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Opera Notes

Karren Alenier's Original Libretto Notes

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 that╠s 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 ¤Four 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.

Poet Karren Alenier
August 27, 1998

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