In the last installment of The Steiny Road, my parting words included the admonition, don’t go into the woods alone. In this essay, my travel advisory is about building community and finding out whose woods these are that you wish to penetrate.
Paris, Then; New York, Now
Not everyone has the wherewithal to create community in the style that Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo did at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. First of all, in Stein’s time, Paris was the center of the artistic world. If you wanted to get recognized as an artist, a pilgrimage to Paris seemed paramount. When Stein was asked why she did not live in America, she said, “Your parent’s home is never a place to work it is a nice place to be brought up in.” For Stein, America was “early Victorian…a rich and well nourished home but not a place to work.”
And what do people say now about the center of artistic success? New York—that’s where the big publishing houses, the most prestigious theaters, opera houses, concert halls, and art galleries operate. Do I want to live and work there? No. Do I think my career as a writer would advance if I lived there? Probably, but the stakes are high for a career that rarely produces enough money to make the sacrifices worthwhile. So I stay anchored to the green location where I was born, raised, and thrive. Besides, I have dominion here—my mother moved to south Texas decades ago and my father reluctantly left Earth before that.
In working collaboratively with composer William Banfield and artistic director Nancy Rhodes on Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, I have accrued a bunch of New York stories. At the risk of stepping on a few toes and jeopardizing accrual of new members to my Stein opera community, I offer up the following vignettes.
Why I Insist That I Am A Poet First, Librettist Second
Gertrude Stein was often asked facile questions, such as those Jane Heap of the Little Review posed. (These questions are documented in How Writing is Written, Volume II of the Previously Uncollected Writings of Gertrude edited by Robert Bartlett Haas):
1. What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied.)
2. Why wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?
3. What do you look forward to?
Stein answered tersely:
1. Because I am.
2. Because I am I.
3. More of the same.
I could flame on and use Stein’s second answer to show how firmly vested I am in the world of poetry, but I don’t think I have to. Now to my first New York story—in the year 2000, I became aware of a group in New York City called First The Words. This group is a coalition of librettists who banded together to discuss the problems they have getting adequate recognition in the world of opera. Apparently librettists usually get the short end of the stick concerning any possible royalties and, of course, they seem always to get second billing. This second-class treatment seems to be predicated on a variety of assumptions and behaviors with which I don’t feel inclined to dicker:
Consider this: Virgil Thomson, an unknown composer, sought out Gertrude Stein as his librettist based on his knowledge of her poetry. In searching for a creative partner, he met and interviewed the top modernist writers of his time, including Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. Both Joyce and Pound were interested in working with Thomson, but Thomson knew he could only work with Stein if his allegiance was strictly to her. Stein was competitively jealous of James Joyce of whom she said smelled of museums and that is why he was accepted. When Sylvia Beach who owned Shakespeare and Company published Joyce in 1922, Stein dropped her membership with Beach’s bookstore. While Alice Toklas pronounced Pound disagreeable and pretentious, Stein called him a village explainer, “excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” Furthermore, Pound visited her at home, got emotionally worked up, fell out of his chair, and broke the chair’s leg. Afterward Stein said she couldn’t afford to have him in the house again and when he asked to be invited back, she told him, “I am so sorry but Miss Toklas has a bad tooth and beside we are busy picking wild flowers.” Academics label Gertrude Stein a poet despite her notoriety being based on her fictional Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and her libretto Two Saints in Three Acts. Need I say more about why I wear the hat of poet?
Pride of Ownership
Often I am asked, how does an opera start—words or music first? The answer is either, but more often words come first as the inspiration point for the music. This leads me to my second New York story. A couple of years ago, I went to a read-through presentation of a new opera at my alma mater the University of Maryland. I learned from the program notes that two New Yorkers were responsible for this work. After the presentation, I tried to strike up a conversation with the librettist. She abruptly ended our conversation when I asked who was the creative originator of this new work? So I moved on to speak to the composer and gathered that he was indeed the opera’s ignition point. Then I noticed how the composer and librettist kept their distance from one another and that while he was surrounded by people, she seemed to be entirely alone. Now one could conjecture based on my short interaction with the librettist that she wasn’t friendly, but my guess is that there was some tension between the composer and librettist and that quite possibly she was only the hired help and not an equal partner in the project.
