Thursday, October 23, 2008

Steiny Road Poet on Stage with World-class Singers

How many authors have the privilege of launching their books in New York City with world-class artists? On October 19, 2008, this author shared the stage of the Arthur Seelen Theatre at the Drama Book Shop with Eve Gigliotti and Rosalie Sullivan, the originating singers who helped make the premiere of Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On a success.


Nancy Rhodes and Encompass New Opera Theatre set up the event, hiring, coaching, and directing the singers and pianist Tony Bellomy.
She also worked with Drama Book Shop’s resident children’s theater artistic director to transform the Seelen Theatre from a dark black box to one with color and warmth.

Nancy delivered the introductions and gave background on the connection between the Stein opera, which she helped develop and produce, and The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas, for which she wrote the introduction.
As I explained in my opening remarks, the book is a tribute to the work Nancy does in the field of new opera and was to a large degree inspired by our conversations about the difficulties everyone in the field of opera has in developing, producing and executing new work.


My job as the presenting author for this particular event was to link details from the book to the four numbers Eve and Rosalie would deliver with accompaniment from Tony. My strategy for these musical setups was to consider each intro I made as part of the musical number and to keep the entire talking and singing to five-to-seven-minute segments. Because Nancy and I both agreed that the duet “What a Catch She Is” would be a good final number, the presentation of the entire musical selection was not in the chronological order mapped in the opera.

The Steiny Road book has many themes that I could present that range from my collaboration with Nancy and composer William Banfield, the collaboration between Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, and what it takes to get a new opera on stage in America. What I thought about in constructing my Drama Book Shop talk was what would the audience want to know to make them feel comfortable. So my first thought was what is the Stein opera about? In a few words: an artist dealing with her critics. This covered the first aria by Gertrude who tells who brother Leo I know what I’m doing with my words and I need your support, and it also covers the aria “The Trouble with Arriving” in which Gertrude tells Alice that her American public does not appreciate her serious work and that as an author she needs to take back her name.

With these two arias, I established what the Stein opera was about and introduced the subject of collaboration. This blended easily into the next number sung by Rosalie as Alice: “Me, as Your Secretary.”
In this ballad, Alice describes standing in Gertrude’s shadow, which gave me an opportunity to address the plight of the librettist who is often treated as a second-class citizen in the operatic world. While I understand why the composer gets not only the limelight but also the money—if there is any to be had, I say call me poet and not librettist. For this event, my collaborating composer did not appear, though he had hoped to, and so the audience didn’t get the opportunity to either hear from him on this topic or discuss it with him at the reception.

Thus the situation of pecking order made me realize early in the process that I must travel with my tribe to ensure that I don’t burn any bridges and that I present myself in the best light. This is what Gertrude did in joining forces with Alice. The audience could hear this in their playful and loving duet “What a Catch She Is.”


Besides the emotional poignancy Eve and Rosalie delivered—and sometimes with just one glance, what also made this event memorable was that Nancy’s partner Roger Cunningham made a delicious claret lemonade, an Alice B. Toklas recipe Virgil Thomson gave to them.
I think the secret ingredient lies in the frozen grapes that by the time the thirty-five program had concluded, the grapes had had a chance to chill the punch but yet thaw and be eatable.

In New York, as in any busy city, getting an audience is always a challenge. In attendance were just fewer than 25 people all tallied, but clearly it was a high-quality group networking on next opportunities. Perhaps this event will help Encompass do another production Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On!

To conclude the day's events, my friend Maxine Kern and I went to visit the buddha sculpture of Gertrude Stein in Bryant Park so that we could pay homage to the writer who has given Nancy, Max and me so much inspiration.