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Museum Partners with Luciano Chessa, Ensemble Parallèle, Kalup Linzy, and YBCA to Restage 1934 Milestone of Avant-Garde Theater

Released: June 13, 2011 ·

One of the most important alliances in the history of American opera began in Paris in 1927 when the young, little-known composer Virgil Thomson invited fellow expatriate artist Gertrude Stein to write a libretto he could set to music.

Nearly a decade later, back in the United States, the curtains finally rose on Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), an experimental milestone in 20th-century music as well as a Broadway hit in its day. Considered radical for its convention-defying format, Four Saints remains a cornerstone of avant-garde theater—one that brought the zeitgeist of bohemian Paris to America and helped usher modernism into mainstream culture. 

On the occasion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s major exhibition The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Bay Area Now 6 (BAN6), SFMOMA in association with YBCA will present a new production of Stein and Thomson’s opera. The new version, titled Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation, will play at YBCA’s Novellus Theater August 18 through 21, 2011.

SFMOMA’s updated, multimedia-infused restaging aims to reactivate the revolutionary spirit of the Thomson-Stein original while bringing it into the present with a diverse mix of collaborators, including Bay Area-based contemporary chamber opera group Ensemble Parallèle (directed by Brian Staufenbiel and conducted by Nicole Paiement), composer Luciano Chessa, and New York’s much-in-demand video/performance artist Kalup Linzy, perhaps best known for his send-ups of soap opera culture.

Highlighting the vanguard energy at the heart of both The Steins Collect and BAN6, the opera is offered as a lens through which to understand Stein’s appetite for risk and her intellectual engagement with living artists, as well as how circles of artists continue to collaborate to make cutting-edge work today.

“This newly commissioned production of Four Saints explores the rich platform of artistic collaboration that characterized Gertrude Stein’s circle,” says Frank Smigiel, SFMOMA associate curator of public programs, who is spearheading the project. “It also creates an entirely new circle of artists. Chessa brings crucial insight into Thomson’s original score and imaginatively responds to it. Linzy’s sophisticated approach to language and his knowing burlesques of identity politics are a formidable match for Stein’s libretto. And Ensemble Parallèle lends an impressive track record of developing truly contemporary opera.”

In creating the original Four Saints, Thomson and Stein chose the life of the artist as the subject for their opera and embroidered the idea with religious themes, insisting that the artist’s absolute commitment to art is comparable to sainthood. The resulting story supposedly follows two 16th-century saints—Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola (Stein’s favorites)—and a coterie of minor saints as they reminisce about their mortal lives, enjoy a heavenly lawn party, and even dance a tango-inspired ballet.

Stein, who equated her writing style with Cubist painting, delivered in her signature style a libretto concerned more with the sound of words than with plot. In putting Stein’s text into song, Thomson drew on familiar rhythms of vernacular speech, pursuing the duo’s shared interest in forging an authentic American mode. The eccentric stage sets by New York artist Florine Stettheimer consisted primarily of brightly colored cellophane, and the all-black cast—directed by music pioneer Eva Jessye—had been enlisted from Harlem’s cabaret halls and church choirs.

At the opera’s premiere in 1934, the nation’s most notable socialites and bohemian icons crowded into a small basement theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, where, upstairs in the galleries, one of the first exhibitions of Pablo Picasso’s work in the United States was currently on view. Vogue magazine sent a society columnist to cover the glamorous affair and its who’s-who audience, which included poet Wallace Stevens, Isamu Noguchi, Buckminster Fuller, Philip Johnson, and the influential celebutante Dorothy Hale, among others. The opera then quickly moved to Broadway, where it became a widespread sensation as well as a high-art benchmark.

Upscale department stores hurried to incorporate cellophane into their window displays. The memorable line “Pigeons on the grass, alas,” from the centerpiece aria, became a popular phrase. Some critics and audiences hailed Four Saints a masterwork, others a prank. But all agreed on its indisputable newness in pushing the boundaries of art, music, and literature.

Four Saints’ potent legacy remains a lodestone for artists today, including Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Mark Morris, and Maira Kalman, who have all had a hand in revivals over the past few decades. Wilson and Glass in particular have cited Four Saints as a key influence.

