Music + Culture
8:52 am
Sat June 21, 2014

Gertrude Stein Opera Finds Beauty In The Mundane

Gertrude Stein was a big woman with a big ego. Her friends were big, important artists, like Picasso and Matisse. A new opera by composer Ricky Ian Gordon, best known for his acclaimed 2007 opera based on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, takes place in Paris and gets its name, 27, from the street address where Stein and Alice B. Toklas hosted many of the greatest artists and writers of the early 20th Century.

"For sheer hubris, the size of her personality, the weight of her choices — she said yes to what she believed was correct visually in the 20th century and consequently surrounded herself with, basically, the progenitors of 20th century art vocabulary," Gordon says.

Later, Stein would champion such writers as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; all were regular guests at the home she shared with Toklas. Artistic salons and domestic life aren't necessarily the stuff of grand opera, but mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, who plays Stein, says that's part of what makes 27 special.

"I mean, you don't get the mundane, often, in opera," Blythe says. "Any couple is going to be able to look at this and say, 'Oh, I know that.' Not everybody can look at Radamès and Aida at the end of [Aida] and go, 'Oh, I know what it's like to be, you know, entombed alive.' It's just a beautiful, beautiful piece."

The opera began with conversations between Blythe and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis artistic director James Robinson, who serves as stage director on the production. For him, Stein presents a fascinating paradox in that her life is better known than her work.

"We know of Gertrude Stein's writing, but it's very, very short," Robinson says. "You know, we know the famous line, 'A rose is a rose is a rose.' But most people don't know her books. She is somebody who was very influential on other people."

And yet, in her writing, Stein often attempted to do with words what her friends the Cubists were doing with paint, according to Stanford University art historian Wanda Corn.

"She saw in Cezanne, and then in Picasso, permission to basically start thinking about skills in writing and skills in painting all over again," Corn says. "She felt that these artists were rediscovering forms, and she wanted to do exactly the same kind of thing with words. There was almost nothing in the history of writing that Stein didn't want to rethink and experiment with."

Stein even experimented with opera, writing librettos for Virgil Thomson's The Mother Of Us All and Four Saints In Three Acts. Of her longer work, best known are Tender Buttons and The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas. Stephanie Blythe was an English major in college and familiar with Stein's writing, but not necessarily a fan.

"I like Gertrude Stein the woman, the 'husband,'" she says. "I only use that term because that's exactly the term she used. I like the partner of Alice. I'm not necessarily crazy about the grandiose, larger-than-life person who lays down the law about who's a genius and who's not. So I like aspects of Gertrude very much, and others not so much."

In 27, soprano Elizabeth Futral embodies Stein's longtime partner and confidant, Toklas. She, like her counterpart, says the beauty of the production comes from the smaller, more mundane parts of the women's lives. The opera begins after Stein's death, as Futral sits on stage, knitting the story to life.

"Since she outlived Gertrude by about 20 years, she was really devastated at her death and mourned her the rest of her life — and celebrated her the rest of her life, too," Futral says. "But this longing to have her back is how the show begins and how the other characters are created, and it's really an interesting, wonderful concept."

Ricky Ian Gordon first read about Stein during college. Today, he holds salons at his home to play his new music for friends. But what he likes best about his central character is her larger-than-life personality.

"Gertrude Stein was being interviewed, and she said to the interviewer, 'Other than Shakespeare and me, who do you think are the greatest writers in the English language?' You've gotta love someone that feels that way about themselves," Gordon says. "You just do!"

And in that way, Stein became the patron for her own story in song.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Opera fans in St. Louis are transported to Paris' Left Bank in a new opera by the composer Ricky Ian Gordon. His latest work is called "Twenty-Seven," after the street address where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas hosted many of the great artists and writers of the early 20th century. "Twenty-Seven" had its world premiere last week at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Jim Dryden has more.

JIM DRYDEN, BYLINE: Gertrude Stein was a big woman with a big ego. And her friends were big important artists, including Picasso and Matisse, says composer Ricky Ian Gordon.

