Twenty-Seven: The Gertrude Stein Opera to Premiere in STL

She was an open lesbian in Paris in the 1920s. The salon she shared with her wife was home to many great artists and thinkers of the 20 Century, including Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. She was a Jewish woman that survived two World Wars. Her name was Gertrude Stein.

This amazing figure of 20 Century art and literature contributed volumes to society. If you’re unfamiliar with Gertrude’s story, have no fear! The opera Twenty-Seven premieres at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June.

Twenty-Seven is the brainchild of composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek. The opera tells the story of Gertrude and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, and their rich life of art and literature in 1920s Paris. The salon soon became a Saturday destination spot – a who’s-who of influential 20 century artists.

Stephanie Blythe will portray Stein, with Elizabeth Futral portraying Alice B. Toklas.

Born in San Francisco in 1874, Stein moved to Paris in 1903 and lived with her brother Leo at 27 Rue de Fleurus, the eponymous salon where Stein and Toklas invited great artistic minds of the era.

“I loved that these two women kind of lived on their own terms and had this beautiful world that circled around them,” Vavrek explains. “Even more special was that they invited all these marvelous thinkers and artists into their circle. If only our lives were populated by such colorful people.”

“When the Saturday night salon started at 27 Rue de Fleurus, you suddenly have this address that has become world renowned,” Gordon explains. “Everyone in the world who is interesting or doing anything that should be spoken about wants to go to Gertrude Stein and Alice’s salon.”

For Gordon, this opera sprung from an idea that had been hiding in his subconscious for years. You might even say there was a higher power involved.

“I got a call from Jim Robinson at Opera St. Louis, and he told me he wanted to commission me to write a piece for Stephanie Blythe,” Gordon recalls. “I said, immediately and without pause, ‘Gertrude Stein.’ Always inside of me was this sort of knowing that I would one day write a piece about Gertrude Stein.”

Eager to avoid creating another opera about Stein’s body of work, Gordon asked Vavrek to create a piece that wasn’t about Gertrude as a writer, but about Gertrude as a person. Vavrek had to dig deep into exactly who this woman was.

“There’s a woman behind Gertrude’s writing that is bigger than just the legacy she left behind through her work and patronage of the arts,” he explains. “It was my job to really carve out an inner light for Gertrude and that meant there had to be language invented, because the words she put on the page were very much outward expressions.

“I wanted to find the inner light of the woman,” Vavrek continues. “That was of the utmost importance.”

The title Twenty-Seven refers to the salon in Paris, but also has a unique numerology behind it.

“The number 27 is a very powerful number,” Gordon explains. “First of all, in numerology, the number 27 is reduced to nine. The number nine signifies greatness and completion; great art and philanthropy and reflection. It seemed like the perfect title for the show.”

For Gordon, this opera is very personal.

“It was my idea,” he says. “It came to me instantly. There was no question about what we needed to write for Stephanie [Blythe]. Royce really rose to the challenge.

“One of my best friends in the world is Elizabeth Futral,” Gordon continues. “It was very moving to get Elizabeth into the piece. I feel really excited about the relationship that her and Stephanie and create onstage together.”

“Ricky is a ferociously theatrical composer,” Vavrek says. “I tried to imbue the libretto with as much light and color as I could. I believe he’s written one of his finest – if not his finest – scores.

“I hope that people will come and see something that feels alive and vibrant and colorful and vital,” he concludes.

“The audience can expect a really entertaining piece,” Gordon explains. “It’s very fun and entertaining. It’s sort of short, fun, entertaining and it’s like going to a delicious movie.”

- The Vital Voice, June 2014