'27' brings Gertrude Stein to life in five short acts

When it comes to new works, Opera Theatre of St. Louis is a leader of the pack.

On Saturday night, OTSL will open “27,” by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek. It’s the company’s 24th world premiere in its 39 seasons, including children’s productions.

That’s a major commitment to contemporary music theater. It’s particularly impressive when you remember that OTSL does just four mainstage productions each year. (When no world premiere is scheduled, the company usually offers an American premiere.)

“27” — the title refers to the address of a certain celebrated salon in Paris, 27 rue de Fleurus — is the second in the company’s “New Works, Bold Voices” series of commissions, after last year’s hit, “Champion.” Excerpts from the score sung at the “Spotlight on Opera” session last month were tuneful and memorable.

Written for the internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, its focus is on the lives and love of Gertrude “Rose is a rose is a rose” Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, and their relationships with leading painters and writers: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway and others.

FIXTURES IN THE AVANT-GARDE

Gertrude Stein was born in 1874 and moved to Paris with her brother, Leo, in 1903. She stayed there for the rest of her life.

Stein made herself into a literary force. Her writing is frequently obscure but sometimes striking; she popularized (and may have coined) the phrase “The Lost Generation” for the artists who flocked to Paris after World War I and created a style that’s been described as literary cubism, influenced by the paintings she bought and the painters she patronized.

She lived with Leo on the West Bank, at 27 rue de Fleurus; although they later parted rancorously, in 1914, she stayed in the apartment with both her share of the art collection they’d built and Toklas.

Stein met Toklas, a short, slight native of San Francisco, on the latter’s first day in Paris in 1907. Alice moved in with the Steins in 1910. She was, in the words of Vavrek’s libretto, “the wife/The wife who deals with wives/The wife who cleans the dirty dishes/Who washes the laundry/Who peels the carrots/Who does all her dirty work/Pruning wilted blossoms of her rotten friendships...”

Their salons were held on Saturday evenings, and attracted the best, the brightest and the wannabes; Gertrude conversed with the men, while Alice entertained the wives and mistresses. A century ago, Stein and Toklas were an established couple in Paris, open and out in a way that is only now becoming accepted for gays and lesbians in this country. (Stein’s writing about their sex life was more veiled, but she is credited with writing one of the first stories using “gay” for same-sex relationships.)

Toklas is known for, among other things, the hashish fudge recipe in her cookbook. She and Stein have, in a way, already been characters in another opera. Stein wrote two librettos for composer Virgil Thomson, “Four Saints in Three Acts,” and “The Mother of Us All.” “Mother” is ostensibly about Susan B. Anthony and the fight for women’s suffrage. In reality, it’s largely about Stein, Toklas and their friends.

“27” deals with all that, and with a darker side of their lives: How, as Jews, they survived World War II in France.

Stein died of cancer in 1946. Toklas lived, impoverished, for 20 more years; she converted to Roman Catholicism because that seemed to be her best chance of reuniting with Stein in the next life. She was buried next to Stein, but ever self-effacing, she ordered that her name be engraved on the back of the tombstone, so that she wouldn’t draw attention away from Gertrude.

BIRTH OF AN OPERA

General director Timothy O’Leary notes that this is “our second world premiere in a row by a great composer,” after Terence Blanchard for “Champion.” “The timing is exciting. Ricky Ian Gordon and the work he’s been producing lately have really been resonating.” Gordon’s opera “A Coffin in Egypt,” written for mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, has its East Coast premiere at Opera Philadelphia this weekend, and he has more major works in the pipeline.

“We asked Stephanie if she’d be interested in coming and doing something for us,” artistic director James Robinson says. “She said yes, but she had to look far ahead into her schedule to see when she’d have time. We weren’t sure what the piece would be. So we said, ‘What if we just write a piece for you? Has anyone ever done that for you?’ The answer was no; there had been songs, but no operas.”

Blythe recommended commissioning Gordon, known for his melodic gifts and understanding of the voice, to write the opera. Robinson suggested the notorious Norwegian-American serial killer Belle Gunness (born 1858-absconded 1908) as a subject, but the team concluded that she was best forgotten. They turned to the unforgettable figure of Gertrude Stein.

“I’ve wanted to come to St. Louis for a long time,” Blythe says. “At some point we talked about a one-woman show; then we decided to have more than one character. I didn’t need to have a lot of input into it. We had a lot of wonderful conversations about what I was looking for and what they were looking for, and that was that.”

Librettist Royce Vavrek had approached Gordon, asking to work with him; when Gordon encountered what he calls a “blip” with the first librettist he asked, “I called him and said ‘I need you to read 15 books and write a libretto in one month,’ and Royce said yes. I told him it was for Stephanie, and that I had an idea that the paintings would sing. I didn’t want to whitewash her. There should be something about their staying safe” during the German occupation in World War II.

“I knew very little about Gertrude Stein before this,” says Vavrek. He read “voraciously,” starting with Stein’s “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” and “Charmed Circle” and moving out from there. “I had about two weeks to ingest all that, before starting to write.” He finished in six weeks.

FIVE SHORT ACTS

The opera, although advertised as having a prologue and five acts, runs just 90 minutes, with no intermission. Those are very brief acts, “designed to move through a sort of riotous frenetic world into something that becomes quite poignant,” O’Leary says. Three men — tenor Theo Lebow, baritone Tobias Greenhalgh and bass-baritone Daniel Brevik — take on a crowd of other roles, including artists, writers, soldiers and wives.

It’s got a top-notch conductor of new works in Michael Christie, a veteran of other contemporary operas at OTSL. Robinson directs.

Blythe says that she’s “very, very happy with it. It’s a beautiful piece; the libretto is stunning, for one thing. It gives you the flavor of Stein’s writing, which is wonderful; it’s rhythmic; and the music is stunning. Ricky is a composer for vocal music, a very good man to do that.”

The music, she says, “is extraordinarily beautiful. It’s fun to sing; and there are moments musically where your breath is taken away, with really terrific moments of what I call ‘arrival.’ (Gordon) truly paints a portrait with this piece.”

Although the singer, always a powerful performer on stage, portrays a well-known individual, “none of us are doing an impersonation of these characters. I’m not interested in doing an impersonation, and I don’t think that’s what the role calls for. I think that what you see in this piece is more a sense of Gertrude’s inner life and their life as a couple. I think it’s the most beautiful (reading) of a couple I’ve ever seen in opera, full stop.”

FINDING HER MATCH

Soprano Elizabeth Futral plays Toklas. Futral, whose OTSL debut was in 1991 in “Ariadne auf Naxos,” is a noted actress as well as singer. “She has tremendous charisma as a performer,” O’Leary observes, “which you need for Alice’s force of personality. With a performer like Stephanie Blythe on stage, we realized we would need somebody who could be a match.”

Futral has built her career singing both glamorous coloratura roles and modern works, including Stella in André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” She’s known Gordon since the early 1990s, and has been singing his music ever since. She first worked with Robinson and Blythe in a production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar.”

“I love Alice,” Futral says. “I think I identify most with her love for her mate, her desire to be helpful and to be useful and to support and encourage.

“The thing that strikes me about this piece and about these people is the universality of their relationship: the ways they relate to each other, their emotion, their survival. All of these things resonate with everyone; they are universal stories and emotions. The music is lovely.

- Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8 June 2014