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Interview: Gordon plus Vavrek (plus Stein and Toklas) Equal '27'

Stephanie Blythe as Gertrude Stein
Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL

With apologies to Gertrude Stein, "An opera is an opera is an opera"? Not really.

Although '27'--the opera by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek about the lives of Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and their circle of friends--had its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) in 2014, its upcoming performances at City Center in New York, on October 20-21, are a debut of a different color.

Ricky Ian Gordon

As part of the 75th anniversary season of MasterVoices, formerly The Collegiate Chorale, 27 has had some interesting changes since the performances seen in St. Louis. It still has the same star as Gertrude, the great mezzo Stephanie Blythe, and a trio of young male singers as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway and others (famous and not). The creative team is still headed by director Jim Robinson, OTSL's Artistic Director, with scenic design by Allen Moyer, lighting by James F. Ingalls and costumes by James Schuette.

But soprano Heidi Stober is now Alice and, most significantly, this 'new' 27 features a chorus for the first time, with the participation of MasterVoices under Artistic Director Ted Sperling, conducting Orchestra of St. Luke's. "I said to Ted that I would love to create a version of 27 that uses the chorus throughout the piece, because we really wrote it as a choral opera--but without the chorus," says Gordon. "I ended up creating a new version--not changing what the actual cast does, but adding the chorus to both augment and enhance some moments, and invent others."

Royce Vavrek

Those who know about the life and times of Stein have probably figured out that the title refers to her address in Paris: 27 rue de Fleurus, near the Luxembourg Gardens on the Left Bank. She lived there from 1903 to 1938, first with her brother Leo and then, most famously, with her life partner Alice B. Toklas, hosting salons with many of the most famous names in art and literature from the first half of the 20th century.

The idea for the opera came from Gordon, who had already had a success in St. Louis with the staged Civil War song cycle, RAPPAHANNOCK COUNTY (written with librettist Mark Campbell). "Jim Robinson came to me after RAPPAHANNOCK and said they wanted to commission an opera from me for Stephanie Blythe, whom I've known for a long time," Gordon recalls.

"Now, Stephanie is a particular singer, a particular character, a large presence. And if you're in the room with her, you know she's someone who 'presides'-- she's the center of attention by default. And I just thought 'Gertrude Stein, it's perfect'--and immediately said it."

His initial partner in the project was Michael Korie, who wrote the libretto for Gordon's well-received first full-length opera, THE GRAPES OF WRATH (based on the Steinbeck novel). But Korie dropped out late in the game, mid-March 2013, leaving a short schedule to find a replacement and compose the music. "Short," actually is an understatement, since the June 2014 premiere was looming before him and could not be changed because of Blythe's schedule.

Enter Royce Vavrek: Gordon didn't exactly have a 'vision' that pointed him toward Vavrek--whom he had met through a mutual acquaintance some time earlier--but his name did "float into my head" while he was meditating.

"And I called him and said, 'Royce, it's Ricky. If you can read 15 books and write a libretto in one month, you have the job,'" Gordon recalls in his inimitable style. Well, Vavrek didn't have the visibility then that he has today (with a pair of high profile, highly regarded operas this year: JFK with David T. Little for Dallas Opera and BREAKING THE WAVES with Missy Mazzoli at Opera Philadelphia) but he did have one big thing going for him: He's a fast study--which was critical, since he knew little about Stein other than Kathy Bates' memorable portrayal in Woody Allen's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.

There were some points that Gordon wanted to be sure made their way into the new work, particularly since Stein had long been a passion of his. "I knew that I wanted the paintings in the Stein-Toklas collection to sing. I told him my favorite line of Stein, which was 'before the flowers of friendship faded, friendship faded.' I told him that I didn't want to whitewash her and I wanted to explore the speculation of how she stayed safe during World War Two, including her translation of Petain's [head of Vichy France] speeches," says Gordon. (NB: Petain was tried and convicted of treason after the war.)