SFMOMA’s new production will unfold in two parts. The first—an entirely new piece entitled A Heavenly Act (2011)—is inspired by a later version of the opera Thomson created in the 1950s, in which he trimmed both his score and Stein’s libretto. Responding to this adaptation while restoring some of the excised passages, A Heavenly Act will premiere with this production as a stand-alone curtain-raiser featuring an original score by Chessa and new video and performance elements by Linzy. Following will be a full production of Thomson’s final, 50-minute version of Four Saints from the 1950s. The “terrestrial” saints (live singers) performing Thomson’s original will find themselves anticipated and complemented by their “celestial” counterparts (figured in the video projections) from Chessa and Linzy’s opening piece.

At the time of writing, casting has not been finalized. But it’s rumored that a few of Linzy’s A-list Hollywood cohorts may figure in the videos. Operagoers can also expect a nod to Stein and Thomson’s initial idea that the lives of saints are akin here to those of artists and that in making art, as Thomson has said, one might also hope to make miracles.


SFMOMA in Association with YBCA Presents
Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation
An Ensemble Parallèle production
     Nicole Paiement, conductor/artistic director
     Brian Staufenbiel, director
Music by Virgil Thomson and Luciano Chessa, with libretto by Gertrude Stein
Featuring Kalup Linzy
Novellus Theater at YBCA
Preview: Thursday, August 18, 7:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, August 19 and 20, 8 p.m.
Sunday, August 21, 2 p.m.
For tickets ($10–$85) visit ybca.org or call 415.978.2787


Related Programs
Steven Watson Prepares for Saints
Steven Watson, cultural historian; special guests to be announced
Thursday, August 11, 7 p.m. • Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA
Tickets: $10 general; $7 SFMOMA members, students, and seniors; does not include entry to The Steins Collect.

In his book Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism, Watson details an engaging and lurid narrative of the circle of early 20th-century tastemakers who contributed to the original production of Four Saints in Three Acts. On the occasion of the museum’s restaging of this opera, Watson discusses his book and offers insight into the cultural shift heralded by this production.

The Art of Four Saints in Three Acts
Thursday, August 18, 6:30 p.m. • Contemporary Jewish Museum
Free with museum admission

See original music, art, and ephemera connected with the Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thompson collaboration Four Saints in Three Acts in a gallery talk directly preceding the preview performance of SFMOMA’s new staging of the opera at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Yerba Buena Neighborhood Celebrates Gertrude Stein
Join the Yerba Buena neighborhood this summer in celebrating the life of writer Gertrude Stein and her influence on modern art, literature, and culture. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival will each host related programming: from art exhibitions to opera, poetry readings to salons, there’s definitely a there there. Visit sfmoma.org/celebratestein for a complete list of programs, discounts, and members-only specials throughout the neighborhood.


About the Artists

Luciano Chessa

Composer, conductor, musicologist, and pianist Luciano Chessa has worked extensively throughout Europe, the United States, and Australia. Recent premieres include a large orchestral piece commissioned by the Orchestra Filarmonica di Torino, Italy; TomBoy, for piano with video by Terry Berlier; and Movements, a multimedia work for 16mm film, Vietnamese dan bau, and amplified film-projectors, produced in collaboration with filmmaker Rick Bahto. As a music historian, Chessa has written Luigi Russolo Futurista: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult, the first monograph of Russolo and his art of noise, forthcoming from the University of California Press. Chessa was invited by Performa in 2009 to direct the first reconstruction project of Russolo’s earliest intonarumori orchestra and to curate a series of related concerts—a project hailed by The New York Times as one of the best art events of the year. In March 2011, Chessa’s Orchestra of Futurist Noise Intoners was presented in a sold-out concert by Berliner Festspiele-Maerzmusik Festival; other European appearances of the orchestra have been scheduled. He teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and often collaborates with San Francisco’s Italian Cultural Institute. 

