This Day In Literary History
On February 8th, 1934, Four Saints in Three Acts, the famous avant-garde opera with a libretto by legendary American writer Gertrude Stein, premiered at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The music was written by the great American composer, Virgil Thomson.
Stein had written the libretto in 1929. Critics and her fellow literati were skeptical. They believed that opera was too traditional a form for an innovative, avant-garde writer like Gertrude Stein, whose classic book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, had been published the previous year and become a huge hit.
Nonetheless, Stein wrote the libretto, and her close friend, composer Virgil Thomson, wrote the music. It would be almost five years before the opera made its debut. The premiere was a huge event. Stein herself did not attend the Hartford premiere, but did see the opera when it debuted in Chicago months later. She enjoyed it greatly.
In addition to regular opera goers who were also skeptical but hopeful that the show would be entertaining, the premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts was also attended by the literati and glitterati of the day.
Legendary inventor and architect Buckminster Fuller drove a carload of friends to the opera, including Clare Booth Luce, Dorothy Hale, and Isamu Noguchi, in his Dymaxion - a huge bubble-shaped, three-wheeled vehicle that could seat eleven passengers and get 30 miles per gallon of gas.
Although an obscure work today, Four Saints in Three Acts proved to be a breakthrough avant-garde opera - a sensation in its time. Unlike most operas, Gertrude Stein's libretto eschewed plot in favor of poetry and surrealism.
It focused on the lives of two real 16th century Spanish saints (St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Teresa of Avila) and some imagined saints. Composer Virgil Thomson came up with the idea of having St. Teresa played by two different singers - a female soprano and a male contralto.
Thomson also added a couple of characters - the Compère and Commère, a master and mistress of ceremonies who sing out Stein's stage directions. The first act takes place inside the Avila cathedral. The second act involves an ethereal mansion seen through a telescope.
Act three features a picnic where St. Ignatius sings his famous aria, "Pigeons on the grass alas." The act climaxes in a tangoesque ballet. Although the title states that the opera contains only three acts, it actually has a brief fourth act set in a monastery garden. Before the curtain falls, the Compère announces that this was the last act, to which the chorus replies, "Which is a fact."
In addition to its poetry and surrealism, Four Saints in Three Acts was also a breakthrough opera in that it was performed by an all-black cast, the singers directed by legendary choral director Eva Jessye, who was an influential fixture of the Harlem Renaissance and the first black woman to receive international recognition as a choral director.
The costumes were designed by avant-garde artist Florine Stettheimer - who chose to wrap the cast in cellophane, which had just been invented. Stettheimer also designed the sets, which included cellophane backdrops.
The Hartford premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts was directed by the legendary producer-director-actor John Houseman, who would later collaborate with a young Orson Welles on several memorable productions for the Federal Theatre Project division of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the Great Depression.
Quote Of The Day
“A writer must always try to have a philosophy and he should also have a psychology and a philology and many other things. Without a philosophy and a psychology and all these various other things he is not really worthy of being called a writer.” - Gertrude Stein
Today's video features a clip from a performance of the classic avant-garde opera Four Saints in Three Acts. Enjoy!