Thursday, February 28, 2008

Our Town: A Steiny Road Way Station

Question: What could be better than meeting people who share your interests and therefore might be happy to know about your book? Answer: Going to a conference that deals with your subject matter AND meeting some of the people who are in your book!

The week of February 25 through March 2, 2008, Catholic University of America hosted “Wilder and Wilder (Thornton, that is…).” The conference, or festival as the university gurus labeled this set of events, focused on Wilder’s Our Town—the drama, film, musical premieres, and, most important to me, the opera written by Ned Rorem and J. D. (Sandy) McClatchy.


Monday February 25, I heard Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s nephew, speak. I was lucky actually, I got to this panel a little late and a professor Lincoln Konkle was comparing Our Town, the play, to Our Town, the opera. Quite an in-depth paper on the subject, which I found interesting, but I suspect the 100 students sitting in the audience thought was utterly boring. Goodness, why do academics always read their papers instead of engaging the audience with bits of their paper and lots of eye contact to see who is yawning and maybe questions to shake the sequestered herd awake or at least keep their fingers off the keypads of their cell phones? Tappan, on the other hand, was a live wire. He got everyone singing “Love and Marriage.” The song was in the television musical of Our Town with Frank Sinatra. How many of those kids actually knew who Frankie was? Well, Tappan asked and there were some. He also showed some posters depicting the U.S. stamp minted in Thornton’s honor and a new book in translation from Germany. He poked some fun at both.


During the question and answer period, I got Tappan to talk a little about Gertrude Stein’s influence on his uncle. He said there were many influences but provided only this example. The minister who marries Emily and George makes these comments ending on the word interesting, which Tappan said, was a nod to Stein who used that word often. Like Stein, Tappan said, Wilder was not being ironic, just matter of fact. Shall we believe that?

“I’ve married two hundred couples in my day. Do I believe in it? I don’t know. I suppose I do. M marries N. Millions of them. The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford—the first rheumatism—the grandchildren—the second rheumatism—the deathbed—the reading of the will—Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”


Also during the Q and A’s, I realized that a woman asking a question was Elise Kirk who wrote American Opera, a book I consulted in writing about what is American opera, an important chapter in my book.

After the panel discussion, she asked me how I defined American opera (of course there is no answer except the one about holding a passport from the United States) and then she turned our conversation to Lori Laitman and The Scarlet Letter, Laitman’s new opera with poet David Mason. Small world since my article on opera origins that includes an interview with Laitman will be published March on Scene4 Magazine.


I also spoke to Tappan Wilder, who turns out to be a fellow Chevy Chaser. I used the bookmark I made when I was in New York recently to introduce myself. I got a chance to ask the moderator professor Grayson Wagstaff if I could offer some of my bookmarks at various events during the week. He thought it was OK as long as I was low key about this. Of course what this meant was that I needed to make more of them.


Nothing can be as easy as the original idea. My husband Jim said I really needed an image on the bookmark and some lines to guide the eye. He wanted to help but he’s wrapped up these days with graduate studies so I asked my artist friend Janice Olson to help me. I had the concept and some public domain images but I lacked the skill to use InDesign, the software that most pros use these days for page layout projects. Here’s what Janice did. Well, I had some of the bookmarks produced in color on shiny white card stock and many more produced in black ink on colored paper. I spent my first book royalty check in making these babies. (Helas, $50 doesn’t go very far but maybe the bookmarks will have legs. Jim said I should sign the back of these bookmarks. Not until someone asks is my position on that.)


Last night, I went back to Catholic University to hear Sandy McClatchy speak with Tappan Wilder about how the Our Town opera came about.
Each had a different version, which didn’t surprise me since Ned Rorem also has his own version. Ned Rorem was suppose to be on this panel, but he called and said he wasn’t feeling up to it and besides the Julliard School of Music would be mounting a production soon. Composer Maurice Saylor, a Catholic University insider, wondered aloud to Janet Peachey (she’s a composer and part-time professor at CUA) and me why Rorem had to throw in that comment about Julliard. “He’s like that,” I said, “besides, he’s not that young though you can’t tell that by what he says.”

McClatchy got his digs in on Rorem too from the stage. Of course they were tempered by McClatchy's great praise for Rorem’s ability to set poetry and know what good poetry is. “I think composers are lazy,” said McClatchy a couple of times. Rorem wanted Our Town written in one act but agreed to make it two after McClatchy insisted. In the world premiere rehearsals, the creative team suddenly realized that the Indiana audience (Our Town premiered at Indiana University) would not be comfortable sitting through a 90-minute first act.” Luckily, McClatchy explained, breaking the first act into two parts required little of Rorem. The break was there all along.


