July 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

itters. As the clock ticks its way closer to the opening night of Encompass New Opera Theatre's world premiere of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On by poet Karren LaLonde Alenier and composer William Banfield, the Steiny Road Poet has wedged several bones into the dike of emotions that threatens to flood her usual calm.


Bone #1 – She points a finger at herself and says, PAY ATTENTION, STAY ENGAGED.

And there is nothing so calming as putting yourself and your work in front of the public in a practice run. This happened May 17 and 19, 2005, when Encompass New Opera Theatre and three other companies (all based in New York City) presented excerpts of new music theater work. The program entitled "On The Edge" played at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre at Symphony Space where the Stein opera under the direction of Nancy Rhodes will air in world premiere.  

The other work included:

American Opera Projects – Lost Childhood by composer Janice Hamer and poet Mary Azrael is an opera that tells the story of a Jewish boy who had to hide his identity to survive the Nazis in World War II.  

The Center for Contemporary Opera – The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz by composer Eric Salzman and librettist Valeria Vasilevski is a music-theater work with scenes from the 1942 dramatic work The City Wears a Slouch Hat by composer John Cage and Poet Kenneth Patchen. This experimental piece with a barbershop quartet and an extended voice singer relates the actual last words of the gangster Dutch Schultz.

Music-Theatre Group – Loving Family by composer Derek Bermel and poet Wendy Walters, a musical that weaves rhythm and blues with contemporary musical forms, is a murder mystery set in the auto industry of Detroit. (Does this subject sound familiar? The Steiny Road Poet recently discussed the successful musical Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant.  Who said only the auto unions would come to a musical about the people who work at a Detroit auto plant?)


  • The Poet accrued several advantages or lessons learned from this fortuitous engagement: 
    She got to meet half of the cast who will perform in the world premiere, taking care of most of the shock of hearing her words come from the mouths of unknown singers.

    Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On
    L-R: Rosalie Sullivan, Ryan Kinsella, Eve Gigliotti, Albert Rudolph Lee, Karen Rich, Casey  Cole

    And, oh my goodness, one of the singers she met is named Karen Rich, a name the Steiny Road Poet is known by in social circles with her husband Jim Rich. For the "On the Edge" performance, Karen Rich served as the Master of the Libretto, a role the Steiny Road Poet will quietly admit is not only the alter ego of Gertrude Stein, but also is the narrative voice of the Steiny Road Poet, Karren Alenier, a.k.a. Karren Rich.  

  • The Poet and players got to experience the theater of our premiere filled with audience. The players now understand how much stage room they have to work with and how close the audience will be. The Poet now knows where she must sit so she can pop up and take a bow on stage with the singers after their performance. More importantly, her feet now understand the height of the steps leading to the stage so she will not fall on her face and make a spectacle of herself.  
  • Because not all the attention was focused on the Stein opera, the Poet and her colleagues had the benefit of hearing the audience provide feedback without the usual self -consciousness afforded to a single production where people only say, "Congratulations, good job," but provide no honest opinion. One composer told the Steiny Road Poet she was impressed with the words in Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On but did not like the music because she thought it too repetitious. Someone else said, "There was no mistaking who was Gertrude and who was Alice. I saw them (Eve Gigliotti and Rosalie Sullivan) before they got on stage."
  • Another benefit was hearing unfavorable comments about the other works because these kind of comments inform the Poet about her own failings.  A number of people remarked that they were offended by a song infused with Viennese waltz rhythms from Lost Childhood in which a virulent anti-Semitic dentist sings with company backup that you can always tell a Jew by the nose. To this, one must ask, "Why sanitize the story of Nazi sympathizers and hate-mongers?" Lots of controversy erupted over the end of The True Last Words of Dutch Schultz. What was the meaning of those strangling noises that Dutch made for more than five minutes? Was this John Cage? No, it seems it was an extended vocalization. And quietly in the dark corners of the theater some people questioned why a white composer was writing music heavily drawn from African-American music and for characters who were African-Americans. The Steiny Road Poet knows that these issues exist in the Stein opera and therefore could imagine the following discourse: "There are four-letter words in the poem 'Coming to the Other,' – why didn't someone warn me before I brought my kid to this show?"  "Is the text Gertrude Stein's or Karren Alenier's and if it is not Stein's, good God, why not?" "What's a hetero doing writing about Lesbian love?" In Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, the Steiny Road Poet has Gertrude sing to Alice:
      • What a catch she is.
        What a catchy cat,
        a pussy purr
        in my throat. Alice!
        oh, Alice, you are my
        handbook of questions and answers.
        Can the cat give kisses? Can you
        cancan? Open my catechism. . .


Bone #2 – When there is work to be done, she raises her finger and VOLUNTEERS.

No time to be a fainting diva in the world of small opera companies. The Poet took a huge stack of cards publicizing the premiere and went door by door in New York City to places like Poets & Writers; Poets House; Liberty House — a hip, artsy clothing boutique on the upper west side where one of the clerks turned out to be an opera singer; the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center and independent book sellers such as Labyrinth Bookstore, the vendor who will handle sales at the pre-premiere event entitled A Gertrude Stein Salon and at the premiere.  

Her favorite stop was Gotham Book Mart where upon entering the store, she was handed a bag check in exchange for her backpack. Whose photo was on the bag check? Yes, Gertrude Stein! Then she went upstairs to rummage in the poetry section and while discussing the arrangement of the poetry books with a Gotham staff person, she looked up and saw on the highest, out-of-reach shelf, the full eye-catching cover of her first volume of poetry – Wandering on the Outside! Interrupting the dutiful staff person, she pointed out her book, which she told him was sold to Gotham in 1975. Not missing a beat, he said, "Would you sign that copy?"  

The Poet told this story to Nancy Rhodes who spent years consorting with Virgil Thomas and she said, 'It's Gertrude giving us signs, encouraging us to proceed." Who am I to argue with synchronistic events in the universe? Volunteering under these conditions can be exhilarating, a more positive form of nervous energy.


Bone #3 -- Taking the role of her own mother, she wags the matronly finger and says three times, PRACTICE.

Standing in front of a mirror and repeating what the Poet might answer to questions like, "What is the meaning of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On" might be a tad useful, but now she finds she is inventing new answers to such questions. Putting meat on the bone of practice means taking up a new subject and writing from scratch. This is like getting back on the horse after the beast throws you. So, Dear Reader, you thought traveling the Steiny Road was about to end, just wait and see what lies ahead with the next opera! Stay tuned, the Steiny Road Poet will soon let the new howling cat out of the burlap bag.

©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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For other articles by Karren Alenier, check the Archives.

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