In 1927-28 composer Virgil Thomson teamed up with Gertrude Stein, who had been his friend and mentor since his arrival in Paris in 1925, to create an opera: Four Saints in Three Acts. A success with audiences if not all the critics it broke with many of the traditions of the day: the cast was all African American, the stage directions were sung, and much of Florine Stettheimer’s sets were made of cellophane. Staging was by the young John Houseman, choreography by Frederick Ashton (George Balanchine had turned down the opportunity), and the music was directed by Eva Jessye, a pioneer choral director who was to work with George Gershwin on Porgy and Bess. Though it has been revived (I saw a production in Chicago back in the late ’90s) the work is best remembered today for its oft ridiculed lament: Pigeons on the grass, alas!
Thomson and Stein were to remain friends – with a brief falling out – until her death in 1946.
Just prior to Stein’s death they collaborated one more time on The Mother of Us All, the purported story of one of the pioneers in the fight for women’s suffrage: Susan B. Anthony. However in true Stein style it mixes things up: characters – real and fictional – from different periods in American history orate, debate, pontificate, woo, wed, weep, and reason as Susan B. fights tirelessly for the right of women to vote. Stein wrote no stage directions or offered no story line so Thomson’s partner Maurice Grosser wrote a scenario which seemed to fit the lyrics and music. The whole thing is almost like one big old fashioned historical pageant.
And it was treated as exactly that by director Peter Wood and designer Robert Indiana when it was presented the summer of 1976 at the Santa Fe Opera The opera was a big colourful (being Indiana how could it not be) glorious Fourth of July parade with floats and constant movement – a pageant of Americana and at it’s centre the figure of a tireless fighter for rights.
Being Stein the text is often seems to be just a jumble of words that flow without much apparent sense. However it is an opera I have listened to repeatedly since I first bought the recording of the Santa Fe production back in 1977 and I have realized that Miss Stein did not choose her words randomly or without purpose. No where is that more obvious than in the monologue that ends the work. And the phrase that has always moved me since my first hearing is exquisitely set by Thomson to the simplest of melodies:
Do you know because I tell you so?
Or do you know?
Do you know?
At the time there were complaints that Mignon Dunn was too “operatic” in the part but I have always found her performance – particularly of the final scene – immensely moving and beautifully sung.
The complete portfolio of Robert Indiana’s designs for the production can be found at the McNay Art Museum website as part of their theatre collection. They were the gift of Robert L.B. Tobin and Robert Indiana. They can be found by clicking here.