After the panel discussion, six new musical works based on three-minute plays by Thornton Wilder and written by CUA students or staff were premiered.

Michael Oberhauser’s operatic version of Wilder’s Brother Fire was superb! Shh! Don’t tell him that. It might break his concentration—Oberhauser loves to write opera he said when I spoke with him after the performance. He thanked me for my compliments, but I assured him I was not flattering him and I gave him my bookmark so he would know I was more than a casual listener. By the way, Tappan Wilder said Brother Fire, written by Uncle Thornton in 1916 is his earliest work in print. The story involves St. Francis of Assisi getting too intimate with a campfire being tended by a young pyromaniac girl and her mother. The play is pure poetry and it also inspired incidental music from another CUA student who together with director Jason Burke produced an entirely different view of this work. Hats also off to John Diomede for the impressive tonal music that worked well with the text of Brother Fire.

My point here is that a conference like Wilder and Wilder offered me a lot of opportunity to meet people who might appreciate what I have done with The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. If a few of those I talked with buy my book, they will note I have interviewed Ned Rorem, J. D. McClatchy, and one of their prominent professors Andrew Simpson.

They will also see that I discuss the subject what is American opera and hold up Elise Kirk’s book American Opera as a seminal reference. Our Town, the opera and the play, threads through my book. The point is my book is the story they are living.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Getting Collaborative Help Even in New York

The job of promoting your book can be a lonely uphill struggle unless you reach out enthusiastically and offer to help others with their projects. Of course, following your own passions make this exchange genuine.


On February 11 and 12, 2008, I went to New York City to see and review In Circles, the revival of the 1967 musical by the late Reverend Al Carmines. The Judson Memorial Church minister set Gertrude Stein’s A Circular Play: A Play in Circles to a wide range of popular musical forms that included blues, ballads, waltz, you name it. The exuberance of Stein’s words and Carmines’ music is a restorative and joyful experience. I have written two essays about the production, which was lovingly and intelligently directed by John Sowle of Kaliyuga Arts. One of these two essays is currently posted on my arts blog The Dressing and the other will appear in my Steiny Road to Operadom column in the March edition of Scene4 Magazine. The play deserves as much promotion as it can get before it closes February 22, 2008.

Noelle McGrath (Mildred/Gertrude Stein)

The In Circle stools spelled out "Ma Jolie," the title of a cubist painting by Pablo Picasso

Robin Manning (Mabel/Alice B. Toklas)

Although I didn’t go to New York with a clear intention for promoting The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas, I knew that just showing up at a play that was based on Gertrude Stein’s work would be beneficial to me. On the morning of February 12, it suddenly occurred to me that if I had a small card of some sort with the title of my book, the name of my Stein opera, a book jacket quote, and the URL of my blog, I would be able to talk to people about my book and leave them with a way to get more information. Of course this isn’t rocket science, but I have a way of promoting everyone else and missing good opportunities for my own projects.

What I was able to do was make a bookmark and get it copied and cut at FedEx Kinko’s. it probably took a total of one hour’s time though I did have to leave the printed page and come back later to retrieve the bookmarks. Here’s what the bookmark said:
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
by Karren LaLonde Alenier

includes the libretto Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On
to order, visit

“Karren Alenier’s peripatetic The Steiny Road To Operadom is a must read for any librettist, composer, or opera aficionado in search of an inside look at the creation and performance of a contemporary opera.”

Gordon Ostrowski, 
Director of Opera Studies, 
Manhattan School of Music

I used a brightly colored cardstock so people would notice the bookmark. When I got to the Judson Church, I spoke to someone at the front door to see if there would be a place where I could leave a stack of these bookmarks and he sent me right to the director John Sowle. Sowle kindly said go ahead and leave some on the table where they were selling tickets. He could have said no. After all, I was there to review his production, but I believe he knew from email interactions that I love Stein and my calling, first and always, is poet. After the show, I had an opportunity to talk to cast members and others in the audience.


