A New Gertrude Stein Opera: Chutzpah Rules
By Christian Carey
NEW YORK -- Gertrude Stein is remembered as a highly innovative, idiosyncratic writer who helped to shape early modernism in poems, plays, and such memorable novels as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and The Making of Americans. Her collaboration as librettist with composer Virgil Thomson resulted in two of the 20th century’s most adventurous and critically esteemed operas: Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All. It takes no small amount of chutzpah to make another opera based on her work.
With SIX.TWENTY.OUTRAGEOUS, composer Daniel Thomas Davis and librettist Adam Frank have done just that, adapting three of Gertrude Stein’s plays from the 1910s to serve as the basis for a new piece. Workshopped with American Opera Projects, with the estimable Doug Fitch on board as director and designer, the opera premiered last weekend at Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater. I caught the third, February 11 performance.
Davis’s score is eclectic in design. Like Thomson, he has an affinity for early American hymnody and shape-note spirituals, materials he affectingly evoked. Repetition is omnipresent in Frank’s libretto, and Davis’s responses to it were varied. At its best, his music used minimalism as a
touchstone juxtaposed with Americana tunes. In other places, he seemed to parody minimalism itself, using Philip Glass-style ostinatos to accompany the sewing machine, a grizzled trope that has often been used to critique the genre.