The creation of Four Saints in Three Acts

6 Sep 2016

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In 1925 Virgil Thomson moved to Paris from Kansas City, Missouri. Gertrude Stein, the modernist poet and playwright, had been living in France then for over twenty years. Thomson met her first when another expatriate American asked him to tag along on a visit ‘for intellectual protection’. In fact Thomson and Stein hit it off  and their friendship lasted until her death.

Before long Thomson began setting Stein’s verse to music. His theory was that if the text was set correctly according to the sound of the words, the meaning would take care of itself. With Stein’s meanings so abstracted, multifarious, or indeed absent, her poetry was the ideal match.

Their collaboration met mixed reviews. Literary critics pronounced the music lovely but the poetry absurd, while the music world judged Stein’s words to be great literature but Thomson’s music infantile!

Undeterred, the two discussed an opera. By early 1927, having rejected the subject of George Washington, they hit on the idea of an opera set in Spain about late 18th century saints. Four Saints in Three Acts was always just a title; there are actually more than thirty saints in four acts. The opera’s underlying idea seems to be that an artist’s total commitment to art is comparable to sainthood – though The New York Times thought it was ‘about nothing in particular’.

Famously, Thomson set Stein’s every word from beginning to end. This included the stage directions, which he considered part of the poetic continuity. Stein told him he was free to repeat passages if he wished, but he declined the invitation. He wrote: ‘She was a specialist of repetition. Who was I to compete?’

The first two acts were ready by February 1928. To finish the rest, Thomson moved to a village in Spain, which he found very grand, ‘much like Texas’. Helpfully, Stein had persuaded a Chicago millionairess to give him a thousand dollars to support himself while he finished the work.

The opera was complete by July 1928. In view of the closeness of their collaboration and the importance given to the text in the score, Thomson offered Stein a 50-50 split of all profits. In his cocksure way he took it for granted that profits there would be. 

Next came the job of finding someone to stage the piece. He got a bite from the opera house in Darmstadt for a possible production in German but it came to nothing. Perhaps it was just as well; translating Stein’s elliptical verse might have proved a problem.

Returning to America, Thomson did the rounds, playing and singing the opera himself in various salons. The guests were chosen for their possible usefulness in publishing or producing the opera, or at least spreading the word about it.

Finally, in 1933, Thomson enlisted enough friends and supporters to finance the first staging. Special credit went to an avant-garde group, ‘The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music’. While most of Thomson’s friends contributed, none of Gertrude Stein’s did.

With the production underway, Thomson had second thoughts about the royalties and tried to revert to the normal arrangement of two thirds to the composer and one third to the librettist. Unsurprisingly, Stein refused.

Thomson forged ahead with staging the opera, rejecting Stein’s offer to have her pal Picasso design the production. Instead, the costumes and sets were entrusted to Florine Stettheimer, a wealthy Bohemian artist now remembered for little else. Stettheimer produced silver, blue and red costumes in silk and taffeta. The sets featured trees made out of feathers, a pair of orange lions and backdrops of cellophane.          

One feature of the staging that was considered revolutionary for 1930s America was that it had an all African American cast. It was a device intended to shock and get attention given the attitudes of the time.

The opera premiered in Hartford, Connecticut on 7 February 1934 and was a huge success. Luminaries such as Aaron Copland, Gershwin and Toscanini were full of praise and the audience cheered itself hoarse. The governor of Connecticut remarked wryly on Stein’s poetry: ‘Well, you can’t read the damn stuff, but you certainly can sing it.’

Two weeks later the opera transferred to New York where the fire department insisted the cellophane stage props be sprayed with fire retardant. This made the pink palm trees sag, so as soon as the inspectors left, everything was washed and ironed to make it shipshape again.

Four Saints later moved to Chicago to similar acclaim. Gertrude Stein, arriving in America for a lecture tour, flew from New York to Chicago to see it. Still deaf from her first aeroplane flight and wishing to hear her own words, she moved from the seat of honour in a box into the stalls.

The total run was 70 performances, unheard-of for an opera. Thomson was lionised and the American Opera Society awarded him a medal, which he promply gave to his teenage niece.

The production was revived in 1952 (by which time cellophane had been absolutely banned from the New York stage!) and it premiered in Paris the same year. The opera continues to be performed in the US but rarely elsewhere. Victorian Opera’s present production is the Australian premiere.

Written by Michael Challinger

Four Saints in Three Acts was part of Victorian Opera's Season 2016.