Opera preview: Pittsburgh Opera reconstructs Stein's salon with '27'
February 18, 2016 12:00 AM
From left, Adelaide Boedecker, as Alice B. Toklas and Laurel Semerdjian, as Gertrude Stein in Pittsburgh Opera's production of "27."
Gertrude Stein, left, and Alice B. Toklas shortly after Allied troops liberated their home in France in September, 1944.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It started with a cold.
Ricky Ian Gordon had never encountered the world of Gertrude Stein until he came down with a bug that left him bedridden as a student at Carnegie Mellon University.
“I picked up this book called ‘Charmed Circle,’ and I read it for the whole time I was lying in bed sick, and I was smitten,” the composer said. “It was like reading my fantasy about what living in the world was supposed to be.”
Pittsburgh Opera’s “27”
Where: Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District.
Tickets: $40-$42, www.pittsburghopera.org or 412-456-6666.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek will give a pre-opera talk hosted by Pittsburgh Opera general director Christopher Hahn. They will also greet audience members at a reception following the opening-night performance, along with members of the cast and crew.
So he caught a different kind of bug: a lifelong appreciation for Stein (1874-1946), the writer who was born in Allegheny City — now known as Pittsburgh’s North Side — and lived with her partner, Alice B. Toklas, among Europe’s elite at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris.
The couple’s Parisian salons served as the inspiration for “27,” the opera by Mr. Gordon and librettist Royce Vavrek opening Saturday at Pittsburgh Opera’s headquarters in the Strip District. Pittsburgh Opera resident artists will present just the second production of this work, which premiered in 2014.
Mr. Gordon, 59, has become one of CMU’s most significant music alumni — despite never, technically, graduating from there. With a musical language that alludes to cabaret and popular idioms, Mr. Gordon has become one of the most successful theater composers of the 21st century. His opera “The Grapes of Wrath,” based on John Steinbeck’s novel, was produced by Pittsburgh Opera in 2008, and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh staged his “Orpheus and Euridice” in Allegheny Cemetery three years later.
Mr. Gordon studied piano, composition and acting at CMU, and while he experimented with substances and made plenty of mistakes, he also found himself during his time in Pittsburgh.
“People ask me what I majored in at Carnegie Mellon, and I always say drugs and alcohol,” he quipped. “The truth is, I became who I was supposed to be when I was at Carnegie Mellon.”
He also was able to construct his own version of Stein’s world, collecting art made by his peers and creating a salon-like atmosphere (not counting, perhaps, the time he lived in a rat-infested house on Ellsworth Avenue). For one year, he resided in a carriage house in Shadyside whose owners rented the space to young artists on the cheap.
“It was like I had a little salon,” he said. “I painted the walls eggshell blue, robin’s egg blue, and I had bookcases built, and oh, it was just a beautiful place.”
Stein’s salons, rather than her writings, serve as the inspiration for “27,” which received its world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe in the lead role. The story follows Stein and Toklas’ partnership as they welcome Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway and others into their home and weather the two wars decimating the world around them. Stein’s oeuvre included opera libretti, but her personal story was the main source material for the opera.
“The universe of her writing was not exactly what I wanted to write. I wanted to show her life, her relationship with Alice, her relationship with painters,” said Mr. Gordon, who lives in New York. “I wanted to create the salon.”
Tasked with reimagining the salon was Mr. Vavrek, who, at 32, has become opera’s “it” librettist, having worked with composers such as David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli.
“Royce really gets the collaboration. He gets the scale of how much the music should say and how much the words should say,” Mr. Gordon said. “He knows how to write economically, and already, before we’re even talking about content, economy is paramount in terms of libretto writing.”
Mr. Vavrek met Mr. Gordon in 2012 and told the composer he’d do anything to work with him. When the original librettist for “27” had to back out late in the process, Mr. Vavrek got the call.
The only snag? Mr. Vavrek had less than two months to read about 10 or 15 books and write the libretto.
“It was such a remarkable and amazing roller coaster ride of a six-week period,” Mr. Vavrek said. “But it was scary, the notion of tackling a writer I barely knew.”
And Stein’s writing isn’t exactly beach reading. Working with a dramaturg throughout the process, Mr. Vavrek had to “burrow” himself in the work, reading texts by and about Stein, from museum catalogs to the novel “The Making of Americans.” The most important text turned out to be “Charmed Circle,” the same biography that had sparked Mr. Gordon at CMU.
While the opera doesn’t have an intermission, he divided it into a prologue and five acts, which allowed him to place his research on Stein into different buckets.
“There’s something Steinian about that,” said the librettist, who grew up on a farm in Canada and lives in Brooklyn. “There’s something iconoclastic about something that should be so epic but in miniature form, a whole life told in 90 minutes with five people on stage.”
The black box-like space at Pittsburgh Opera’s headquarters serves as the couple’s salon, and the production uses a reduction of the score for two pianos.
“There is something about a piece that takes place in an apartment building with a tiny salon, and here you have a two-piano reduction and you’re walking into that salon,” Mr. Vavrek said. “You’re walking into that immersive, perfect idea.”
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.
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