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Gertrude Stein’s ‘Four Saints in Three Acts’ Achieves a Good Afterlife

'Four Saints in Three Acts'

Florine Stettheimer’s set for Act I of the 1934 production of “Four Saints in Three Acts.” Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Photo by Harold Swahn.

Gertrude Stein is hot this cold San Francisco summer. Besides being featured in two major art shows, where works collected by Stein and her family in Paris during the early days of the 20th century are on display, an avant garde opera written by Stein and composer Virgil Thompson is set to open on Thursday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Virgil Thomson and Gertrude SteinStein — famous for a number of things, including writing “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” — grew up in Oakland, Calif. She moved to France at a time when the painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were starting their careers. The art and music scene was flourishing, and Stein was a catalyst in bringing modern art to the world’s attention. But she wanted to be more than a collector and a hostess in a popular Paris salon. She wanted to create art and be regarded as an important artist herself.

In 1926, Stein was invited by a young, little-known composer, Thompson, to work with him on an opera. (Photo at right) He asked her to write the libretto for what would become “Four Saints in Three Acts.” It took seven years before the project came to fruition, not in Paris where it was begun, but in Hartford, Conn., in 1934, in a basement theater. What made the show shocking and “modern” in those days was that the entire cast was black. The opera quickly moved to New York, where it played on Broadway for 70 performances — a long, successful run in the ’30s, especially for an opera.

In San Francisco, I attended a rehearsal the other day for the new production of “Four Saints in Three Acts.” This time, most of the cast is not black. That was a device Stein and Thompson used 70 years ago to shock people and appear avant garde; today nobody would be shocked, I was told.

Stein, who was Jewish and gay, was obsessed by the Catholic Church’s saints and filled her opera with them — not just the four of the title, but dozens. The idea seems to be that artists’ total commitment to art is comparable to sainthood. And as for the “three acts,” one quickly loses that idea, as an operatic announcer keeps proclaiming new acts and scenes. It’s almost a joke. And like much of Stein’s complex writing, the opera singers repeat phrases and names, including the word “saint.” It’s as though the cubism of Picasso were translated to the written (or sung) page. It takes a little getting used to.

There’s humor as well. As one character is about to be electrocuted, the chorus breaks into “One, two, three, four, five, six seven, all good children go to heaven.” At the rehearsal, the director told the cast to tone it down: “We don’t want to be too bouncy when we’re electrocuting.”

The opera is produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose associate curator, Frank Smigiel, admits that Stein’s libretto is “concerned more with the sound of words than with plot.”

On opening night in 1934, the governor of Connecticut commented: “Well, you can’t read the damn stuff, but you certainly can sing it.” The story — if you can call it that — follows the saints as they recall their lives on earth and enjoy a heavenly lawn party.

Thompson’s score is simple and easy to listen to, a little dissonant here and there, frequently even melodic. “Four Saints” is an all-American show, even though it was conceived in Paris by ex-pats. It’s said to be inspired by jazz, gospel and folk music. The music has been supplemented by composer Luciano Chessa, who has put new music to some of Stein’s words that were cut from the original production. The curtain raiser for the opera is an entirely new piece titled “A Heavenly Act.” And video performance artist Kalup Linzy, who’s known for satirizing soap opera culture, is featured in the cast.

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I saw an hour-and-a-half rehearsal, but it wasn’t enough to get the total effect of “Four Saints in Three Acts.” I’m waiting for the full Monty, with costumes, video and dialogue as only Stein could write it, and as only the current crew could reshape it. The piece will certainly be a curiosity and maybe more than that: a 1934 relic made modern once again with video projections and other contemporary effects, both visual and musical.

The opera runs Aug. 18-21 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts‘ Novellus Theater in San Francisco. The Steins Collect exhibit is at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, and another exhibition about Stein’s life is at the Jewish Contemporary Museum in San Francisco, until Sept. 6.

Photo above: Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein look over the score for “Four Saints in Three Acts,” ca. 1929. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library. Photo by Mabel Therese Bonney.