By Anne E. Johnson
NEW YORK – There are times in the human experience when reality becomes so unraveled that the brain processes it as gibberish. At such times, poetic nonsense can help give the whole mess a kind of meaning. That seems to have been Daniel Thomas Davis’ intent in creating the chamber opera, Six. Twenty. Outrageous.: Three Gertrude Stein Plays in the Shape of an Opera, at this particular moment in American history.
The work received its world premiere on Feb. 9 at Symphony Space in Manhattan in partnership with American Opera Projects. It was a modest production in the 168-seat Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre, with no curtain, no pit, no moving scenery. But listening to the words of Gertrude Stein already requires so much imagination and suspension of disbelief (of sanity?) that the visual sparseness was no deterrent to the audience’s enjoyment.
I use the word “enjoyment” because, as librettist Adam Frank quoted Stein herself, “If you enjoy it, you understand it.” Based on the laughs, gasps, and applause at this performance, the capacity crowd understood the opera thoroughly.
Credit for that notable accomplishment rests equally with Davis’ music, including the performance of it by three singers, the Momenta String Quartet, and pianist Dimitri Dover, conducted by David Bloom, and the underlying directorial concept by Doug Fitch (who is also credited with design). Fitch came onstage beforehand to announce that “We’re going to supply the words, and you’re going to supply the meaning.” Happily for the success of the production, that was not quite accurate.
The entire cast – instrumentalists included, since they wore costumes and were required to speak and sing – performed their unparsable lines with absolute conviction, both individually and as an ensemble. That’s evidence of clear direction; they always knew what they were talking and singing about, and how their characters felt about it, even if the words themselves didn’t obviously express…anything.
Davis’ deft and beautiful writing for strings, piano, and voice evoked a range of moods and influences, from the mournful melodies and high-friction bowing of the Shostakovich quartets to the buoyant dance rhythms of Purcell; from sweeping Debussy-inspired violin lines to soul-wrenching tenor phrases reminiscent of Britten. What tied all these elements together and supported the agreed-upon emotional effects was Davis’ rich harmonic and textural language.
The opera is constructed in three acts, each using text from one of Stein’s short plays. Its setting is the home of V (the character representing Stein, played by mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek) and Me (the Alice Toklas character, tenor Andrew Fuchs). Their maid, Three, was the very funny Ariadne Greif, whose soprano voice rang intensely in the small space. The instrumentalists were their guests, playing from the couch and chairs in their parlor.
Joseph Atkins played the narrator, We, a primarily speaking role that occasionally (and unfortunately) had him singing as well. He also had the job of announcing the start of each scene by carrying out large signs, like title cards in a silent film.
The first act, “Photograph,” was by turns jokey and poignant. Kate Elswit’s exaggerated choreography helped communicate humor, as did emphasis on certain words. For example, “twin” was repeated, elongated, and twisted by V and Me although they could not have been more different physically – one a short, stocky, mannish female and the other a tall, lanky man in drag. By casting a man, the production missed a chance at some powerful and daring chemistry, especially in Act II, which is billed as an erotic encounter. Fuchs is a gifted actor, and he played the Toklas character with great sensitivity and range, but his very presence prevented the genuine portrayal of a lesbian couple. Instead, it came across as a parody.
Despite all the silliness, Act I had a serious message, delivered in delicate stagecraft and heartbreaking music. (A nod here to David Bloom, who led the ensemble with consistent clarity no matter which way the madcap proceedings unfolded.) The final scenes of the act dealt with an immigrant family. Stein’s original text meanders through a list of people who were born in America, came to America, or were born on a boat. Davis and company spun the narrative about a family photo into a commentary on the political situation faced by immigrants in the U.S. in 2018.
Voices and strings built thick chords and slow, languid lines to express their sorrow as the characters cradled paper dolls representing an immigrant family. The dolls were placed in the silhouette of a steamer ship, which the narrator drew manually across the stage on a guidewire; somehow the use of that centuries-old theatrical technique (was it the analogy to immigrants and the timeless traditions they bring with them?) provided the most moving moment of the evening. The three characters then sang a lushly sorrowful trio focusing on the word “reproduce” (a verb associated both with photography and genealogy) as they placed large, glowing eggs all over the stage. Violinist Emilie-Anne Gendron stood out for her gorgeous playing in this scene.
The presence of a giant phonograph onstage – presumably toying Stein-like with the word “photograph” by changing only one letter – gave Davis a whole new sonic world to explore. He layered pre-recorded, distorted voices and the exaggerated crackle of needle on vinyl with live singing and pizzicato cello. Greif, recumbent on the floor, delivered a melismatic aria against homorhythmic seconds in the strings, pulled from the instruments with such depth of expression that the interval barely seemed dissonant.
The phonographic experiment developed further in the last act, when the instruments became the sound of an old-fashioned radio. Act III called up a specific cultural memory: the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Stein’s play is titled The Psychology of Nations, or What Are You Looking At. Davis and Frank label its first scene “A Presidential Election Goes Horribly Wrong.”
With bunting draped across the piano and the Stars and Stripes hanging on a flagpole, the stage is set for what the characters expect to be a fun gathering. And then things go pear-shaped. The disturbing news from the radio (creepy string glissandos, an electronic keyboard pitched a quarter tone below the acoustic piano) refuses to improve, no matter how urgently Greif turns the knobs.
And then the election is finished. Irreversible. V, Me, and Three are left to cope with the new reality. The Toklas character is frightened, the Stein character angry and baffled. Meanwhile, Three (the maid) swills wine and pretends everything’s fine.
Even more chilling is the morning after. A distortion of the opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony remind the audience of that sense of impending doom felt by many in November 2016 – What would the next four years bring? In his most gripping moment onstage, Fuchs wails the word “Why?” over and over. The maid brings in the paper, actual copies of the New York Daily News, featuring a photo of Trump and the gigantic, all-caps headline: “NOOO!”
In a lonesome, ethereal epilogue, as Me lies dying in V’s arms like a Pietà, the strings blur in impressionistic colors, softening the world’s harshness. It’s a patient, quiet finale. The music fades out, much as this difficult time in America will eventually fade into history.
Davis is having a busy spring. Right on the heels of this opera in New York, North Carolina Opera will perform his Family Secrets: Kith and Kin on Feb. 15-16. And on May 9-10 he will have a new work in the Virginia Arts Festival, part of a collaboration with the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw called “Modern Medieval,” inspired by the writings and visions of Hildegard of Bingen. If Six. Twenty. Outrageous. is any indication, those works are likely to tickle the mind as much as they please the ear.
Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.