This week, the Pittsburgh Opera hosts the Pennsylvania debut of ’27’ – an opera about the love story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, composed by Ricky Ian Gordon. Ricky has Pittsburgh ties and graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us.
1. Tell me about your first impression of Pittsburgh.
I was there to audition for the music school at CMU as a pianist . I was 17. I saw two very handsome men walking an afghan, strolling on the cut, holding hands and I thought,”They better let me in, because I’m coming here!”
2. Are there any Pittsburgh artists (based here or born here) who influence you?
Mildred Miller (great mezzo soprano)
3. Who was the first LGBTQ person that you met and how did they impact your life?
My friend Peter Randsman, who lived around the block and was one year older than me. I was 8 he was 9. We didn’t know we were gay at first but we knew we didn’t fit in and belonged to some secret society. Finally I felt safe with someone! We are still dear friends. He is an opera agent.
4. How does opera help me better understand Gertrude Stein, especially if I have never read her works?
It is very little about her writing and more about her and her relationship with Alice and their Paris salon and all the famous denizens who frequented it including Hemingway and Picasso and Matisse and Fitzgerald and Man Ray! It is like a nifty little journey through their life before during and after both world wars. And to boot you will get little bits of her writing thrown in here and there.
5. Stein was a queer Jewish woman who had ties to the Vichy French regime.The City Theatre is currently producing ‘Some Brighter Distance’ about so ‘ex-Nazi’ German scientists driving the Cold War race in the US. How does art help the modern, collective us wrestle with or perhaps find peace with these improbable moral dilemmas?
By asking the questions. By presenting the stories and letting us decide. Art is dialogue.
In our opera I did not want to whitewash Gertrude Stein. I wanted to ask how two Jewish lesbians stayed safe during the Second World War, safe, beloved, and well fed. We put her on trial.
6. Have you visited Gertrude Stein landmarks in this region? Is there something we should all see?
You should all take a field trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum and see Picasso’s fabulous portrait of Gertrude Stein which figures prominently in our opera. But of course, when I was in college I went here…
Birthplace of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Plaque at 850 Beech Ave., North Side, Pittsburgh
“Allegheny West. Birthplace of Gertrude Stein. In this house on February 3, 1874, Gertrude Stein was born to Daniel and Amelia Stein. Author, poet, feminist, playwright, and catalyst in the development of modern art and literature. ‘In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.’ Allegheny West Historic District.”
7. Did Stein attend operas?
Yes, but especially the two she created with Virgil Thompson, “Four Saints In Three Acts,” and “The Mother Of Us All.”
8. I read a reference to your three male supporting actors playing ‘drag roles’ as female characters involved in the storyline. Please help me understand if that sense of drag performance is tied to the mainstream concept of drag. Why not just cast one woman to play those roles?
Because they are basically three men who play EVERYONE BUT Gertrude and Alice. It is a theatrical device. They play the paintings, the painters, the photographers, the writers, the wives of the geniuses, the dough boys, the soldiers and finally, the friends.
9. What is something you always do when you are in Pittsburgh? A meal? Visit a certain venue?
I go to Westminster Place across from Shadyside Presbyterian Church and walk behind the Curry mansion at the little carriage house with the red door where I spent one very happy year. If it were still there, I would go to Kaufman’s and get a chocolate covered strawberry.
10. What is your love song to today’s LGBTQ youth?
I suppose the closest thing I have is my song “There Is Grace” from my musical, “Sycamore Trees.”‘ It is about surviving being bullied. Here is the lyric…
There Is Grace
My parents couldn’t protect me
from kids who were rough,
who threw fire crackers
and curses and stuff
as I walked home from school everyday
making it scary to go out and play
I prayed a tornado’d come, so we’d
Their impotent hands
couldn’t muffle the screams
of the boys who would taunt me
on various teams.
But at night I would crush them
and triumph, in all my dreams.
My sisters couldn’t defend me
from rumors that spread.
I moved like a fugitive
Haunted by crippling dread.
Coming home, I would hide in my room,
Contemplate suicide, wallow in doom,
Imagine my torturers guilty cries
Outside my tomb.
My father, with no way to manage his shame,
pointed to me as if I were to blame,
becoming the enemy, joining them
in their game.
My mother would try
but she’s small and she sings.
She’d open the window
and yell nasty things.
But what does a hummingbird do
when they’ve clipped her wings?
I look now into the mirror
to see if I’m here.
What once was so clouded in fear
has become a face.
It was almost a custody case,
as a part of the race.
Amazing, how when you forgive
there is grace.
There is grace.
I was very moved by this response – no one has ever submitted their own original actual song before. Ricky graciously provided me with an mp3 of an earlier version of this song. He is singing in this edition, the lyrics are slightly different.
27 opens on Saturday, February 20 and continues through the end of the month. There is a special event Saturday evening at 7 PM where you can meet Ricky Ian Gordon and enjoy a special discussion. The event is called “Opera Night Out” which invites the LGBT community to attend the performance and engage.