“FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS” — Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s Experimental Opera at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 8/18–21

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

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. IN 1934, back in the United States, the curtains finally rose on Four Saints in Three Acts, 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. 

Pablo Picasso. Gertrude Stein (1905-6)
Oil on canvas 39 3/8 in. x 32 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946

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 beginning Thursday, August 18th through Sunday the 21st.

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.

Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein, c. 1929
Thérèse Bonney. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

“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.”

Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila

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.

Eugene Brancoveanu (“Ignatius”) and Maya Srinivasan (“Teresa”)

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.

Click on the date to purchase tickets on-line:
Thursday, August 18th at 7:30 PM
Friday, August 19th at 8:00 PM
Saturday, August 20th at 8:00 PM
Sunday, August 21st at 2:00 PM

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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