Vavrek dove head-first into the world of Stein and, 15 books later (Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Mellows' Charmed Circle and Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, among them), he came up with a structure for the piece, in five acts. (I asked Vavrek why he chose to call the sections "acts" rather than "scenes" in the 90-minute, intermission-less chamber opera. He replied that he felt they were too important to call 'scenes'--and, perhaps more important, according to Gordon at least, it's 'very Stein-ian,' tipping its hat to FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS, written by Stein with composer Virgil Thomson in 1928.)

Each act would delve into an aspect of the two women's lives together, including their intimate relationship, the salons held at No. 27, Stein's emergence as a writer--and a fictional trial regarding about how Stein and Toklas, two Jews, survived in Paris during World War II. (""It's not like anyone has come to any conclusions about whether Stein collaborated with the Germans, but there are questions and I wanted to explore them," says Gordon.)

Gordon liked Vavrek's ideas, but was concerned about the opera's 'voice.' "I didn't want it to feel like a piece by Gertrude Stein. I wanted it to be about to her and Alice, about their love, about their relationship, about the fun and atmosphere of the salons and so on. But I wanted it to sound like Royce's voice." Vavrek agreed, went away for about a month to work with a dramaturg* and wrote what would become the first draft of the libretto. "Then Ricky weighed in, I went away for another week and tightened it up even further and submitted the new draft on, I believe, May 1st," he recalls.

(*A dramaturg--in this case, Mike Cohen--acts as a sort of midwife to the project, asking questions that ignite the writer's imagination, but also sometimes looking at the lyrics of an aria and making suggestions about how they could work better or change their position. Says Vavrek, "Mike became the audience's advocate in many ways and I felt that he helped make sure all my i's were dotted and t's crossed. A dramaturg is an extra person on the team confirming that the drama is as sound as possible before it goes to the compositional process.")

Says Gordon, "I was delighted that, right from the beginning, Royce uses Alice's loneliness--she outlived Stein by over 20 years--as the impetus for the entire opera. The prologue is called 'Alice Knits the World.' She's missing Gertrude so desperately that she knits the salon and Gertrude back to life. At one point Stein appears and just looks at the audience and says, in French, 'Who invited you?' And that's it. The piece begins. I thought that was a brilliant motivation for the world of these two fantastic women to exist."

The piece's other collaborator (besides director Robinson) was Stephanie Blythe, since the role of Gertrude was being written specifically for her. Gordon--who's known for his melodic, accessible, Americana-tinged style--had a certain sound in mind from his recollections of hearing Blythe do roles like Amneris in AIDA, Azucena in IL TROVATORE and Mistress Quickly in FALSTAFF and her ability to do high singing (even though she is a mezzo). "Sometimes singers tell you, 'I need you to rewrite that.' Stephanie didn't. We were doing our first workshop and she said, 'I want to do something for you tomorrow--I'm going to sing through the whole role.'

"Stephanie said, 'There are places where I feel it sits high and it's not that I can't sing it, but that's not my fantasy of playing Gertrude Stein. I really want to be able to speak and not think about my singing,'' Gordon recalls. "It was so great because I knew exactly what she was talking about. And I said, 'Let me work on it.' And I changed a lot of the vocal line to make it more parlando (a singing style suggestive of speech), so that she could feel the way she wanted to feel as the character."

With Blythe playing such a key role in its development and performance as Stein, what happens when she is no longer the fulcrum on which the piece is balanced? No worries about that: 27 has already been done in Pittsburgh, without a star and in an intimate, environmental production with a two-piano accompaniment rather than an orchestra.

"We love Stephanie, Jim Robinson and the full production, but it was a great feeling, wow, that this piece works without the big star, as a beautiful ensemble piece," says Gordon. "Hearing it with two pianos in a salon situation, I have to say it worked like gangbusters. We felt like, 'Thank God, this piece is solid. It has legs. It really works as a piece of theater.'"


27 will be performed at New York City Center, October 20 & 21, 2016 at 8pm. Featuring Stephanie Blythe, Heidi Stober, Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh, and Daniel Brevik, MasterVoices and Orchestra of St. Luke's; James Robinson, Director; Ted Sperling, Conductor.

Click here for more information and tickets.

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