The following is a discussion between the collaborators working to create an opera entitled Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On and commentary from events related to that opera. The contents of this discussion include:
On July 12, 2001 the collaborators of Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On presented their first workshop at the Friendship Heights Village Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland. This public workshop included a panel discussion between the collaborators and selected arias from Act I.
Over 150 people assembled at the Center to hear about the opera's development by its collaborators—composer William Banfield, dramaturge-artistic director Nancy Rhodes, and poet-librettist Karren Alenier—and to experience the first musical presentation of four arias drawn from Act I. The moderator Grace Cavalieri, a poet with over 20 years of public radio broadcast experience, welcomed the assembled group of Friendship Heights Villagers, artists of all genres, and other interested attendees and then switched the focus to a minute of introductory music—Gertrude's jump theme— played by pianist and vocal coach Gillian Cookson.
The introductory remarks by the panelists included Bill scooting into Gillian's place at the piano so he could musically illustrate a point he was making about how his creative process works and Karren delivering a recitation of her playful poem "Leo on Seesaw." Nancy and Karren set up the time and place of Act I and made the introductions of the four accomplished singers: soprano Karin Paludan (Gertrude Stein), mezzo-soprano Daria Gerwig (Alice B. Toklas), tenor Paul McILvaine (Leo Stein), and baritone Lewis Freeman (Henri Rousseau). The arias sung included Gertrude's "Look at Me I Have Words," Leo's "She Makes a Fool of Me" (Leo was Gertrude's art critic brother), Alice's "Not Anyone Can Be Her Lover," and Gertrude's "Can You Take Me as I Am." Alice's song, which has a swinging Manhattan Transfer style, is an ensemble piece and included all four voices in parts of the song.
The formal portion of the program ran about 55 minutes and about 20-25 minutes more included an audience comment and question period. Montgomery Municipal Cable TV videoed the event. Two journalists Joe McLellan writing for www.redludwig.com and Neda Ulaby of Washington, DC's City Paper covered the event. Oral and written comments from most of the audience indicated that they liked what was presented, wanted to know more about the opera's progress, and would buy tickets to the New York City premiere.
The event was made possible by direct financial support from the Village Council of Friendship Heights, the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, Maryland, William Banfield, The Word Works, and Clyde's of Chevy Chase.
In an attempt to respond both to your original vision stated in your libretto notes and to the new direction that has taken place since working with both Nancy and myself, I am crafting this essay. As I see the project now, Jump is a new music opera on the life of Gertrude Stein. The verse play by poet Karren Alenier is now moving to a public piece, an opera, and it will speak differently based on a collaborative vision. The transition from verse play to opera is sometimes a tricky and touchy landscape to tread, but the reality is that once the music gets hold of the words, things change. One sustained note, a chord, a series of harmonies, dissonances and resolutions will set up audience and character moods that will carry the "Jump" baby in all kinds of directions not before conceived. This re-incubation period begins once the word-maker lets loose of her work to the composer.
I understand your intention to have the energy of the work based on the dynamics of language and I will do what I can to preserve that. However, I think something additional is operating now within the revised libretto. Character development became important. This occurred when you wrote arias for the characters in Act 1. For me, the revised text in Act 1 suggests that the music should revolve around a trio of characters Gertrude, Leo and Alice. What happens between these three characters in Act 1 is powerful and needs to be carried through the libretto and resolved in some fashion. So I urge you to further develop the character of Leo Stein particularly in Act 3. The interactions of Gertrude, Alice and Leo are important relationships that I as composer need to explore. Once the melodies, songs, and melodic materials jump up around the text beginning in Act 1, there is very little you and I can do to control the emotional wrestling that the music takes us through and that begs resolution. This cannot be explained. It is why opera is so powerful.
I am setting up themes and instruments to represent the various characters. This becomes part of the strategy for taking the listeners through this work of theater. Once I get insights from you and directions from Nancy, I need to be allowed to "go into the room," so to speak, and complete the opera. This process I'm sure is very familiar to you as an artist.
In Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On, I am creating a chamber opera based on a libretto and story by poet Karren Alenier. There are three acts depicting three periods and places in the main characterŪs life. What interests me is telling the inner stories of the three characters "Gertrude, Alice and Leo" who make up a drama in the midst of these contextual externals (art party scene, car scene, victory party scene) and the external rhythms of the Steinian language/poetry as reformulated by Alenier. The inner story will be told by strong, direct and non-symbolic but realist songs where the character sings (tells) the inner story. Secondly, I want to develop a texture of minor characters and musical themes that act in support of the principal characters. These other "persons" around the central characters are actually involved at times with the principals, other times they are just backdrop sounds, textures, movement around the characters in ideas and moods, and psychological references. The supporting cast and the supporting orchestral texture is another important relationship for me to develop, to give shape and relevance to without disturbing the primary, inner story. Thirdly, the entire work is a "sound statue" erected in homage to Gertrude Stein as an artist and her ideas concerning contemporary artistic expression, and the plight of artists to stand up and "be." My biggest challenge is to find, then maintain a sound, musical language world for them all to work this out in.
