve Gigliotti (as Gertrude Stein) and Rosalie Sullivan (as Alice Toklas) who will premiere the full opera in June this year.

However, unexpected turbulence derailed the Poet's travel to New York: her mother, a long time resident of Corpus Christi,Texas, died unexpectedly. Honoring breath – her mother's last and her own gasp of shock, on March 6 in Falls Church, Virginia, she joined with several of her siblings and several of her mom's siblings to bury their diva mother-sister Rona. Rona whose name in Hebrew means seal put her stamp on each of her six children. For the Steiny Road Poet, always an impressionable soul, this meant taking the necessary time to honor her mother, the inventive actor who always encouraged creativity whether she intentionally meant to or not. In the future, an opera about Rona waits to be written revealing a girl who never realized her potential as an haute couturier, prima ballerina, or pampered coloratura soprano.


Life and the show must go on and friends of the Poet who witnessed the Manhattan School of Music program provided reports on what transpired. The Poet's informants all said the singing was excellent. One friend who has studied and written about Stein for a master's thesis complained that the segment lacked word play in the tradition of Gertrude Stein. Because the same portion of the Stein opera had been presented in the 2002 New American Opera Previews program but by different singers, the Poet was puzzled to hear this comment. What happened to the spoke poem "Diana au Courant"?

      She was a flippy lady --
      a real sixer in a deck
      of nines.  She knew
      the handle from the muzzle,
      the click of the cock
      from the squeeze
      of the trigger.
      She listened --
      an authentic spoon tuner
      in a forest of forks.
      Her ear was better
      than a metal detector.
      Sharper and juicier
      than a blowgun, her mouth
      tasted the purple plum.
      In short she had more
      life in her than the entire
      city of New York.

In fact, Nancy Rhodes and the music director John Yaffé had decided to simplify by cutting out all spoken text for this presentation because the recording would be played several times on WQXR to promote the upcoming premiere. In opera, singing is always preferred over speaking. 

This conservative tack came into focus more acutely during the comment period from the audience. A composer friend of the Poet said that the second opera on this program, Dream President, combined singing with spoken text and some of the older audience members questioned that mix. The composer also noted that musically the Stein opera and Dream President were two different types of sung theater and therefore could not be compared. What could be compared was that Dream President had costumed singers and a three-musician ensemble while the Stein opera featured singers in street clothes accompanied solely by a piano. 

A third friend of the Poet who had also attended the 2002 New American Opera Previews presentation of the Stein opera remarked about the size and demographics of the 2005 audience. In 2002, ninety percent of the one-third-filled house was old blue hairs while the 2005 audience occupied nearly every seat and included many young people. Murray Rose, President of Opera Index, said in email to the Poet after the performance that she should be proud of her accomplishment and that this performance was "a bit of a triumph" (given that Midge Woolsey made a public announcement that she would broadcast this performance several times prior to the Stein opera's world premiere).


Shortly after the 2005 New American Opera Previews, the Poet, her collaborating composer, and commissioning theater group were mentioned in the New York Times in an article about Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and an experimental performance piece called House/Lights. Email messages from friends and colleagues all over the United States congratulated the Poet before she understood what the hoopla was about. How wondrous the power of the printed word, especially when your name appears in the most powerful newspaper in the country, maybe even the entire planet, not to mention the association with artists and creative works that are considered on the cutting edge


Although the Poet's first attempt to see House/Lights, which is based on Gertrude Stein's libretto Doctor Faustus Lights The Lights and a soft porn bondage and domination movie entitled Olga's House of Shame, was cancelled by her mother's death, she was able to rearrange tickets. The Poet's initial reaction was high camp veneer; Fem burlesque; a three-ring circus of clowns that featured slips slipping from their skirts and odd butt bustles; industrial strength seesawing catwalks that slammed and clanked; women actors dressed as women who played the male characters Dr. Faustus and Mephisto; a man-dog that said thank you; a snake puppet that spoke philosophically; phallic lights that mimicked the I Love Lucy and Young Frankenstein ballets; an on-stage sound engineer who favored quacks, eeps and Betty Boop voices; closed-circuit TV monitors that distracted from the live action; a woman with horns who is the devil, who is a biting viper, who is Olga – mistress of the brothel and so on in this chaotic fashion. Mixed with Olga's House of Shame was House/Lights really Gertrude Stein?

