“I hate to reveal this,” says Chevy Chase, Md., poetry impresario Karren LaLonde Alenier, “but the first thing I read by Gertrude Stein was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. I say that shamefacedly because that is not the work that best represents Gertrudealthough it’s what most people know. It’s the story of a life and a relationship, not a story of her work.”
Alenier has devoted the past five years to exploring another crucial bond in Stein’s life: that between her and her art-critic brother, Leo Stein. The result, Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, is an opera chronicling nearly 40 years of the artist’s journey toward defining and developing her work in the face of criticism. Alenier uses the Stein siblings’ tumultuous relationshipwhich ruptured in 1913 and never recoveredthroughout the opera to tell part of the story of Stein’s life and oeuvre.
After Alenier first became interested in Stein, in the late ’70s, she traveled to Tangier, Morocco, in 1982 to study for several weeks with Stein associate and expatriate writer Paul Bowles, during which time she worked on her poetry about Stein. This connection, Alenier believes, placed her in a kind of unique continuum with Stein and inspired her to begin writing creatively about the avant-garde American writer.
In February 1996, Alenier invited friends and fans to hear her and 12 D.C.-area poets interpret her then-one-act verse play on Stein at Chapters bookstore on K Street NW. It was in the excited aftermath of that reading that Alenier decided to develop the piece into a full-length work. And she soon began to see the play’s potential as an opera.
“I cold-called composers and opera companies until I found the perfect match,” Alenier says. She enlisted Nancy Rhodesartistic director of New York’s Encompass New Opera Theatre, which plans to premiere the opera next yearand composer William Banfield in August 1998.
“You can’t really understand Gertrude Stein’s work until you’ve heard it aloud,” Alenier declares. “Have you ever heard her reading? There are recordings. She has this Eastern-girls’-school-beautiful enunciationa beautiful speaking voice.”
“Karen saw this as a very conceptual verse play,” says Banfield. “I thought, What? What will people leave with? But I learned to enjoy the spiritual meaning that comes from her words and the dynamic that set all these people into a creative process.” Banfield, who has written six other operas, began composing for Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On a year ago and finished two days before the panel discussion and performance. He used the “jump” of the title as a unifying musical theme and deliberately evoked period composers such as George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel. “They were jumpingall of them,” he says of Stein and her circle. “And opera is really just people singing through their stories.”
Stein’s original text appears only intermittently in the lyrics, for copyright as well as creative reasons. “I wouldn’t pretend to imitate her,” Alenier says quickly. “I want to give it a flavor of Stein. For the layman, it’s hard to tell where my poems come in and where the lyrics begin and end. Stein’s style is iterative. I have a line where Leo sings, ‘She doesn’t repeat, she insists.’ Remember: ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’ Besides this business of repetition, there is a lack of literary allusion, deceptive simplicity, odd juxtaposition of details, and an unbelievably optimistic outlook on all that she writes about. The sum effect is meditative and hypnoticeven harmonic.”
On a recent balmy evening, Alenier stands on the shallow stage of the Friendship Heights Village Center with her two collaborators and a quartet of enthusiastic singers to alternately discuss and perform arias from Act 1 of the opera.
The audiencemany of whom were present at the original 1996 reading of her Stein homageresponds with universal warmth. “Before this evening, I couldn’t have imagined these words with music,” remarks an older gentleman. “Now I can’t imagine them without.” Neda Ulaby
For more information, visit www.steinopera.com.