After The Word Works and Encompass New Opera Theatre signed our commission agreement,
Bill Banfield used some of his W.E.B. DuBois fellowship time at Harvard to research Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson who both graduated from Harvard. Bill also borrowed from my library of Gertrude Stein and he asked for two funky fans I made that sported separate photos of Stein and Toklas. (In a reading from the original verse play, I had alternately held up the fans to the audience to indicate when I was reading in Gertrude’s or Alice’s voice. Bill wanted the fans for his piano so that he could see Gertrude and Alice as he worked on the piano and voice score.) In this way, he took ownership of the project, which to another composer might have been a daunting obstacle, given the years I had already invested in researching Gertrude Stein.
Invoking The Grandfathers
In the early 1990’s, I worked with and for a Native American who was leading a high profile project for the United States Department of Agriculture. Despite the homespun, seemingly friendly culture of this Federal government agency, back stabbing happened frequently. Each time Jose prepared for a meeting with anyone outside of our team, he would invoke his departed Navaho grandfathers and arrange for a certain number of team members to accompany him. This brings me to my third New York story and the presentation of the first workshop of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, which was not in New York.
Question: Why then is this a New York story? Answer: I jump started the opera project by arranging venue, publicity, and a small grant for a public workshop and then lured a skeptical artistic director from an established New York City opera company to the outskirts of Washington, DC. Many reputations were on the line for that first workshop held in mid July 2001. Luckily I had enthusiastic support from my collaborating composer William Banfield who produced at the eleventh hour a voice coach in Washington, DC, and four of her students to sing selected work from the first act of the opera.
Bringing singers and a pianist from New York, which would have been pro forma for a New York opera company’s participation, was beyond the miniscule budget at hand. What happened was that over 150 people showed up to hear the songs we collaborators—composer, artistic director and poet—were hearing for the first time. The reason I pushed for this first workshop in my neighborhood was because I wanted to thank my community of contributors who provided the funds to support the composer as he wrote the piano and voice music. I knew less than half of the 150 people who comprised the audience that hot July evening and, much to our good fortune, the music critic Joseph McLellan attended and later posted an encouraging review on redludwig.com, a classical music Ezine. Believe me, I invoked the Grandfathers, the Grandmothers and all good friends who helped me with moderating the discussion between collaborators and audience afterward, who handed out the modest program and guided people to their seats, and who helped construct and deconstruct the room setup. Travel with your tribe, Jose said. It brings good medicine.
Traveling With Your Tribe
In 1996, I started coding and uploading Web pages to the Internet both for my work at USDA and for The Word Works, the literary organization that serves as a co-commissioner for the Stein opera. I discovered early on that the Information Super Highway was a good way to keep you traveling with your tribe. The Stein opera commission was signed by The Word Works representative June 14, 2000, and co-signed by the Encompass New Opera Theatre representative Nancy Rhodes June 17, 2000. Between those two dates on June 15, www.steinopera.com, which chronicles current and past history of the project as well as profiles Gertrude Stein, went live on the Internet. Through that Web site I have picked up a number of ardent supporters, including a writer in San Francisco who has mounted a multiple city exhibition focused on Alice B. Toklas.
I also find that keeping in touch through occasional email reports to my supporting community confers ownership of the project as well as keeping the project in their memories. When people greet me in person they want to know not only about my health but the health of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.
Recently I met two members of Gertrude Stein’s family. I was researching the address of the Baltimore aunt with whom Stein lived after she was sent east following the death of her father. (Coincidently, I lived on that street when I was five years old.) A Google search yielded up the name and email address of a Stein who knew something about the house. I made a quick trip to Baltimore to meet these two relatives of Gertrude Stein and found myself transported to past visits I made with my father to his family in Baltimore. Like Stein, they were offspring of German Jews. I now understand Gertrude Stein in a more personal way, especially her secular Judaism.
So again inviting the Grandfathers, Grandmothers, and anyone nearly related by blood or love makes for a rich and powerful community. Going into the woods alone is not about being afraid but being foolish. One needs a large community to make any theater venture, especially opera, successful.
©2003 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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
A Travelogue Pastiche of the Work-In-Progress Opera:
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On
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