Lissa Tyler Renaud
Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation
SFMOMA in Association with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) Presents
An Ensemble Parallèle production; Featuring Kalup Linzy
Novellus Theater, YBCA
August 18 – 21, 2011
The early avant-garde came to the fore this past summer in San Francisco and in its cohort cities across the bay, Oakland and Berkeley—and Gertrude Stein in particular played a leading part in the goings-ons: One major exhibition focused on Stein as writer, dramatist, art collector and salonière (Contemporary Jewish Museum); another on the wider Stein family as adventurous patrons of the arts and early purchasers of works by unknowns, Picasso and Matisse (and Cézanne, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc.) (SFMOMA). From Paris came 100 masterworks by Picasso, who became Stein’s close friend (de Young Museum); and from Texas, collages and Merzbau reconstruction by Stein contemporary Kurt Schwitters (Berkeley Art Museum). The Bay Area also saw myriad spin-off events from these shows, including performances and readings, panels and lectures. Even Woody Allen’s new film, Midnight in Paris, which features a Stein character and her artistic milieu, was in wide release throughout the area. So it was in this context that SFMOMA, Ensemble Parallèle and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts teamed up to produce the legendary opera with libretto by Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts—which has at least a dozen saints and four acts.
I. A Heavenly Act
Music by Luciano Chessa; libretto constructed from Gertrude Stein’s libretto
To put us in a heavenly mood, the opera proper was preceded by an original, shorter curtain raiser, entitled A Heavenly Act. This piece made a charming virtue of necessity: Some years after Stein’s 1946 death, the composer of the Four Saints music (and the collaboration’s de facto impresario), Virgil Thomson, cut his score and Stein’s libretto and re-arranged some of the scenes, with a comparatively slight nod to more conventional narrative. For this recent production, the collaborators shortened the text even further and, in the spirit of Tzara’s Dadaist Poem made with a newspaper and scissors, from the snippets they had cut, they created a text for saints in heaven to overhear spoken on earth.
The effect was a fitting tribute to the essence of the early avant-garde era as well as a hilarious, kitschy version of Heaven: Kalup Linzy’s enormous projection screen upstage depicted our “projections” of heaven: angels arranged self-consciously into “hosts,” all in white with exaggeratedly fluffy wings, moving in stroboscopic slow motion as if inhabiting an atmosphere different from ours, dissolving into clouds and re-substantiating, now clapping or praying or looking transported, now looking in compassionate consternation down at the earth (stage), where they could hear a general hum as humans (chorus members), dressed in black like hybrids of nuns/priests and grim reapers gathered purposefully into meaningless rows and simple formations—now a word emerging and falling back into the larger texture of sound, now a phrase standing out or repeating or being swallowed up in creepy merry-go-round or circus music gone sour, or in a gospel solo.
In the original production of Four Saints—a surprise Broadway phenomenon in 1934—the opera’s European saints were played by an all African-American cast, not least because they could sing and dance at the same time due to their church and cabaret backgrounds; it featured a wildly up-to-the-minute cellophane backdrop and Stein’s many inspired challenges to making dramatic “sense.” In this recent original pre-opera video creation, we found our African-American contingent populating Heaven as angels; at the end of the piece, instead of curtain rising or backdrop changing, the entire (black) floor covering pulled forward and spilled dramatically over the front lip of the stage, as if we were traveling through time or space to reach the next (white) piece; and certainly where Stein’s use of “compression, repetition and mystification” are concerned, this piece served to get us in the right—stimulated and perplexed—state of mind for Stein’s libretto.
II. Four Saints in Three Acts
Music by Virgil Thomson; libretto by Gertrude Stein
Stein is known for the “continuous present” of her writing—sentences that repeat with infinitesimal changes, inching forward as if one were looking at a sequence of film frames and had to see yards of them before detecting any real movement. This repetition emphasizes the percussive or incantatory quality of the language rather than its meaning. It is easy to see a connection between Stein’s breaking up of a stage moment into successions of splintered components, and similar impulses in other art disciplines: her phrases accumulate and become action the way Muybridge’s repetitive images add up to motion in photography; thought moves in her pieces the way Duchamp’s nude descends the staircase; Stein’s friend, Carl van Vechten, found a parallel between the sameness in her language and Stravinsky’s interest in similarity—rather than contrast or variety—as a way of achieving an artistic unity. Stein herself suggested that her plays were more like landscape paintings than like conventional stories.
