Webster’s New World and American Heritage dictionaries define the word collaboration as either two or more artists or scientists working together on a joint project or a person or people cooperating with the enemy. To fully appreciate The Steiny Road to Operadom, one must keep in view both of these definitions. As I hinted in my last essay, collaboration can be a difficult kind of relationship.
To offer perspective about my collaboration with composer William Barfield and artistic director Nancy Rhodes, I will also talk about the collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson.
The Geography of the Stein/Thomson Collaboration
As a student at Harvard University, Virgil Thomson was introduced to Gertrude Stein’s long poem Tender Buttons. In 1925, he had begun setting Stein’s work to music and by the end of that year, he had moved to Paris and met the American composer George Anteil who introduced Thomson to Stein around February or March 1926.
A year later in March 1927, Stein agreed to collaborate with Thomson. He suggested she write something about the working artist’s life. Stein suggested centering the opera around George Washington, but Thomson felt 18th century figures in powdered wigs all looked alike. Then Stein turned to Spain and saints, deciding to honor her Spanish Cubist friends Picasso and Gris by locating the action of the play in Spain and to honor her life long partner Alice Toklas, whom she affectionately called Therese after they had discovered a picturesque church to Saint Teresa in Avila, Spain. So out of the proposed theme about the working artist’s life, Stein wrote Four Saints in Three Acts. She did this alone and late at night completing enough of the text by mid June to show to Thomson before they both left Paris on summer vacations. He began working from the libretto in November 1927 when he got an apartment at 17 quai Voltaire and rented a piano.
How did they fare as collaborators? From what I gather in reading Jane Bowers” book on Stein’s theater work, They Watch Me As They Watch This: Gertrude Stein’s Metadrama and Steven Watson’s book Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism, Stein and Thomson worked separately asking each other no questions. Working without the aid of a piano and in a Basque village close to the border of Spain, Thomson completed the score July 19, 1928. In late November 1928, he went to New York to begin promoting Four Saints in Three Acts.
Ringing in his ears as he left Paris was Stein’s portrait of himself that contains an unsettling refrain on collaboration:
Yes ally. As ally. Yes ally yes as ally. A very easy failure takes place. Yes ally. As Ally. As ally yes a very easy failure takes place. Very good. Very easy failure takes place. …
By January 1931 over a third-party publication of Stein’s work that she did not find acceptable and in which Thomson played a part, Stein had formally penned a note to him that she “declines further acquaintance with Mr. Thomson.” In spite of this break, the opera moved ahead and had its record-breaking run on Broadway thanks to Thomson’s hard work. Stein did not participate in getting Four Saints on stage and finally managed to see a production of it in Chicago when she arrived in the United States for her 1934 lecture tour.
Riding the Artistic Storms
If anyone would have asked me what I envisioned happening when music and word people collaborate on an opera, I would have said there would be face-to-face meetings in the thick of writing it. Maybe the two would meet at an artist colony and work there for several weeks or, at least, work in each other homes around the dining room table or the piano. Of course the reality of two people’s lives pull a project up short.
My creative partner in writing the opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, composer William Banfield, lives and teaches in St. Paul, Minnesota, while I live just outside the northwest border of Washington, DC in Maryland. Although I run an unusually active small press that also presents numerous public programs and I occasionally teach, my time is more flexible. As I mentioned in the first Steiny Road essay, Bill and I first spoke to each other by phone. We met months later on the floor of Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center Concert Hall where a jazz symphony by Bill was featured that evening.
What we did in our early collaboration was occasionally talk on the telephone. That seemed to work better than trading email messages. Bill’s formula for success (meaning that the opera would be reproduced in the future by other theater groups after its premiere by Encompass New Opera Theatre) was to create an opera for 10-12 voices backed up by a chamber orchestra of 10 musicians. Heeding this advice, I cut down the number of singers from twelve to ten. Initially Bill asked me to expand some of the dialogue in the original verse play to allow him to write arias.
For example, here are the short lines that opened Act I of the original verse play:
Oh, jump! Jump on!
Don’t mutter so.
Ce n’etait pas rigolo!
Leo, look at me. Pablo, begin the banquet for Monsieur le Douanier.
What did you say? No, don’t write it down!
For the libretto, I expanded Gertrude’s lines to:
It’s not a joke, Leo. Look at me.
Pablo, begin the banquet
for Monsieur Rousseau.