What one needs to understand is Stein's theater, though filled with words, is all about creating images that rapidly supplant the next set of images in order to hold the viewer in the present moment. Complacency is not part of Stein's theater. While audience might ask as I did leaning into seat mate Nancy Rhodes' ear, "Are we there yet?" the Poet was never bored -- maybe bewildered but never bored. 

Bonnie Marranca who wrote an introduction to Last Opera and Play By Gertrude Stein said that Stein's theater employs Twentieth Century physics now known as Chaos Theory. Marranca further commented, "Many of its [Chaos Theory] defining features describe her [Stein's] writing: the pattern of self-similarity, words acting as strange attractors, the importance of scale, deep structures of order within unpredictable systems. Stein is a master of what can be thought of as 'fractal text…" The bottom line with Stein is not to be fooled by snatches of text that mention the selling of the soul for knowledge of electricity. Dramatic resolution is not part of Stein's strategy. One must assume a Zen approach and enjoy the rhythmic ebb and flow. (Be warned, the Wooster Group over does the volume of sound – is this the 21st Century rock concert? -- and this Poet spent a lot of time putting her fingers in her ears!)  Finally, one can think of House/Lights as a spoken word opera. The music is indeed in the text. Yes, Virginia, this was Gertrude Stein.


In the continuing saga of the Steiny Road Poet's Cubist education, the following lessons were learned:

Lesson #1: Although episodes of chaos can be painful and disorienting, useful patterns will emerge if one steps back to see the larger picture.

Like Gertrude Stein, the Steiny Road Poet grew up in a large family that was never quite stable nor managed by parents who were really there for their children. How a person dealt a curve connects with that speeding ball is what makes a home run spectacular. Except for a hiccup related to her 1934-35 lecture tour following the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and the premiere of Four Saints In Three Acts, her opera with Virgil Thomson, Stein never let the critics, including the earlier clashes with her beloved brother Leo, quash her creativity. She continued to write even through World War II with German soldiers passing though her living space in southern France. Over and over the lesson of not being thrown by unexpected turbulence is what the Steiny Road Poet holds out to herself like a cut diamond.

Lesson #2: Know your audience but do not limit yourself.

Gertrude Stein said, "I write for myself and strangers." What the Steiny Road Poet takes from this statement is that a writer is better off following her own creative impulse than putting the faces of her mother or father on the audience. However, theater is collaboration and sometimes decisions have to be made that do not embrace everything a writer has offered. The Poet understands why only the sung text from Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On was presented at the 2005 New American Opera Previews – the end result was calculated to reach the listeners of classical music radio who predominantly are an older and more conservative crowd than the general population. What the Steiny Road Poet knows is that she will still have to step up to the bat for the world premiere to preserve unset text that carries the Steinian model such as the following that was not selected for the March 6 presentation:

… but  
the twentieth century demands mobility:  
automobiles and aeroplanes. It is up  
to me to make people hear poetry  
the way Picasso makes people see art--
all directions at once.  
At once all directions.  
When we flew to Chicago to hear  
Four Saints in Three Acts, I saw  
what Pablo Picasso always knew.  
From the window of the plane, I saw  
what Pablo Picasso always knew. There  
in the fields of wheat and oats and corn.  
He painted the twentieth century and I  
wrote it all down. Wrote it all down
so I would be a lion coming home.

Do you think the hills of Oakland look the same?  

I want to see
if anything's there
for me. [She pauses.]  
But what would I say? 

Chorus 1-4  
May I have this dance?  
[These players hold hands out to other players.]  

Chorus 5-7  
[These players sweep into the arms of the arms of the First through third for a Lindy swing out.]  

Of course I would talk poetry and prose.  
Prose and verbs. Poetry and names, nouns  
that we love with passion, with verve.  
Alice, my rhubarb. My petals of rose.  

Chorus 1-4  
Rose is a rose  
Chorus 5-8
is a rose is a rose.  

Sentences are not emotional.   

Everyone Else        
So says the Mama of Dada.  

And how to manage without salads?  

We must manage without commas.  

Everyone Else        
So says the Mama of Dada. Period.

Lesson #3: Appreciate the power of publicity but never let it distract the artist from her work.

One might question, so what's the big deal, your name, spelled correctly, appeared in the most powerful newspaper in the world? And your opera, unnamed in the article, was mentioned because it will be presented along with work by Virgil Thomson and Ned Rorem. Get over yourself

The reality is that other people whom you respect and whom you did not know had any interest in your work deliver congratulatory messages. Thus, the artist forgets to breathe while what she really needs to do is just wag her canine tail, say thank you and move on.

©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 www.steinopera.com

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