At all events, Stein thought that any saint worth his or her salt would simply sit around: “a martyr does something but a really good saint does nothing and so I wanted to have Four Saints that did nothing and I wrote Four Saints in Three Acts and that was everything.” Stein proposed this impossibly static unfurling “in place of situations.” Her libretto blurs the line even between text to be sung and a stage direction describing the “living picture” or tableau she is after:
Saint Therese seated and not standing half and half of it and not half and half of it seated and not standing surrounded and not seated and not seated and not standing and not surrounded and not surrounded and not not not seated not seated not seated not surrounded not seated and Saint Ignatius standing standing not seated Saint Therese not standing not standing and Saint Ignatius not standing standing surrounded as if in once yesterday. In place of situations.
This summer’s version at YBCA was something of a worthwhile mish-mash, by turns adhering to one version or another of the existing texts, “fixing” it, apologizing for it, and introducing ill-advised and imaginative innovations to it. The program notes described the production in terms that alerted me that I wouldn’t actually get to see Stein’s opera after all: it was an “installation,” it aimed for “the vanguard spirit of the original” and, contrary to Stein’s entire aesthetic, it “unfolded in iconic scenes of moral decision-making”—in other words, in a sequence of situations (!) animated by the kind of choice-making that activated the ancient Greek dramas, taking us sadly out of Stein territory.
Nevertheless, Thomson’s music for the opera was atonally exciting and witty enough—and gorgeously played under Nicole Paiement’s inspired baton—and this was not the first production of a Stein piece done by people who didn’t really like what she’d written, and who used it as a starting (and marketing) point for pursuing their own plans. In spite of this questionable impetus, and although I would rather have seen a production much more like the original, this team soldiered on and made a theatrical event that—in its own, markedly un-Stein-like way—was nearly kooky and puzzling enough to earn using the name of Stein.
Unofficial Rehearsal Footage
Stein’s entire libretto consists of St. Teresa and St. Ignatius seen in their respective religious settings, surrounded by their followers and visiting each other; there are vague mystical experiences and visions, punctuated by a picnic with a telescope for viewing Heaven, and a Spanish dance. For YBCA, director-designer Brian Staufenbiel chose to “explore some of society’s irrational views regarding life and death and the contradictions that surround murder and our concept of justice.” As a result, St. Ignatius appeared giving St. Teresa an intravenous drip; he performed surgery on a medical school dummy; he was arrested, tried, convicted and electrocuted. These scenes gave the audience the fantastic opportunity to see a gleaming IV drip as a literal “medical miracle,” a hilarious chorus of surgical assistants in blue scrubs (pulling their surgical masks down to sing), the famous “pigeons on the grass alas” passage sung while skimming around a courtroom on a desk chair with wheels. But it also meant that the piece ended with a jarringly graphic representation of an electrocution, with its moralizing point about miscarriage of justice, entirely losing sight of The Writer’s Intention and stretching the notion of “collaborating” with the original, loopy libretto quite a bit farther than is fair in my book.
The singers were mostly young and mostly sweet—though their mostly Italianate diction fought with the aggressively plain-speaking “Amurican” style of Stein’s language; there’s really no point in singing Stein’s language if we can’t hear it. Any performers who mugged or tried to get a laugh by looking confused about what they were singing spoiled the effect by setting themselves outside the skewed linguistic world Stein painstakingly achieved. The sets and costumes worked very well to create “places” for things to happen while staying fluid regarding “times”: a white space was accented with performers in primary colors, in highly-stylized costumes from a mixture of periods, all tied together with metal elements—beds, chairs, wheels; racks bearing decorative props whirred silently down from the upstage flies to deliver things or simply to amuse the eye. The large projection at the back brought the pre-show and the show together.
These were complex, imaginative productions—but not Stein’s libretto freed from conventional structures and syntax: instead, the libretto liberato from its moorings as a work of Gertrude Stein’s.
 Lissa Tyler Renaud, (M.A. Directing; Ph.D. Theatre History/Criticism) is director of InterArts Training in California. She has taught acting and voice throughout the U.S., at major theatre institutions throughout Asia, and in Mexico. Recipient of Ford Foundation and National Science Foundations grants, she is an award-winning actress and a recognized director and alignment practitioner. She publishes and lectures widely on the European avant-garde. Her co-edited volume, The Politics of American Actor Training, was published by Routledge (2009; paperback 2011). In 2010 and 2011, she was guest speaker (Theatre History) and master teacher (Directing, Voice and Speech) at the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy in Russia.
Copyright © 2021 Lissa Tyler Renaud
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