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Opera Theatre of Saint Louis releases world premiere recording

Elizabeth Futral as Alice B. Toklas and Stephanie Blythe as Gertrude Stein
Ken Howard | OTSL

Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s “27” is the work of two men obsessed.

“I burrowed myself into a hole and completely allowed the life of Gertrude Stein to wash over me and to become part of my chemistry,” “27” librettist Royce Vavrek said on “Cityscape.”

The opera follows the lives of influential experimental writer Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. The couple lived at the 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, France, and frequently hosted parties and gatherings with such famous creative figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. The music was composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with a libretto by Vavrek and features renowned singers Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral.

Opera Theatre will celebrate the album’s release from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday at the Hilton Downtown at the Arch. 

Gordon says the opera came from a lifelong obsession with the American expatriate pair of Toklas and Stein. His passion began when he fell ill his first year of college at Carnegie Mellon and turned to “Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company,” a book documenting the pair’s life, to fill the hours.

“I just laid in bed all week eating tangerines and reading that book. It was as if I’d found a long-lost friend,” Gordon said.

Gordon went on to model his life in New York after the pair, hosting Saturday salons where he debuted his music. Yet Gordon’s passion remained voiceless until Opera Theatre’s Artistic Director Jim Robinson commissioned “27” for Stephanie Blythe. 

“As soon as he said 'Stephanie Blythe,’ I thought Gertrude Stein because Stephanie is a formidable presence on every level,” said Gordon.

Vavrek and Gordon had met a year prior to the commission and expressed the desire to work together but weren’t able to collaborate until the St. Louis company’s commission. That all changed after Robinson and Gordon’s talk. Gordon went straight to Vavrek with the idea.

“I called him and I said 'well if you can read 15 books and write a libretto in a month, you have the job,’” Gordon said.

Vavrek read the 15 books designated by Gordon and let himself be consumed by his subject. “It was very organic and fast and furious and just a joy,” he said of losing himself to the work.

Yet the piece is more than a rave review of Stein’s life. Gordon and Vavrek addressed Stein’s complicated involvement with the Vichy government and Nazi-occupied France head on.

“We didn’t want to whitewash her, so act four in this piece really deals with her conscience coming and sort of devouring her,” said Vavrek. 

The opera is a hybrid, referencing both the tradition of classic American musicals and more experimental approaches like a bell-laden duet.

Related Event

"27" CD release party

  • When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015
  • Where: Hilton Downtown at the Arch, 400 Olive St., St. Louis
  • More information

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.

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