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PREVIEW: Four Saints in Three Acts (VocalEssence)

On March 19, 2016, VocalEssence is staging a rare performance of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts. This rarely performed work features a libretto by Gertrude Stein and music by Virgil Thomson, and is considered one of the most influential American operas of the 1930s. VocalEssence’s staging brings the piece to life with both its singers and the dance ensemble Black Label Movement, with direction and choreography by BLM’s Carl Flink. The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine chatted with Philip Brunelle of VocalEssence to discuss this piece.

Four Saints in Three Acts is not a well-known work in most circles. How did you first encounter it and what impressions did it make on you at the time?  

During my 17 years with Minnesota Opera, we performed the Thomson/Stein opera The Mother of Us All several times and I was enchanted by their whimsical style.  During those years, we also gave a concert performance of Four Saints and I felt that a full production needed to be seen and heard in the Twin Cities…and here it is.

Philip Brunelle of VocalEssence.
Philip Brunelle of VocalEssence.

Minnesota Opera (or the Center Opera Company, as it was first called) did three separate productions of The Mother of Us All (in the 1966-7, 1970-1, and 1976-7 seasons). That’s quite unusual for a new opera…what was your role in those productions, and what was it like returning to the same work again?

I did not conduct the 1966 production (that was before I was with MO). I did conduct the other two productions – the last one went on tour to Kansas City Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Lake George Opera Festival.

As with all operas, each time you perform it you gain more insights – so it was a delight to have repeated opportunities to perform this work.

Tell me more about that earlier, concert performance of Four Saints? What was the audience response like, how did the performing resources compare to what you have now, etc?  
The audience was comprised, I believe, of Minnesota Opera fans, who were interested in those early days [in] performing new works, similar to what was happening at the Walker Art Center.  It was strictly a concert performance with folks coming on and off stage – totally different from this new production, which is fully staged and danced.

A number of authors claim that Thomson was under the influence of Erik Satie while working on this score. Do you agree, and if so, what are some of the elements that stand out to you?  

I think Virgil Thomson (who I met once in the ’70s when he came to Minneapolis and I conducted a performance of some of his works at the Walker Art Center) was influenced by many people – he found interesting traits in various styles that became part of Four Saints:  Satie, hymns from his childhood, American folk songs, etc.

What are some of the things about this score that make it so special?

Though it is hard to put a word on it – I find the music very “American” – you would not hear this kind of music coming from a European or Asian composer…it is distinctly American.

How did the decision to collaborate with Black Label Movement come about?  

We were looking for a director who would come with a fresh approach – someone who would see the beauty in having 32 individual singers and figure out how they could be there singly and as an ensemble.  Carl Flink came to mind and this was a fantastic choice – he is ideal!

In Alan Rich’s discussion of Four Saints in New York Magazine, he stated that the opera can’t be “adequately dealt with in mere words, partly because the words are so uniquely used.” Do you agree, and if so, how does this factor into the experience of the work with dance?  
Alan Rich is absolutely right. People need to come to a performance and let the music and the words flow over (and through) them. Adding dancers (or, as Carl Flink refers to them – “movers”) adds a marvelous element of fluidity.
The singers and the movers are as one in this opera – and it is a joy!
Basil Considine