RICKY IAN GORDON: Hubris the size of her personality, the weight of her choices. She said yes to what she believed was correct visually in the 20th century. And consequently surrounded herself with basically the progenitors of 20th-century art vocabulary.

DRYDEN: Later, Stein went on to champion such writers as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. All were regular guests at the home she shared with Alice B. Toklas.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "TWENTY-SEVEN")

DRYDEN: Artistic salons and domestic life aren't necessarily the stuff of grand opera. But mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe, who plays Stein, says those are the things that make "Twenty-Seven" special.

STEPHANIE BLYTHE: You don't get the mundane often in Opera. You don't get the mundane every day that you get in this piece. Any couple is going to be able to look at this and say, oh, I know that. Not everybody can look at Radames in "Aida" at the end of the opera and go, oh, I know what it's like (laughing) to be entombed alive. But it's a beautiful, beautiful piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "TWENTY-SEVEN")

DRYDEN: The opera began in conversations between Blythe and Opera Theatre of St. Louis artistic director James Robinson, who is stage directing this production. He says Stein presents a fascinating paradox in that her life is better known than her work.

JAMES ROBINSON: We know of Gertrude Stein's writing. You know, we know the famous line a rose is a rose is a rose. But most people don't know her books. But she is somebody who was very influential on other people.

DRYDEN: And yet in her writing style, Stein often attempted to do with words, what her friends the Cubists, were doing with paint, according to Stanford University art historian Wanda Corn.

WANDA CORN: She saw in Cezanne and then Picasso the permission to basically start thinking about skills in writing and skills in painting all over again. She felt that these artists were rediscovering forms and allowing the forms to become new and modern. And she wanted to do exactly the same kind of thing with words, and the linguistic forms. So there was almost nothing in the history of writing that Stein didn't want to rethink and experiment with.

DRYDEN: Stein even experimented with Opera writing librettos for Virgil Thomson's "The Mother Of Us All" and "Four Saints In Three Acts."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS")

IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA: (Singing) Pigeons on the grass alas. Pigeons on the grass alas. Short longer grass. Short longer, longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons, large pigeons on the shorter, longer yellow grass, alas. Pigeons on the grass.

DRYDEN: Gertrude Stein's best known books are "Tender Buttons" and "The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas." Stephanie Blythe was an English major in college. She says she was familiar with Stein's writing. But she wasn't necessarily a fan.

BLYTHE: I like Gertrude Stein the woman, the husband, I only use that term because that's exactly the term she used. I like the partner of Alice. I'm not necessarily crazy about the grandiose, larger-than-life person who lays down the law about who's a genius and who's not. So I like aspects of Gertrude very much. And others, not so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "TWENTY-SEVEN")

DRYDEN: Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who plays Alice B. Toklas, says the beauty in "Twenty-Seven" comes in the smaller, more mundane parts of the women's lives. The opera begins after Stein's death, as Futral sits on stage, knitting the story to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "TWENTY-SEVEN)

ELIZABETH FUTRAL: She was a knitter. She was a needle pointer. Since she outlived Gertrude by about 20 years, she was really devastated at her death and mourned her the rest of her life. And this longing to have her back is how the show begins and how the other characters are created. And it's a beautiful concept, it really is.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "TWENTY-SEVEN")

DRYDEN: Composer Ricky Ian Gordon first read about Gertrude Stein during college. And today he holds salons at his home to play his new music for friends. But what he likes best about his central character is her larger-than-life personality.

GORDON: I love that Gertrude Stein was being interviewed and she said to the interviewer other than Shakespeare and me, who do you think are the greatest writers in the English language (laughing)? You've got to love someone that feels that way about themselves. Do you know what I mean? You just do.

DRYDEN: And in that way, Gertrude Stein became the patron for her own story in song. For NPR News, I'm Jim Dryden in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "TWENTY-SEVEN")

SIMON: This is weekend edition from NPR news. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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