Ensemble Parallèle

An award-winning professional organization, Ensemble Parallèle is the only company in the Bay Area dedicated exclusively to developing and performing contemporary chamber opera. Founded in 1994 by artistic director Nicole Paiement, the group commissions chamber orchestrations of contemporary grand opera and also aims to bring together new audiences and emerging talent from diverse artistic disciplines through workshops, seminars, readings, and educational outreach. In 2007, Ensemble Parallèle presented the world premiere of Lou Harrison’s opera Young Caesar. Recent productions include the California premiere of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, with chamber orchestration by composer John Rea; and the Bay Area premiere of Philip Glass’s Orphée. The organization is currently working on the world premiere of the chamber orchestration of John Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby. Ensemble Parallèle has presented 130 performances (including 30 world premieres), released 14 recordings, commissioned 19 new works, and performed in North America, Australia, and Asia. It also serves as ensemble in residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Kalup Linzy

Brooklyn-based video and performance artist Kalup Linzy looks to soap operas, southern and African American vernacular speech, queer culture, and disco to create his own stylized and highly personal dramas. His characters, played by friends or by himself, regularly appear in his YouTube video series and in his popular live performances. He often performs, in character, songs from his 2008 album SweetBerry Sonnet. He has recently appeared on General Hospital and has begun a creative collaboration known as Kalup & Franco with actor and friend James Franco. Linzy has received awards from the Louis Comfort Tiffany, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial, and the Creative Capital foundations. His work has been shown in exhibitions at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York; the Athens Biennale; and the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, among others, and is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 2009, the Studio Museum in Harlem presented Kalup Linzy: If It Don’t Fit, the first museum survey of his work.

Gertrude Stein

Major 20th-century writer and art patron Gertrude Stein was born in 1874 and spent her early years in Europe before her family settled in Oakland, California. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1898 with a degree in psychology and went on to study medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School. In 1903 Stein moved to Paris, joining her brother Leo there, and they began collecting post-impressionist paintings by artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. She met Alice B. Toklas in 1909, and they became lifelong companions. Her innovative works—among them Three Lives (1909), Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914), and The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1925) —were intended to employ the techniques of abstraction and Cubism in prose, but much of her writing was virtually unintelligible to even educated readers. Her only commercial success was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). After World War I, Stein maintained her famous salon evening in Paris and served as both hostess and inspiration to such American expatriates as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. (She is credited with coining the phrase “the lost generation.”) In addition to her other novels and memoirs, she wrote librettos for two operas by Virgil Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947). Stein died in 1946 in France.

Virgil Thomson

American composer and music critic Virgil Thomson produced a highly original body of work rooted in vernacular American sounds and rhythms. Born in 1896, he studied at Harvard and spent a prolonged period in Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and kept company with artist such as Jean Cocteau, Igor Stravinsky, Eric Satie, and other composers from the Montparnasse circle known as “Les six.” Later he returned to the United States and became chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. Thomson composed in almost every genre of music, with a musical style marked by sharp wit and overt playfulness. His music was most influenced by Satie’s ideals of clarity, simplicity, irony, and humor. Among his most famous works are the operas Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All (both with texts by Gertrude Stein); scores to Pare Lorentz’s films The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River; and to Robert Flaherty’s film Louisiana Story. He was also the author of eight books, including an autobiography. During his lifetime, he won the Pulitzer Prize, a Brandeis Award, the gold medal for music from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Book Circle Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Music Council Award, and 20 honorary doctorates. He died in 1989.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), located in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena cultural district, is one of the nation’s leading multidisciplinary contemporary arts centers. The organization is known for nurturing emerging artists at the forefront of their fields and presenting works that blend art forms and explore the events and ideas of our time. As part of its commitment to the San Francisco Bay Area, YBCA supports the local arts community and reflects the region’s diversity of people and thought through its arts and public programming. Each year, YBCA selects four Big Ideas around which to organize its wide-ranging programs. This year’s Big Ideas are: ENCOUNTER: Engaging the social context; SOAR: The search for meaning; REFLECT: Considering the personal; and DARE: Innovations in art, action, and audience. These ideas, which encompass art from all disciplines, are designed to focus an investigation of contemporary art and its relationship to the larger world. Using the Big Ideas as portals, YBCA has established a framework of thought that invites exploration and risk-taking, quiet reflection and active engagement. YBCA presents programming yearround in the Forum, Screening Room, Galleries, and Novellus Theater. For tickets and information, call 415.978.ARTS (2787) or visit ybca.org.


SFMOMA’s Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation is funded in part by a grant from the Virgil Thomson Foundation, Ltd.

Jill Lynch 415.357.4172 jilynch@sfmoma.org
Clara Hatcher Baruth 415.357.4177 chatcher@sfmoma.org
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