William C. Banfield
Just as new music sets its own standard for contemporary classical music and explores combinations, repetitions, and rhythms of sound unlike any compositions that were created before in the repertoire of music history, Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On breaks new ground. First, however, it must be understood that the inspiration for my work springs from Gertrude Stein. Stein was a master of breaking molds and taking leaps with language and form that still dazzle and fascinate her audiences with its freshness and originality.
Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On is sprung theater. This means that the shape of this work is not tethered to usual theater formats. Therefore character development and plot take a back seat to language, sound, and rhythm. What came to mind as I was developing this work were improvisational jazz, the Cubist art that Stein collected from the artists she socialized with, and the developments in psychology that explored the stream of conscious and subterranean thought of the human mind.
Theater critic Grace Cavalieri says Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On is an MRI of Gertrude Stein's behavior and language. This work is an X-ray map of color that defines the shapes in the life and work of Gertrude Stein. This observation by Ms. Cavalieri mirrors the discovery that Stein herself made when she flew for the first time. Upon viewing the earth from the window of an airplane,Stein remarked that she saw what Pablo Picasso always knew about the world. Picasso painted the 20th Century (in big flowing colors and shapes) and she did the same thing with her writing.
Specifically what I have done in this work is provided three tableaux vivant (moving canvases) of Stein's life. Act I explores the story of the madcap party Picasso threw for the primitive painter Henri Rousseau. Stein and others wrote about this banquet where the food failed to show up from the caterer and had to be made by the guests, where the guest of honor was assaulted, where guests got drunk and did such things as eat the feather from Alice B. Toklas's hat. The story became a legendary tale of the artist's life in Paris. More importantly Act I sets up the leitmotif of Stein's struggle to define herself as a writer. Initially she received no support in her career. Her brother Leo speaks for those who hold on to the writing standards of the past when he declares her work is nonsense.
Act II depicts the startled Stein who realizes as she is leaving America (and she is leaving the States for the last time in her life) that she has arrived as an American writer. She can have any house (read this as: any audience) she wants. She no longer needs to promote others to make way for herself. Her lecture tour in America where she also caught up with the third staging of her collaboration with Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (the opera opened in Connecticut, had a 60 day run in New York and then moved on to Chicago) made her a household name. Artistically this popularity frightened her and she questioned whether she had sold her creative soul.
Where Act I and II present information about Stein that is more widely known, Act III unfolds part of Stein's life that few people know much about. Stein and Toklas sat out World War II in southern France near the German border. Just as Stein took risks with her writing, she also lived her life in that same way. Needless to say, as a Jew, homosexual, and woman, she and her life time partner Alice Toklas were in constant danger of being swept up by the Nazi extermination campaign. In Act III, Stein finds her creative center again she knows the mere business of living has restored her from the limelight of the triumphant lecture tour. She has also recovered from the huge glimpse of the 20th Century and knows it is her job to write it all down. The past and the present congeal in Act III and the chorus members step forward in cameo appearances as characters presented in Act I.
Organizing principles that I use to help ground the audience are the introductions (of each act and its players) by the master of the libretto and the use of the gong to define the presentation of the poems. Stein and Toklas are the main characters with the rest of the cast (everyone else) acting as a chorus from which Stein develops her ideas and writing. This is true even in Act I where the chorus has names and glimmers of personalities but thatŐs all. A possible staging effect that might be appropriate for the characters that back up Stein and Toklas is to have them sport masks showing the faces of Picasso, Rousseau, Appolinaire, etc. Then when they reappear in Act III it would be easy to identify the characters again from Act I.
Act I could be spoken with the poems sung. Certainly there are other musical works that have been handled like that such as Schonberg's Pierot Lunaire or Stravinsky's Les Noces. I do see the lines of Acts II and III lending themselves more easily to the musical line. It might be useful to think of the spoken word evolving into song in this work. I believe there are many opportunities for a new music composer to break new ground here. I also see myself as compatible with the philosophic line you express in your album Extensions of the Tradition. (Banfield says about Extensions, "My hope is: first, to link myself as a present-day creator with past traditions and tradition-bearers and then, second, to comment musically on what those traditions might mean for the vitality of our community today." ) Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On has threads to the past in the snippets of popular song and the phrases from ŌFour Saints in Three Acts.
The audience for this work is the person who follows new music because he or she likes innovative sound and it is also the person who is interested in, educated about, or just curious about Gertrude Stein and her work. Trial readings in Washington, DC, have proved my audience to be the person who is interested in one or more levels of my work: sound, intellectual meaning, and unusual subject treatment. Since Stein is now a staple of every college English course, the work is beginning to appeal to a large general audience.