Leo, look. Leo, listen
to your baby sister.
I have words,
portraits in words
to deliver—they are
evidence of the world,
the still world,
the world still moving
to discovery, the way
people behave. I have words.
Here is my art. My words shoot
the clocks. They are now; they are
ageless. Can you hear? Can you
listen? I need someone to hear
my work, to love
my work, to love
me! Leo, look at me.
Pablo, begin the banquet
for Monsieur le Douanier.
Work on acts II and III resulted in meetings in New York with Bill and Nancy Rhodes of Encompass New Opera Theatre. Act II, set in 1935 at the end of Gertrude’s US lecture tour, puts the limelight on Gertrude and Alice as they rent a car in Los Angeles and then drive up the coast of California to Oakland, Gertrude’s childhood home. Except for the character named the Master of the Libretto who acts as narrator, the other seven singers, who had distinct character roles in act I, become part of the chorus. Act III is set in World War II. The original act III brought back on stage such characters as Picasso, Rousseau, and Appolinaire who were established in act I. These characters were part of a psychological landscape from Gertrude’s ruminations about how she had reconnected to her writing after the writer’s block caused by the public notoriety of the mid 1930s.
For operatic tension, Bill wanted me to bring Gertrude’s brother Leo into acts II and III. This gave me pause because Gertrude and Leo never spoke to each other after 1913 when they had fought about her writing (which he thought was nonsense) and when he had decided to move out of their shared apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. Additionally Nancy had some theatrical issues she wanted me to address. Nancy wanted more action and less tableau vivant.
To stay true to historical accuracy, I brought Leo back in Act III as a dream apparition and then again as a waking apparition when journalist Eric Sevareid interviews Gertrude in her country home as the Allied forces are making their way through southern France. I allow Sevareid to ask Gertrude about Leo who, in fact, was sitting out the war in Italy. Check back with me in a few months and I’ll let you know whether this solution shows up in the premiere production, which may be as soon next year.
How have Bill Banfield and Karren Alenier fared in the collaboration on the Stein opera? As I told the audience from a panelist seat at the Manhattan School of Music in the spring of 2002, Bill and I have a long distance relationship. Although we have fought like brother and sister, we both have respect and deep appreciation for the other’s work. I absolutely love the jazz infused, lyrical classical music Bill has written. It is the music I wanted for the words of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. Likewise Bill has spoke very well of my poetic text and it is clear from how he set the music that he appreciated what I wrote. Additionally I credit Nancy Rhodes as a critical member of the collaboration team who has anchored our artistic tempers.
About Building and Burning Bridges
The definition of collaboration would not be complete if the issues of loyalty and trust were ignored in this essay. Virgil Thomson scrambled to find creative partners to help him achieve recognition and success. He met most of the prominent modernists who were contemporaneously composing and writing. For example, through George Anteil, Thomson met Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Pound told Thomson if the young composer would stick around with him, Thomson would be famous. (Thomson did not like Pound’s domineering behavior.) Joyce invited Thomson to develop a ballet based on Finnegan’s Wake. Thomson, who had left his famous teacher Nadia Boulanger’s circle and received no promotional support from the friendly French musical community that included Satie, Milhaud, and Poulenc, knew if he associated with Joyce, Gertrude Stein would sever their relationship. Thomson knew Stein felt competitively jealous about the public attention lavished on Joyce.
In 1926, Virgil Thomson introduced Stein to Bernard Fay who at that time was a professor of American history at the University of Claremont-Ferrand. Fay, who had studied at Harvard, provided Thomson introductions to Satie, Milhaud, Poulenc, Hemingway, and Cocteau. Stein became life long friends with Fay who, during World War II from his position high in the Vichy government, protected her, Toklas, and Stein’s art collection. Stein’s efforts to exonerate Fay from his prison sentence after World War II as a collaborator, in addition to some propaganda that Stein herself wrote during the war that supported Petain, still have people in academic circles buzzing about whether Stein herself was a collaborator.
Generally speaking, collaborations are risky undertakings done with huge leaps of faith or utter abandon. What I have learned as an artist is wherever you go, take your tribe with you. Don’t go into the woods alone. Fewer misunderstandings occur in the company of supportive and attentive audience. This community will also keep you from burning bridges and that is critical if an artist wants to complete a big project like an opera.
©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.
A Travelogue Pastiche of the Work-In-Progress Opera:
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On
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