Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Love Becomes an Opera

27  tells the story of Stein and Toklas’s relationship, alongside the luminaries they called friends and championed, including Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.

“Her whole life is this big, fabulous ‘fuck you.’ She just was who she was whether you liked it or not until she became one of the most famous people in history. That is really inspiring to me,” composer Ricky Ian Gordon told The Daily Beast recently.

He was speaking of Gertrude Stein, famed writer, muse, lesbian, champion of the avant-garde, and the subject of his opera 27, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, which has its New York City premiere October 20th and 21st at New York City Center.

The 27 of the title refers to the address she shared with her longtime companion and “wife,” Alice B. Toklas, at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris during the years 1903 to 1938, also home to her famous salon, where she hosted, befriended, and championed Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and others.

Gordon continues, “We’re talking about a generation of people where none of them asked permission to be who they were or to do what they did. They didn’t ask for government approval. They were who they were and they did what they did. Every one of them broke the mold. They are a model for courage of conviction and imprimatur.”

27 had its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of St Louis in June 2014. The reviews were positive, especially for mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, for whom the role of Gertrude Stein was written. Blythe is reprising it for the New York City premiere.

There have been many contemporary operas with openly LGBT themes. Patience and Sarah, based on the novel of the same name, premiered in 1998 and tells the story of a lesbian couple in the early 19th century. It was the first opera to openly portray a gay relationship and is described as “the first mainstream gay-themed opera.”

More recently, in 2008 there was Three Decembers by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrance McNally, in which the lead character’s son nurses his longtime partner, who is dying from AIDS.

Composer Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, the story of an online gay love affair which leads to violence, premiered in 2011 and was produced at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013. Also in 2013 was Oscar, an operatic retelling of Oscar Wilde’s jail sentence for “gross indecency.” The British government is now seeking to pardon those who were prosecuted under such laws.

In 2014, an opera version of Brokeback Mountain premiered in Madrid; in the same year, As One, the story of Hannah, a transgender woman, premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

27 is 90 minutes long and structured in five acts, opening with the conceit of Toklas, who outlived Stein by more than 20 years, knitting alone and reflecting upon her life with Stein.

She “knits” their past in the salon back into life and the audience watches it replay, taking the action through two world wars and the various luminaries of modern art and literature that came and went and the various power struggles they engaged in, often at Stein’s prodding.

The Daily Beast sat in on a room rehearsal for 27 the week before the premiere. The scene being rehearsed involved Matisse discovering his painting had been taken down by Stein from a center position of prominence on the salon wall. Stein then unveils its replacement, the famous portrait of her by Picasso.

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Matisse is not pleased with his demotion, nor impressed with the portrait. The action then shifts back in time to the actual creation of the portrait, where Picasso suddenly loses the thread of the work and stops painting in frustration. Stein comforts him and leads him back to inspiration. Both sides of Stein are depicted in the brief section, the socially machinating patron, and the muse.

But Vavrek and Gordon wanted 27 to be first and foremost a love story.

“I think that it was a marvelous opportunity to create a piece that really distills everything down to this central relationship of Gertrude and Alice,” Vavrek told The Daily Beast. “This feels like a grand romance in more ways than one... It’s a straight romance in the sense that it is normal, the romance is universal, not heterosexual, not that they’re concealing their lesbian relationship and trying to make it hetero-normative or anything like that. It is a romance, period and it’s just a great love story.”

Gordon continues, “They are two women living together, loving each other, having a romantic relationship, delighting each other, feeding each other, fighting for each other. That is just it. This is a story about these two women who love each other.”

In trying to contextualize the LGBT life in Paris in the early 1900s and Stein herself for a present day audience, Woody Allen, of all people, helped a great deal.

Vavrek’s first exposure to Stein was actually through Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris.

“Before this project I knew only that three-minute cameo that Kathy Bates did in Midnight in Paris. I knew nothing else. I took three weeks to intake as much of her language as possible. I read quite a bit and I had never really spent any time whatsoever with her. I don't know that my generation is necessarily all that well-versed in Gertrude Stein,” Vavrek tells The Daily Beast.

Around the same time, securing marriage equality was one of the biggest issues on the LGBT landscape. That was particularly poignant for Gordon, who has been married to Kevin Doyle, the executive editor of Consumer Reports, since 2010.

“I think that it was inevitable that eventually gay marriage was going to be a topic [in this country], that actual permission, because you’re talking about things like when Kevin and I got married, our entire tax life changed, our insurance life changed.

“Gertrude and Alice weren't thinking about that then. We suddenly have to be thinking about it. It was inevitable that that kind of recognition would happen... But at that time they weren’t thinking about practicalities, they were simply acting out of love. We love each other and we’re married.”

27 has its New York premiere on October 20 and 21st at New York City Center. For more information about 27 or tickets, visit here.