Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Epiphanies of Celebrating Four Saints in Three Acts

Having given herself nearly one month to reflect on the outcomes of celebrating the 75th anniversary of Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, the Steiny Road Poet is still basking in the energy of the over-capacity crowd that showed up at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Elebash Recital Hall to experience Encompass New Opera Theatre’s concert version of the experimental opera that still puzzles and delights. Who would have thought that in only a year’s time, a celebration of such magnitude could successfully come together? The celebration included:
• A film screening—Steven Watson’s Prepare for Saints based on his book Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism.
• Five talks done by a cubistic set of esteemed speakers—a cultural historian (Watson), a poet-librettist (Karren Alenier), a composer-orchestral arranger (Charles Fussell), an American art historian (Wanda Corn), and a theater director who was mentored by Virgil Thomson (Nancy Rhodes).
• A culminating panel that included all of the speakers and composer Scott Wheeler who was a student of Virgil Thomson.
• An exhibition of Stein memorabilia from the collection of Hans Gallas.
• A video film interview by Steven Watson of Virgil Thomson.
• Book selling of selected titles by Bluestockings Bookstore.
• Production of Four Saints that included a cast of 24 performers and an orchestra of 16 musicians.
• A post-production talk back that included the stage and music directors, two singers from the cast, the cultural historian who documented Four Saints, and two composer who had worked closely with Virgil Thomson.
• Special guest David Vaughan, the biographer of Frederick Ashton, the choreographer of the original Four Saints production.
• A modest wine reception.
Financial support from two major organizations—City University New York (thanks to the sponsorship of Dr. Frank Hentschker, Director of Programs at the Martin E. Segal Center of The CUNY Graduate Center) and the Virgil Thomson Foundation (thanks to the sponshorship by the Foundation’s Board member Charles Fussell)—and many private individuals.
• Advance publicity from The New York Times by a senior music critic.


What was the role of the Steiny Road Poet? Besides serving as the accidental catalyst that started the celebration ball rolling, she was responsible for suggesting and enlisting the cooperation of most of the principal participants, including Nancy Rhodes who became a significant partner in developing the daylong festival. The Poet also coordinated:
the details of the afternoon program, such as
• The order of the speakers.
• How long they would speak.
• Who would introduce them.
• How the Q&A period would proceed.
• When the speakers needed to show up.
• What information they needed to be successful.

Additionally, she
• Kept in contact with the speakers.
• Collected their bios.
• Prepared their introductions.
• Made sure Hans Gallas stayed connected to the CUNY staff who would provide the locked display cabinets.
• Interfaced with the CUNY staff such as Jan Stenzel and Siobhan Glennon who prepared the publicity and the program brochure.
• Lobbied for a small reception after the event.
• Reassured the director when her job load seemed unappreciated and too heavy to bear.

Thank you, Frank Hentschker! The Poet considered the libations and the NY Times publicity divine intervention.


If there could have been one element that could have turned out better, it was getting a little more support for the audio-visual presentation of two slide shows (the bottom lines of the Poet’s slides were not seen because of last minute change of software needed for the art slide show by Wanda Corn and Professor Corn’s slides were somewhat distorted.) Nonetheless, the auditorium was 60 to 70 percent filled for most of the speaking sessions and only one person (who was unable to get back into the auditorium for the opera performance) complained about some of the talks not meeting his expectations.

Someone—was that you, Roger Cunningham of Encompass New Opera Theatre?—decided on the fly to give departing audience members The Steiny Road to Operadom bookmark as an entrance ticket to the evening performance. While not many books were sold, surely among those audience members carrying the Poet’s bookmark were potential future buyers. This was another little glitch in the management of the event. Not everyone who attended the afternoon session was able to identify him- or herself and therefore didn’t get into the auditorium for the evening program. The Poet rescued a woman with a cane whom she encountered in the restroom. The woman lacked a bookmark, but had been in the afternoon sessions and so the Poet walked her around the crowd into the auditorium and felt darn good for doing that.


One regret was that the Poet was unable to get to New York for the dress rehearsal, which would have been the right time for photo ops. Oh, to capture the eyes of Eve Gigliotti as as the Commère, Laura Choi Stuart as Saint Teresa, and Roland Burks as Saint Ignatius. However, there were videographers enlisted by Steven Watson to shoot archival footage. The Poet hasn’t heard anything yet about this, but expects to see it at some point in the near future. The Poet said all along this celebration would go down in the history of American opera as a significant event and the archival footage should ensure that. And yes, the Poet asked for a closed circuit monitor for the exhibition hall in case there was an overwhelming crowd with a battering ram. As it was, dear beleaguered Dr. Hentshker had to schlep an old monitor from his home so that the singers could see the conducting directions from maestro Mara Waldman.


What kept the Poet calm during this exciting day? She was lucky enough to have shelter from a friend in the neighborhood of the CUNY Graduate Center, a seven-minute walk so she could check on the last minute details in the morning. Ellen Rappaport, a new friend had organized a lunch at Ali Babba’s, the Poet’s favorite Turkish Restaurant, which kept her nourished until the short break between the afternoon and evening events. Then some more of her friends—composer Janet Peachey, poet-librettist Nathalie Anderson, dramaturg Maxine Kern—joined her at the CUNY Graduate Center’s café while she ate a little vegetarian fare (okra stew and rice, yum!). And after, this time for sure thanks to Roger Cunningham, the triumphant Nancy Rhodes, Mara Waldman (Encompass music director), singer Roland Burks (St. Ignatius), Frank Hentschker, Hans Gallas, Steven Watson, his videographers, several people associated with the new music orchestra Ionisation, Norman Carey (director of the CUNY Graduate Center Doctor of Musical Arts performance program and Nadine Carey (she was in the Four Saints chorus and both she and her husband Norman have worked with Nancy Rhodes in the past on Encompass productions) and the Poet all leaned in to toast the production and the events that led up to it at Brendan’s Bar and Grill. More good food eaten there. Armies and performers definitely travel by what goes into the stomach. Good food helps produce good results.

Then with the spirits of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson lighting the way, the Poet, thinking about how a February 2008 production of In Circles, a musical by the late Reverend Al Carmines based on Stein’s A Circular Play: A Play in Circles was the genesis of the Four Saints celebration, walked the few blocks home to her friend’s condo and fell deliriously into bed like a heavy log.