Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Summer of Gertrude Stein 4: Rehearsing Four Saints in Three Acts
Every day for the last week I have been surrounded by the music from Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's first opera, "Four Saints in Three Acts," as it is being rehearsed in the small Wattis Theatre at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. To say it has been undiluted joy is something of an understatement.
Two friends who know more about classical music than I do, Patrick Vaz and Sidney Chen, both told me that the opera ranked as one of their all-time favorites which struck me as weird since their musical tastes are so sophisticated and the Thomson score is so dull and simple on the surface, a succession of Southern Baptist and Methodist hymn tunes interspersed with an occasional dance set to Gertrude Stein at her most hermetic.
When conductor Nicole Paiement above was approached about doing the piece with her Ensemble Parallele chamber opera group for SFMOMA, she had a similar reaction. "That piece is so dull," she thought, but after studying and playing with the abridged (by Thomson) score, she has become a fervent convert and is leading a dozen singers through rehearals in a nuanced and outrageously enjoyable rendition of the opera.
It's also fun to watch the composer Luciano Chessa in the house following along at the rehearsals with the Thomson score, usually with a huge grin on his face. Chessa has written a half-hour prologue opera for the evening with video art contributions by Kalup Linzy, and the little I've heard sounds remarkable, with music that ranges in sound from the Ligeti "Requiem" to a hip-hop gospel chorus.
I have no idea how the actual show is going to turn out (click here for tickets), though there are some spectacular plans for staging, but I can confidently state that the music is going to be very special thanks to Ms. Paiement, who has her talented cast sounding better each day. For an interesting, long essay on the opera and this production, click here for Brett Campbell's essay at San Francisco Classical Voice. Janos Gereben at the same site doesn't get the music or Gertrude Stein's writing at all, so he had me write a defense of the opera, which you can get to by clicking here.