Stein of the Times

San Francisco

Left: Stage director Brian Staufenbiel and artist Kalup Linzy. (Photo: Joseph Akel) Right: Kalup Linzy in A Heavenly Act, 2011, part of Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation. (Photo: Steve DiBartolom​eo, Westside Studio Images)

GIVEN THE NUMBER of current exhibitions in her honor, one might think that Gertrude Stein had become San Francisco’s patron saint. (Move over, Saint Francis!) At last count there was the retrospective of Stein at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, as well as a show of the Stein family’s personal art hoard down the road at SF MoMA. Added to that, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and SF MoMA recently presented a four-night run of Four Saints in Three Acts, the avant-garde modernist opera that Stein, in collaboration with composer Virgil Thomson, first staged in 1934 in New York. Three is a good number for all things holy.

I could say it was the lure of the opera that drew me to Yerba Buena. But it was really the premiere of performance artist Kalup Linzy and composer Luciano Chessa’s oratorio A Heavenly Act that piqued my attention––and, judging from the solitary image of Kalup on the playbill, the organizers were banking on that, too. Linzy’s star has been shining brightly for some time: How would he fare in his latest role as operatic impresario? So, braving a typically frigid August San Francisco night, I made my way to YBCA’s Novellus Theater last Friday.

A quick rundown: Four Saints loosely follows a bunch of sixteenth-century saints who, over a picnic, reminisce about their mortal lives and current beatific predicaments. In a teeming, combustible score, Thomson presented a musical realization of Stein’s libretto, a mordant if not inchoate exposition on language and prosody. The collaborators were regular pals by the time of the opera’s completion: The much younger Thomson had encountered Stein’s Paris during a Harvard Glee Club tour (I’ll leave that one alone), meeting Stein herself shortly after his graduation in 1926. Identifying what they saw as a commonality between saints and artists in the abandon of devotion to cause, these two artists found in each other a creative afflatus born from collaboration. Noted for, among other things, its all-black cast and Florine Stettheimer’s brightly colored cellophane set, the production became an overnight sensation and quickly moved locales from its museum-basement debut to more prestigious digs on Broadway. Phew.

Left: Brooke Muñoz (foreground), Nicole Takesono, J. Raymond Meyers, Eugene Brancoveanu, and Brendan Hartnett in Four Saints in Three Acts: An Opera Installation, 2011. (Photo: Steve DiBartolom​eo, Westside Studio Images) Right: Composer Luciano Chessa. (Photo: Joseph Akel)

The current staging is based on Thomson’s revised libretto from the 1950s. Perhaps in hopes that the audience not get too lost in the fray, stage director Brian Staufenbiel’s production of Four Saints weaves a loose narrative to accompany the libretto––euthanasia, redemption, trial, and execution about sums it up. In a truly cutting twist, Linzy and Chessa’s oratorio incorporates lines that were excised from Thomson’s abridgement and uses them as grounds for inspiration. Presented before Four Saints, A Heavenly Act exists paradoxically as an anticipation of the opera and also a response, as well as a reinterpretation of it.

Four Saints is enjoyable, if for no other reason than its embrace of the absurd. But the only time I felt moved was during Linzy’s performance. Dark and brooding––“grim,” quipped one audience member––the piece was in every way a counterpoint to the work it drew upon. Hooded saints in black, whispering in a sort of menacing echolalia, wandered about a barren stage, while a video projection behind depicted a coterie of angels interspersed with cloudscapes and Linzy’s own head, eyeless and mute, like a tripped-out Tiresias. From out of this chaos, Chessa summoned a lively, if not brooding, gospel beat, while a sultry, winged Linzy invoked Stein’s words to accompany it. Backed up by a roused, clapping chorus of saints, Linzy’s nonsensical sermon evokes Southern gospel tradition––a true emancipation of spirit through the joining of music and word.

After the show, a fairly beige reception ensued—the standard crowd of benefactors and trustees milling about with the usual commentary, most often finished with a tone of expected affirmation (“Truly moving, wasn’t it?”). Things were somewhat less contained, though, at the wrap party that Sunday. In a dim annex room of the SF MoMA, a more intimate crowd gathered for a saintly feast of tacos and Tecates––ah, San Francisco! Perhaps eager to move beyond past projects and associations, Linzy seemed pleased with the outcome of the current collaboration. Saints, theological doctrine goes, are not made, but recognized. And, if, as Stein claimed, saints and artists share a common path, Linzy is on his way to even greater recognition.

Joseph Akel