Pittsburgh Opera’s ’27’ highlights the life, times of author Gertrude Stein
The image of the lonely creator is rooted in the reality of the days, weeks and even years it takes for artists to do the actual work of making a painting, a novel, or a piece of music.
Yet, many artists are gregarious people who thrive in social encounters. The American writer Gertrude Stein was one. Born in Allegheny, now part of Pittsburgh, she lived most of her life in Paris, where she bought paintings by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and hosted Saturday-evening salons at her home at 27 rue de Fleurus.
Those salons attracted many of the most famous artists of the early 20th century, including writers Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Stein’s famously clipped and unsentimental writing style — “There’s no there there.” — and her avant-garde attitudes, have inspired many musicians and writers.
But it was her lifestyle, her personality and that of her companion Alice B. Toklas, that inspired a new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon, which premiered June 14, 2014, by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of Gordon’s “27” from Feb. 20 through 28 at its headquarters in the Strip District. Pittsburgh Opera presented his “Grapes of Wrath” in November 2008.
Gordon is a successful composer who thrives on vocal music. He was born and raised near New York City, and studied piano, composition and acting at Carnegie Mellon University.
Pittsburgh was where Gordon discovered Stein, while stuck at home with a bad cold or flu.
“When I got sick, I picked up this book called ‘Charmed Circle’ about Gertrude Stein’s salon and her circle. All I could do was eat tangerines and read that book for a week,” he says. “After I read it, I was obsessed with Gertrude Stein to the point that I started buying art at Carnegie Mellon. I thought that Stein’s life was the kind of life I want.
“Even after I left school and came back to New York, I would premiere all my pieces in salons either in my house or other people’s houses.”
Three years ago, Gordon returned to Stein for the subject of a new opera for mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe commissioned by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. But Gordon’s plans for writing “27” were thrown a monkey wrench when the intended librettist missed a final deadline a little more than a year before the scheduled premiere. Fortunately, he turned to Royce Vavrick, who read 15 books by and on Stein and completed the libretto in a month.
“Meeting Royce and writing the piece was a pure joy,” says the composer. “It was one of those pieces that just unfolded. I think it’s because Royce is a theater writer. I loved what he did — basically five acts and a prologue in a one-act format. It’s 90 minutes without an intermission, like a movie.”
Gordon particularly admires the way Royce begins the drama with Toklas alone, after Stein died.
“The Prologue is called ‘Alice Knits the World.’ Lonely and alone, she knits so feverishly that she knits the salon back to life,” he says. “For me, it’s what gets the flame going.”
The opera begins and ends with Toklas alone, but the scenes in between are slices of life she enjoyed with Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus during World War I, between the wars and during and after World War II.
While Vavrick was writing the libretto, Gordon says he was getting his inner life ready for what he wanted “27” to be.
“The piece I was really obsessed with when I was getting ready to write the opera was Verdi’s ‘Falstaff,’ because of the energy,” he says, “but also because it starts as a comic opera but then at a certain point its reach is so elegant and deep that it becomes so much larger than a comic opera.”
Gordon says that one aspect of “27” is about openness to what other people have to offer. But he admits he’s drawn to larger-than-life personalities, who keep life interesting.
“This opera is also about a huge personality and a huge ego,” says Gordon, “and someone who drives themselves on being the eyes and ears that welcome those people in.”
Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].