Just as the first public presentation of the words to Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On (before it became an opera libretto) occurred on a day challenged by weather—DC: February 3, 1996, two feet of snow on the ground, the first public announcement of the book The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas happened during a miserable storm of rain, sleet, hail and snow—NYC: March 16, 2007. Ted Sod, writer of the book for a work-in-progress musical 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris; Frances Hill, the artistic director of Urban Stages; and Noreen Tomassi, executive director of the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction invited the Steiny Road Poet to talk about creative process with Sod at the Mercantile Library. This program entitled "Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on the Stage: Two Perspectives" was Sod's salon to introduce the upcoming first concert reading of his musical, a collaboration with composer/lyricist Lisa Koch.
DIFFERENT APPROACHES, MANY POINTS OF CONNECTION
In many ways, the talk with Sod and the small but actively engaged audience brought back the early struggles the Steiny Road Poet experienced in bringing her opera to the stage and which she has documented in her Steiny Road to Operadom book. Sod, who works as a dramaturg for New York City's The Roundabout Theatre, began the program by interviewing the Poet. How had the Poet come to write about Stein and Toklas? How did the Poet treat the relationship between Stein and Toklas? How did the Poet find her collaborators composer William Banfield and director Nancy Rhodes?
What became clear quickly was that the two playwrights used two very different approaches with many points of connection. Sod's script focuses on Alice Toklas and the marriage between Toklas and Stein. Karren Alenier's libretto highlights the relationship between Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo while telling the story of an artist supported by a devoted partner but facing her critics starting with her beloved brother and concluding with Hitler and the Nazis in Word War II. Both scripts include Gertrude, Alice, Leo Stein, and Pablo Picasso as characters. Sod's script also includes Henri Matisse and Carl Van Vechten who receive significant mention in Alenier's libretto. Sod's cast is seven women singers taking the roles of twelve female and male characters. Alenier's cast is expected gender casting for ten singing roles and the eleventh, the Master of the Libretto, is a woman actor who does not sing.
Sod's intention for his musical is to bring a modern day lesbian sensibility by employing a cabaret and vaudeville approach. Sod uses exaggeration and biting comedy to establish the cabaret/vaudeville mood. While summoning a cabaret touch with the Master of the Libretto who can channel Marlene Dietrich as Diana Ciesla did in the world premiere production of Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, Alenier's script, moving between poetry and dramatic action, constantly shifts the perception of reality while working to appeal to universal truths about human nature.
IRREVERENCE AND CONTROVERSY
Sod works irreverently with controversial topics—Stein's fascination with the views of the misogynistic (and anti-Semitic) philosopher Otto Weininger who said only men could be geniuses, the vicious vignette of the Stein/Toklas fight perpetrated by Ernest Hemingway in his book A Moveable Feast, and the outing of how sexually repressed both Gertrude and Leo Stein were. To draw her portraits of Gertrude, Leo, and Alice, Alenier extrapolated from their lives and such controversial historic truths. While Sod's Gertrude says, "Some of us here, like Dr. Weininger, are true geniuses," Alenier's Master of the Libretto who is Gertrude's id says, "Picasso and Matisse have a maleness that belongs to genius" and Gertrude answers, "Moi aussi perhaps!" Although Alenier does not directly quote Gertrude Stein often, these lines come from Stein's notebooks that developed her novel The Making of Americans and which scholar Barbara Will in her book Gertrude Stein, Modernism, and the Problem of "Genius" say were influenced from Stein's reading of Weininger. In Sod's play, Gertrude says to Leo, "Perhaps your revulsion at the thought of two women—or two men for that matter—loving each other is in response to your own latency." In Alenier's script, when Leo fusses about Gertrude's nonsensical poetry, he says he could write a poem, perhaps about "tiny feet and shoes with silver buckles perched on a closet shelf behind a red curtain." Gertrude answers indignantly that those are "Mother's shoes in her closet." Alenier conceived this scenario after reading that Leo had a foot fetish and in the annals of psychology and psychiatry, foot fetishism indicates arrested sexual behavior. These examples the Poet believes illuminate two different methods of writing, one that is direct and appropriate for the cabaret/vaudeville approach and the other that comes in the back door with sonorous language and metaphor in the way that poets work.
TAPPING INTO LESBIAN COMEDY AND CABARET AUDIENCES
After telling Sod that she expected her audience for her Stein opera to be Gertrude Stein aficionados, college students, jazz lovers, general audience but not children and probably not old school operagoers, the Steiny Road Poet asked the playwright to list his expected audience. He said except for jazz lovers, he expected the same audience but also the comedy-cabaret-goers. His collaborator Lisa Koch not only is a singer-songwriter but also an out lesbian stand-up comic who performs Nationwide. The Poet finds this connection to the women's community exciting because she attempted to find out how to interest this audience after she interviewed Renate Stendhal, author of Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures, the photo biography of Stein. Stendhal, who is a lesbian but "not a party girl," told the Poet that the leaders of the lesbian community are stand-up comediennes like Margaret Cho, Ellen DeGeneres, and Lily Tomlin. Although the Poet knows that the audience in June 2005 for her Stein opera included members of the gay and lesbian community, she has not seen any evidence that the community at large cares that much about Gertrude Stein. Stendhal had suggested to her that gay men are more tuned in to opera and the arts in general than are the lesbian and feminist communities.
Forthright about being gay, Sod says as a boy he always found women's conversation eye opening. While his father and friends sat in front of their TV shouting about a ball game, his mother and her friends were out in the kitchen talking about abortion and other life changing situations. Later Sod got grant money related to his interest in women's salons and it was through his work on salons that he came to the subject of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
The Poet in thinking back about her first encounter with Gertrude and Alice through The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas clearly felt a deep pang of longing for a partner like Toklas. Alice who would read everything Gertrude wrote, type the words, cheer her on, and than after Gertrude's death continue to promote the work. Thus the Poet continues to be excited about new work on the subject of Stein and Toklas. And the ambitious concert reading (Sod's director Dan Wackerman presented the entire work) on March 19, 2007, of 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris had a packed house of 80 some people that included much to her surprise her San Francisco friend Hans Gallas who is currently working on three-city exhibition (San Francisco, New York, Paris) celebrating the 100th anniversary of Stein meeting Toklas.
The Poet will not wear the critic's hat and review Urban Stages' workshop production 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris because this is a work in progress, not a finished piece. She will say Sod is addressing subject matter that has not been presented in this way before and that the reading had some good talent like Carolann Page (as Gertrude). Page also played Gertrude Stein in Jonathan Sheffer's music theater piece Blood on the Dining Room Floor.
THE OPERA OF MAKING A BOOK
Despite the inhospitable weather that wet her feet through to the bone, the Poet had a successful first occasion to let people know about her new book The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. For more information, visit alenier.blogspot.com to learn about this book and how it got made and published. The Steiny Road Poet thinks getting this book published is almost as hard as getting an opera on stage.