Saturday, June 21, 2014

Oh Great, An Opera About the Nazi Collaborator Gertrude Stein

NPR is telling me that Ricky Ian Gordon, a composer whose music I don't know and so can't comment on, has written an opera about Gertrude Stein.  It doesn't sound as if it's going to deal with her most infamous story, the only thing about her that was rescued from banality by the evil and criminality of it, her collaboration with the Nazi puppet, Vichy government during the Second World War.   Instead, it's going to concentrate on her salon and what the old BS salesman was able to pass off as a career as a modernist writer.  About his opera, the composer says:

For sheer hubris, the size of her personality, the weight of her choices — she said yes to what she believed was correct visually in the 20th century and consequently surrounded herself with, basically, the progenitors of 20th century art vocabulary,

And with Stein, that's what it always devolves into because her greatest claim to fame wasn't about anything she did more significant than her shopping for pictures.

Stephanie Blythe, the singer, who will, as they say, "create the role",  had this to say about it,

I mean, you don't get the mundane, often, in opera," Blythe says. "Any couple is going to be able to look at this and say, 'Oh, I know that.' Not everybody can look at Radamès and Aida at the end of [Aida] and go, 'Oh, I know what it's like to be, you know, entombed alive.' It's just a beautiful, beautiful piece.


From what the report says about it, I don't think much more about the real Gertrude Stein is going to be available to people.   She is one of those people who the more you find out about her, the more putrid she turns out to have been.   While a lot of writers and artists of that period flirted with fascism and Nazism - even as august a poet as Yeats - there is just something about a An American who was a Jewish lesbian and a darling of modernism spouting admiration for Hitler and trying to get Random House to publish her translations of speeches by the Nazi puppet, Petain, ACTUAL PRO-NAZI PROPAGANDA IN A TIME OF WAR,  that sort of eclipses the entire PR presentation of her.  Having read way too much of her novels and verse, I strongly suspect that her translations of Petain's speeches may have been far, and away, the greatest amount of effort she ever put into any of her writing.  It is almost certainly the writing she did that required the most discipline and dedication.

Reading what Stein did during the war would have dogged and damned most people throughout the rest of the century and into this one, what she said in the years before the war, lauding the greatness of Hitler, would have become the predominant commonly cited fact about them.   But Stein has benefited from a cover up by her friends and literary connections and those who could use her as a hero and others who had varying motives.   Those motives varied but none of them could have been both honest and informed at the same time.  The more you read of Stein's own words, and I don't mean the doggerel and pony show that her lit'rary production were, the worse she comes off.  I'm unaware of little to nothing in her story that makes up for it.   Such a person should not be held up to be the hero of any opera.  There was nothing intense in her banality, there was nothing heroic in her evil.  She was a self-centered, ill-informed, superficial, selfish, collector and consumer.  Her moral sense is non-existant, her activities, even her rather parsimonious generosity, centered, like everything else about her, on her.  Even her relationship with the quite pathetically devoted Alice Toklas was all about Gertrude.

Stein's relationship with opera before now centered on the two librettos she composed for operas by Virgil Thomson.   I'm not a fan of Thomson's music, which tends to be quite banal and forgettable, he's one of those composers whose prose, most of it music criticism, is often far more interesting than his music.   I hope that this opera does nothing to further the phony presentation of Stein as a hero.   She entirely deserves to be infamous, not famous, remembered for her complete moral bankruptcy and her casual evil, what would have been considered a war crime for others who were prosecuted for it.   I once read that the great actress and real Labour Member of Parliment, Glenda Jackson, was asked if she would agree to play Margaret Thatcher in a movie or play,  she said she would if Thatcher were presented as the villain.   And that's the only way Stein should ever be presented, now that her real nature has been revealed.

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