When Eve Gigliotti prepared for her role as Gertrude in Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On by composer William Banfield and Steiny Road Poet Karren LaLonde Alenier, she created a Gertrude shrine. She did this by hanging photos of Stein around her room.
GETTING INTO GERTRUDE'S PHYSICALITY
Gigliotti said in an interview conducted by the Poet May 11, 2006, "I didn't wear heels for two months. I ate whatever I wanted. I tried to get into her physicality." The June day in 2005 when Gigliotti cut her hair to mirror the mannish style Stein adopted in the winter of 1926, the Poet had just arrived at the apartment of Nancy Rhodes(q.v.), the artistic director of Encompass New Opera Theatre. Minutes into the visit, the phone rang with Gigliotti's news. Rhodes gasped and said something like, you really cut your hair?
Diana Souhami, in her biography of Stein entitled Gertrude And Alice, explains that Stein was inspired to cut her long hair after a visit from her friend the Duchess of Clermont Tonnerre, who was Marcel Proust's model for the Duchess of Guermantes, a character in his novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Apparently Stein's Duchess came for a visit, removed her hat to show off her new haircut, and asked Stein what she thought. Stein said, "It suits your head." The Duchess predicted Stein would follow suit. Indeed, Stein told Toklas that night to cut it off. Souhami reports that it took Toklas two days of cutting and the more she cut, the better Stein liked what she saw in the mirror. Stein had rid herself of what she called an ancient fashion.
When asked what she brought to the role of Gertrude Stein, Gigliotti answered, "[What I brought] was ignorance in not being aware this was such a huge task. Just diving in and having all the faith in the world that I was capable. A lot of this had to do with Nancy [Rhodes] because that was one of the first things she said to me, you're completely capable. I didn't think, oh,how am I going to play this iconic character? I went in blindly with an open heart."
The Steiny Road Poet interprets Gigliotti's word ignorance more as receptivity to the effect that the singer began to channel Gertrude. The Poet heard from Nancy Rhodes that Gigliotti reported getting other worldly messages out on the streets of New York from Stein. But moreover when the Poet listened to the singer's process, the Poet realized the scope of intelligence that Gigliotti brought to the Stein Opera. "I separate the material into two categories: music/technical aspects [dealing with the] vocal [component] and words/dramatic intention within an aria. Then I put them together. I do this before the rehearsal process."
Although Gigliotti has a technical teacher who works with her on voice issues, she used Encompass music director John Yaffé (q.v.) as her main coach for this production. Using the production's music director she says helps everyone in the cast speak the same musical language. "I felt comfortable working with John Yaffé. He didn't make me nervous but he knew enough to let us play. He also knew how to bring everyone back together."
For the dramatic side, Rhodes was Gigliotti's coach. Rhodes suggested that Gigliotti read the celebrated biography Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company by James R. Mellow. "She [Rhodes] is adamant about making her vision happen. But she has an immense respect for the responsibility we have as communicators. I believe she has a sixth sense about people. She knows how to motivate people to trust what they are capable of doing. She doesn't censor and she pushes you to be engaged at all times. She feels as artists that we have a duty to our society to reflect it, communicate to it, and that this is an integral part of a healthy society."
Because process is what excites the Steiny Road Poet and helps her expand her own knowledge of the world of opera, she emailed the singer weeks after the interview to ask her to comment on Gertrude's relationship to the character within the opera who is named the Master of Libretto and on the singer's relationship to Diane Ciesla, the actor who played the part. The Poet told the singer she considered the MoL something like Gertrude's id. Gigliotti answered:
"I can remember not feeling that we had developed a clear sense of the role of MoL and that Nancy didn't quite flesh out the concept. Diane and I just played and discovered place with it. Maybe that was Nancy's intention. Nancy is very organic in her work and has a great eye with what works and what doesn't. In hindsight, I wonder if talking to you about it would have helped us, but it is always a strange balance when you get into production in regard to what information you get and from whom. How much responsibility/control do you have as an artist in regard to the interpretation of a character? As a singer, you are also dealing with the composer and the director's interpretation. How much of your work is reliant upon the director and his or her vision? At what point does your choice take precedence over the concept of the overall piece?
