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Encompass New Opera Theater

Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On


Music by William Banfield; Story and Text by Karren Lalonde Alenier

Thalia Theater, Symphony Space, New York City

For one week in June, 2005, Gertrude Stein was on Broadway, just as she always knew she would be and always thought she should be. Thanks to poet Karren Lalonde Alenier, Stein has been dusted off, reinvented, vivified and set to music. And Gertrude would not have chosen anyone else but a poet to do this magic trick for her, because it took a poet to stack the words like sculpture, and although writers try to see everything at once, a poet knows how to keep from visual clutter. The stage demands a poet’s compression, containment and distillation if it is to share its space with music.

The opera which was a 70-minute full-length piece, was the third part of a Stein trilogy produced and directed by Nancy Rhodes. Rhodes is nationally known as an impresario of new American opera. I think this evening was a credit to her. And it did no harm for Alenier’s work to follow the two spectacular pieces preceding it, written by Virgil Thomson and Ned Rorem, respectively. We call that “standing in the gold,” to walk on after such work. But gold has to sparkle in its own right, and sparkle it did, with words handsomely arranged as a cubist artist might do it, and all the better if that artist is a poet.

If one reads the libretto, it appears like Stein herself. Although the words are original,  the writing is an MRI of Stein, presenting the character while – at the same time -creating a new consciousness right before our eyes. The work comes from a clear love for the historicity of Stein and a mischievous wish to adorn eccentricity with high style.

William Banfield is the composer who set the jazz score brilliantly for conductor John Yaffe’s direction. It was the right sound for the right events. And we feel time pass through the early part of the 20th century with beautiful syncopation and a true musical intelligence and rich heart. The cast was superb in executing Banfield’s wishes.

Especially interesting in the overall text is Alenier’s focus on Gertrude’s conflict with  brother Leo. To my knowledge this is new territory for stage and it served as the central matrix for a musical departure highly imagined.

The costumes, and set design were whimsical, funny, sweet, and wild. Let us hope the piece sees many more stages, but I think Gertrude will always love this show on Broadway best.

Grace Cavalieri, producer “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress”

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