The Mother of Us All, the second and final opera collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, looms large in the creation of the work-in-progress opera Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On. In this essay, I invoke a wider lens and name the spirit guides (ghosts) who also form part of the community that supports the development of my opera collaboration with composer William Banfield and Encompass New Opera Theatre artistic director Nancy Rhodes.
San Francisco: Summoning Friends and Ancestors
The subject (ghosts) developed like a fever in me after I saw the San Francisco Opera's premiere production of The Mother of Us All on September 10, 2003. Maybe you, the reader, will think I'm still feverishly delirious when I say that although, most of the time, one does not consciously recognize the contributions ancestors deliver daily to an individual, eventually one gets so many other worldly gifts that she or he wakes up and must gratefully acknowledge them.
Allow me to tiptoe to the edge of my existence and acknowledge that I was born on May 7, 1947, the day The Mother of Us All premiered at Columbia University. I came face-to-face with this fact when my Berkeley-based friend Roy emailed me the URL to the S.F. Opera page providing background on their forthcoming production of Mother. To the casual reader, this information probably seems trivial. However, I also discovered not so long ago that I, as a child, lived on the same street that Gertrude did after her father died and she was sent East from San Francisco to Baltimore. I take these two coincidences as signs from a higher source, or the ancestors, if you please.
Opening Old and New Doors
In an earlier installment of the Steiny Road, I mentioned that Mother was the springboard that influenced me to write the verse play that is now my work-in-progress Stein opera. However, something about seeing Mother in San Francisco among friends who appreciate the years of persistence and passion I have applied to this project opened some old and new doors.
First of all, this opportunity put me back in touch with the initial excitement I felt when I saw Mother the first time. Besides the poetry and music, that excitement included the zany mingling of Stein's personal friends with historic and supernatural characters; the absurdity of presenting characters across a huge time spectrum; the importance of names, particularly women's last names; the enormous struggle one woman mounted to win civil rights, not just the right to vote, for all American women; and the tableau vivant style of Stein's scenes where still life portraits move into action.
A new door that opened for me on this trip west involved an introduction to the publisher of a cultural review web site that hosts permanent reviews of operas. At the prompting of my friend Roy, I called Arthur Lazere of culturevulture.net (what an edgy name bound to raise a few eyebrows!) to discuss theater and opera connections in the S.F. Bay area. Ever since I connected with Nancy Rhodes and Encompass New Opera Theatre, I have been talking about premiering Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On in N.Y.C. with follow-on productions in such cities as Baltimore, Chicago, and San Francisco where Stein lived or made a significant visit during her 1934-35 lecture tour. However, the conversation with Mr. Lazere veered into an unexpected direction. Mr. Lazere saw an opportunity to have a Gertrude Stein aficionado write culturevulture's review of The Mother of Us All and so I accepted the invitation. Visit http://www.culturevulture.net/Opera/MotherofUsAll.htm to get background on The Mother of Us All if this opera is unfamiliar to you.
Writing a formal review was a great way for me to better understand the influence this work had on my opera. But none of these revelations came without effort. Days prior to my night at the opera, I made two trips to the main library located near the S.F. Opera House, researching first Susan B. Anthony and the Constitutional Amendments 14,15, and 19. The second trip, I looked up biographies of the characters Stein based on real people.
During my first and second occasions of seeing Mother, I wasn't concerned specifically with identifying who the characters were. To me, they were just part of Stein's absurd theatrical landscape, which I could easily accept having studied in college French absurdists, such as Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco. Besides, I was more interested in hearing and absorbing the rhythms of Stein's poetry and Virgil Thomson's music. But this third time, the stakes were higher given the formal review I promised to write and, what's more, the ancestors, including Stein and Thomson, were rattling windows and doors making me pay attention to other aspects of Mother.
The Dog Ate My Homework
Meanwhile out on the streets, the San Francisco Chronicle released a review of the opening opera of the 2003 season panning The Mother of Us All. The reviewer made no secret that he was not prepared to see this modern American opera: he neglected to check the starting time and arrived late but, worse, he had done no background work and was reduced to asking the bejeweled and formally dressed crowd what they thought. No one the critic spoke to had done any homework either. All of this concerns me and, undoubtedly, I will write a Steiny Road essay on critics soon enough.
Before I leave the topic of critics, I must give high praise to the S.F. Opera General Director Pamela Rosenberg who not only made Mother the season opener, an opera never before presented in her forum, but also did extensive educational outreach that included: five background essays in the program brochure, an exhibit on women's suffrage set up in the S.F. Opera House lobby by the newly developing International Women's Museum, and arranging for her friend John Rockwell, former music critic of the New York Times and co-editor with Virgil Thomson of A Virgil Thomson Reader, to speak six times around the Bay area in the S.F. Opera Guild pre-opera lecture series. The only thing I think could have been more helpful was to provide in the program brochure a brief description of the most important characters. My guess is that after opening night, a better prepared and more interested audience showed up in the War Memorial Opera House.
Narrowing the Six Degrees of Separation
Donnali, the friend who accompanied me to the opera, said that had we not heard John Rockwell talk before the performance about the characters populating Mother, she would not have understood nor enjoyed the show. The interesting fact to know about this friend is that she and her family knew Joseph Barry, the American journalist and writer, after whom Stein modeled her character Jo the Loiterer. Since Donnali was young when her family lived in France and had clearer memories of Barry's children, I decided to call Donnali's mother Donna when I got back home to the Washington, DC area. Donna said besides Joe Barry being a young writer who sat at Stein's feet, he drove Gertrude and Alice from the countryside to the American Hospital in Neuilly (a suburb of Paris) where Gertrude met her end. "I know that hospital, Donna," I said, "I spent the night in the lobby after a previous husband was thrown out of the car in which we were passengers during a spectacular accident near the town of Chinon, France."
Scientists are still trying to understand the implications of psychologist's Stanley Milgram's work on the six degrees of separation that connect every person in this world to another, but lately I have been realizing many of my connections to Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson are only one or two degrees away. Before I take my fingers away from the keyboard, I will nod to Nancy Rhodes who, in the mid 1970s, enlisted Virgil Thomson's flesh and blood help in producing The Mother of Us All and then in founding Encompass, which initially was named Encompass Music Theatre. Finally, I say quietly, because they can hear me even if I don't speak out loud, high five, Gertrude! high five, Virgil!
©2003 Karren LaLonde Alenier
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
A Travelogue Pastiche of the Work-In-Progress Opera:
Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On
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