Magazine article Artforum International

A Saint Is a Saint Is a Saint Is a Saint: Steven Watson on Four Saints in Three Acts

Magazine article Artforum International

A Saint Is a Saint Is a Saint Is a Saint: Steven Watson on Four Saints in Three Acts

Article excerpt

"STEIN MAN I A" SWEPT OVER SAN FRANCISCO during the summer of 2011, incited by two major exhibitions related to the writer--"The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde," at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories," at the Contemporary Jewish Museum--as well as a new staging of Gertrude Stein's first opera. Four Saints in Three Acts, mounted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (and sponsored by SF MOMA and Ensemble Parallele). I went to San Francisco in August to introduce that production. Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation., and to talk about the work's 1934 debut.

Collaboration among artists is, today, such a common practice in America--and has been for several decades now--that it's easy to forget how rare it was in the early part of the twentieth century. Four Saints, which paired the music of Virgil 'Thomson with a libretto by Stein, was the first large-scale American Gesamtkunstwerk, in the tradition of Wagner and Diaghilev.

Recalling his first meeting with Stein in 1926, Thomson said that the two got along "like two Harvard men," but Alice B. Toklas seemed wary. Knowing that Alice was an accomplished musician and that Gertrude liked seeing her words put to music, Thomson decided to ingratiate himself to both women by setting Stein's poem "Susie Asado." "Gertrude's words don't lack music," he once told me, "but they like music." He delivered his score in person on New Year's Day 1927, the same day Alice gave Gertrude the short haircut for which she would be known ever after. Thomson's relationship with Stein flourished.

A few months later, the composer proposed they write an opera together. Stein wrote, "Collaborators tell how in union there is strength." Collaboration can be a career booster as well as a creative endeavor. In this case, Thomson had clearly hitched himself to someone better known than he. Stein also hoped to benefit. Although she had written dozens of plays, none of them had been produced. Perhaps an opera written with an up-and-coming composer would finally prompt a production.

In 1927, Thomson and Stein decided on saints in Spain for their subject because it evoked Stein's friendships with Picasso and Juan Gris and thus provided a locus of modernism. Stein admired Saint Teresa of Avila as a strong and passionate woman, and she had given Toklas the nickname Therese following their honeymoon visit to Avila m 1912. Once the subject matter was decided, Thomson and Stein operated on their own. Their collaboration was based on independent activity. Thomson didn't step on her words, nor she on his music.


After seven months. Stein delivered to Thomson a huge block of words without paragraphs or narrative. It did not suggest any specific characters, except Saint Teresa and Saint Ignatius. That these saints would never have met was of no importance to Stein. Thomson sat down at his rented piano at 17 quai Voltaire and improvised over and over with the words before him. When he liked the musical result, he wrote down the notes. The only significant alteration he requested from Stein was that he be allowed to add a second Saint Teresa, so there could be duets. She promptly acceded.

On Christmas night 1927, Thomson performed the first act for Gertrude, Alice, and friends, giving them a "hell of a good supper" and accompanying himself on the piano by memory. The evening was thereafter informally called "the Paris production." Within months, the opera was completed, but it would be six years before Four Saints in Three Acts was produced.

During that interregnum. Stein entered into a collaboration with Georges Hugnet that suggests the perils of the collaborative process. Hugnet, a young French poet and publisher of a smart press. Editions de la Montague, had translated excerpts from Stein's massive novel The Making of Americans (1925) into French. …

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