"For me, Diane was an extremely generous colleague who provided a maternal care-giving role both as the MoL and [as a colleague] outside of the piece. I imagined, for Gertrude, that the MoL was an inner reflection, the little voice inside her head that keeps her moving forward. Her instinct. I guess that was what Freud was describing [in his definition of id]. Diane brought a clever playfulness to what she was doing, as if she knew what was going to happen and she was leading Gert down her fated path, encouraging her and keeping the fire stoked within. In the action of the scene, Diane as the MoL made me feel safe. When I connected to her energy, she made me believe I could do anything. She was always present in the moment with me as Gert.
"As for anyone else in the role, well, I feel strongly that the MoL would need to be female. Probably because it connects to the nurturing instinct, even though I think Gert identified herself as having a male spirit. In a way, it balances better with MoL as a woman. Someone who has a supportive wisdom to them and spry physicality."
PREFERRING LIVING, BREATHING CREATORS
Having the creators of the Stein opera on hand, Gigliotti said was a gift. "For opera, it's rare to have the living, breathing creators there but it raises the stakes. It gives you a broader sense of responsibility to the piece. Having you and Bill there, I just wanted to do a better job. I remember that one rehearsal where you corrected a word. I was changing the word, not even aware I was doing this but you were right there with the right word. Those little details make the performance sharper and more refined."
Working with existing repertory opera is a challenge for Gigliotti. How to make a classic opera fresh so that the audience "isn't remembering when so and so sang that role" is what she is up against. She says she is liberated by a new work and it is "the one place where singers get to truly create."
In May 2006, the Poet attended the opening night premiere of Christian McLeer's music theater piece Shot produced by the Remarkable Theater Brigade. Gigliotti played the role of a mother who loses her son to an act of gun violence. Gigliotti, who has no children, said to prepare for this role she did research on families who had lost children and put herself into that emotional state of extreme loss. The Poet and her seatmate, a Dutch correspondent who often writes about American theater, agreed that Gigliotti's performance was the high point of Shot's opening night — Gigliotti effectively moved the audience in her portrayal of a grieving mother. The Poet also notes that Gigliotti who is not gay was masterful as Gertrude Stein in her interactions with Rose Sullivan who played Alice B. Toklas. When Gigliotti as Stein embraced Sullivan/Toklas for a kiss, the emotional effect was two people in love. Gigliotti managed to move the relationship between Stein and Toklas beyond a scene that might have been labeled a Lesbian encounter.
OPENING NIGHTS REDUX
Gigliotti says, "Not all opening nights are magic." The opening night of Shot had a variety of problems that included dead stops where no music was being played and set changes took far too long. After the dress rehearsal for the Stein opera, the Poet was not convinced the cast was ready for opening night. Gigliotti said, "The week prior [to the opening] was insane. A new work is stressful. Because Encompass is limited and everyone has to have another job to support oneself financially, scheduling around our lives was a huge challenge. I remember trying to mark my energy. Nancy did a lot with very little time. It was really crowded on the stage. However, everyone knew how to handle him- or herself on that small stage. Chris [Christopher Fecteau, pianist and assistant to John Yaffé] was the glue. He spent the most time with us in the rehearsal process. Everyone's attitude was so positive. I knew we were going to do this, we 'were going to get through this. It all came together. Everyone had a good sense of humor too. By opening night, we were ready to go. And half the cast had to deal with the Rorem and Thomson pieces [Ned Rorem's Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters and Virgil Thomson's Capital Capitals] but Rose and I didn't. It was a huge testament to the quality of singers who Nancy chose to work with."
Except for some problems that Gigliotti labeled prosody of the language dealing with how the composer had set certain words and phrases, the singer said the role as Gertrude Stein fit her like a glove and there was nothing she would have changed about the opening night. "I remember this ball of excitement and energy. I remember I paced myself properly. I didn't over think things. I ran every day to keep up my stamina. I feel in that instance that I fully realized my abilities for where I was at that time period. I was happy with my work on that piece and with everyone's collaborative work. I was thrilled to be a part of that [production]. The only thing I would change is that we could do it again and have five opening nights."