Among those people in the audience was my San Francisco-based friend Hans Gallas. Hans collects memorabilia related to Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. He told me that Ted Sod, book writer of 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, might be attending the show if he could break away from other theater business and that Ted had invited him to mount an exhibition of his Stein-Toklas collection in the lobby of Urban Stages’s theater during the production of 27. While I didn’t know that Ted might appear in the audience, I did know about Ted’s invitation to Hans about exhibiting at his show. I had seen it on the Urban Stages website and, in fact, had asked Ted to help me get my book linked there. I have been following the progress of Ted's collaboration with composer Lisa Koch since March 2007 when we shared a speaking engagement about our musical works at the Mercantile Library Center. A few weeks ago, Ted put me in touch with his theater director and made that happen. So the world of Steinian theater this month has been really generous to me and I recommend that you, Dear Reader, go out and see these shows if you are in or can get to New York City.

Left to right: Hans Gallas, Ted Sod, Paul Boesing (William)


While I was in New York, I visited two other theater friends in my quest to get support for a special event book reading and signing. First I met with Frank Hentschker, Director of Programs at
 The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of 
The CUNY Graduate Center and later with Nancy Rhodes, director of Encompass New Opera Theatre.
While I was waiting for Nancy at a USDA-certified green restaurant called Gusto Grilled Organics, a young man named Ayael gave me a tutorial on what it means to be a green restaurant and how this business, only one month old, was looking to franchise itself.

What I can pass along is that vegan lentil soup was superb and that each night, they make their menu based on what is in the marketplace that day. What brought a smile to my lips was Ayael telling me that he was brought up on all things green in many countries around the world, that he didn’t drive a car so he wouldn’t pollute our planet, and that he had come to Babylon to make a difference. So, of course, I am thinking to myself now how I can channel that idealism into my own quest to make a difference for poetry and contemporary opera. Well, stay tuned, my discussion with Frank and Nancy might have some wider context than just promoting The Steiny Road to Operadom. Like I said, helping others in a larger landscape can mean helping yourself. Maybe this is part of Stein’s offering on circles. What goes around…

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Finding a Model for Your New Book

When an author launches a new book, she or he should be simultaneously looking for a model to follow. Even if the book in question, such as The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas, is unique in the marketplace, there will always be another book whose subject matter intersects with yours. What comes clearly to mind vis-à-vis The Steiny Road is The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. The Rest Is Noise has made the 2007 ten best books list of The New York Times and many other book lists, including Time magazine and

Of course, Ross already had a huge readership as the well respected music critic of The New Yorker and he has an important Internet presence with his blog, now nominated for the 2008 Bloggies award as the best blog about music. It cannot hurt if you, the relatively unknown author, are also writing criticism in the subject area of your book. For example, I went to a memorial service for a fellow traveler recently. (We had been together for two glorious weeks in Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast some years ago besides seeing each other more recently at standup parties at the home of mutual friends.) At this service, which was quite sad since the always vibrant Sarah Francis died quite unexpectedly, I realized the soprano singing the Ave Maria was Claire Kuttler, the same singer who had been featured in the new opera Later the Same Evening: An opera inspired by five paintings of Edward Hopper by composer John Musto and librettist Mark Campbell. After the service, I told Claire how much I believed Sarah would have been pleased that Claire Kuttler had sung in her honor and that I had had her in three separate performances of Later the Same Evening. Looking somewhat shocked, Ms. Kuttler said to me, “Oh my god! You must be the Dresser.” I relate this anecdote not to promote myself as the critic known as the Dresser, but just to say that occasionally a small fish in the large sea of the Internet is occasionally spotted. Now whether those people who read your critical opinions will buy your book is clearly, as it is said (you may groan here), “another kettle of fish.”

On the serious side, I reveled in reading The Rest Is Noise and I refused to write a review of the book until I had read every word of this magnificent tome on a survey of classical music in the Twentieth Century. (My review of The Rest Is Noise is posted on I also went to hear Ross speak about his book and was amused to hear him say that “classical music is alive in some zombie state” and he was doing his best to disprove the notion that classical music is dead. Of course as a poet, I relate to that struggle but mine is about keeping poetry and opera alive. It tickles me that Ross took a picture of that Washington, DC audience, which included me and then he put that photo on his Website. Even an author who is getting so much good press and great book sales is doing the same things I’m doing. Now what I have to do, besides getting lucky enough to get some major press on my book, is figure out how to make a clever book trailer. Ross has one and it’s not bad. Scroll down on this link to the middle of the page to play his book trailer. So study your model and see what you can learn to advance your book. If you can get your model author to read and comment on your book that's even better!