Reviving Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts
After a process of deciding how they might re-approach the work, Chessa landed on the idea of resetting the text that Thomson had excised in his own 1950s version of the opera. The result is its own piece, entitled A Heavenly Act, which will immediately precede Four Saints without an intermission (the entire program will run a fleet 90 minutes). Linzy developed video projections as the predominant visual element in the production.
Chessa and Linzy offered further insight into the collaboration, and their respective processes, during a break from a rehearsal last week. Although neither knew the opera very well before embarking on the revival, each found points of contact and familiarity with their own work.
"I knew it mostly because of [Canadian filmmaker] John Greyson's [2009 operatic documentary] Fig Trees," explains Chessa. In conceiving A Heavenly Act, Chessa says he wanted to account for both Thomson's own musical influences as well as the legacy he has left in the work of later composers.
"I couldn't be approaching the text naively as if I was discovering it for the first time," he says. "There is a history of setting Stein in the 20th century, which I ended up discovering by analyzing the work and also the development of Thomson's fortunes in the 20th century. Because Stein's text is very wordy, Thomson used the technique of having it chanted. So my idea was to bring this element of chant, but do it in a different way, using different lines of text moving at different speeds, creating clusters of textures."
Adds Linzy, "We kept things very loose and abstract, kind of organic. It didn't have to be so strict." Linzy — who in the production also performs a song Chessa wrote for him set to Stein's words — shot a cast of friends as angels against a green screen, usually with movement informed by music tracks Chessa had forwarded. But in at least one case, Linzy didn't receive the track for a corresponding scene.
"There's a dance scene [in A Heavenly Act] where [Chessa] did a waltz, but we danced to Donna Summer's 'Bad Girls,'" explains Linzy. "But seeing it against the waltz, really slowed down, it's almost like the angels got high off LSD and just went too far. But we were moving to Donna Summer, we were discoing. That's what I like. He had sent the tracks but somehow I didn't get that particular one. So I was like, 'Oh, we'll just disco it out.' And so that's what we did, and it's the most amazing thing."
FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS: AN OPERA INSTALLATION
Thurs/18, 7:30 p.m. (preview); Fri/19-Sat/20, 8 p.m.; Sun/21, 2 p.m., $10-85.
700 Howard, SF
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