4 Saints in 3 Acts – A Decidedly New Opera

Our new exhibition, 4 Saints in 3 Acts – A Snapshot of the American Avant-Garde opens this Friday, and in this short essay, Anna Dannemann considers the impact the production had on American culture when it opened in 1934.

White Studio, Photograph of stage set for Four Saints in Three Acts, 1934. © Archives/Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Transpose the picture quite,
And spell it wrong to read it right;
Read Him for her, and her for him;
And call the Saint the Seraphim.
— Richard Crashaw [1]

On 7 February 1934, the doors to a new Bauhaus-inspired building – the Avery Memorial – opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, USA. Described as the ‘ first modern museum’ by Eugene R. Gaddis in his book about the history of the Wadsworth Atheneum of 1984, it is also the oldest continually operating public art museum in the United States (established by Daniel Wadsworth in 1842). The new Avery building was personally designed by the Atheneum’s then maverick director Arthur Everett Austin Jr., and at its heart lay a theatre space offering opportunities for the public to experience the newest experimental plays and theatrical performances.

On this opening night extravaganza, and in parallel to the first comprehensive USA retrospective of Picasso, guests sat down to see the world premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts. With a cast comprised entirely of African-American performers, a ground-breaking nonlinear structure, a composition by Virgil Thomson, libretto by Gertrude Stein, experimental stage settings, and a ‘deftly simple score’ as John Rockwell wrote in the New York Times, the opera came to epitomise a unique avant-garde moment for the institution as well as the US modernist movement as a whole.

Behind Director Austin Jr.’s infamous chain-smoking, cocktail- swilling, well-groomed facade was the work of a serious and well-read ‘Magician of the Modern’, writes Philip Johnson, who transformed the way ‘Americans looked at and thought about modern art’. As part of the so-called “Harvard modernists” he belonged to a group of cultural figures widely credited with remodelling public cultural institutions. Alongside Austin, these included the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred Barr; architectural historian and professor Henry- Russell Hitchcock Jr.; writer Lincoln Kirstein; architect Philip Johnson; painter (and Virgil Thomson’s partner) Maurice Grosser, and of course Virgil Thomson himself.

While the often problematic but always affectionate relationship and collaboration between Stein and Thomson concocted the play, it was within this context that Four Saints became both possible and made its unique contribution, achieving its success through the combined talents of many ground-breaking artists of the time.

Edward Matthews as St Ignatius, Four Saints in Three Acts, New York Studio, New York, c. 1933. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2017

An important figure for the imaginative visual design of the stage was surrealist painter Florine Stettheimer. Another Manhattan modernist, she created innovative designs using colourful new materials like cellophane for the bombastic sets, and silk, taffeta and lace for the costumes. John Houseman – who would later work with Orson Wells and others – directed the opera, featuring the legendary circular movements choreographed by another associate, Frederick Ashton, an international ballet dancer.

Virgil Thomson’s buoyant music was sung by an all African-American cast, brought together by Eva Jessye, the first African-American woman to gain international recognition as a professional choral conductor. Visiting concerts and performances in Harlem, New York, Thomson was enthused by the musical and artistic dynamism of the time – the so-called “Harlem Renaissance”.

Four Saints represented a musical and economic breakthrough for African-American singers, Jessye described Four Saints as ‘quite a departure, because up to that time the only opportunities [for African-American singers] involved things like “Swanee River,” or “That’s Why Darkies Are Born,” or “Old Black Joe.” They called that “our music,” and thought we could sing those things only by the gift of God… With this opera we had to step on fresh ground, something foreign to our nature completely’.[2] More striking still, was that the production later relocated to Broadway in New York, as the first opera to ever be shown there, receiving broad critical acclaim.

The success of the opera and its reverence ultimately goes back to Gertrude Stein’s seemingly nonsensical text, whose genius was to offer no one narrative, but many voices. Especially when produced by in influential gay cultural figures in a new museum, sung by black singers in stage sets created by women artists, her words were anything but nonsense: they allowed for different truths and decidedly queer forms of modernism.[3]

This ‘most important night of the decade’, wrote Philip Johnson, was a brave act of liberation for different groups of people that needed to wait for a long time for their truths to be accepted, legalised and cherished. On the evening of the premiere in Hartford, many of the bohemian audience were overwhelmed and clamorous in their praise. Kirk Askew and Julien Levy sat in the crowd and described what they had just witnessed as a glorious and redemptive affirmation of a new national culture stating: ‘We didn’t know anything so beautiful could be done in America’.

Anna Dannemann

Anna Dannemann is a curator at The Photographers’ Gallery.

This essay is available in the new issue of our gallery print publication Loose Associations.

Notes

1. Crashaw, R., 1917. The Flaming Heart, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

2. Watson, S., 2017. “The visitable past: Four Saints in Three Acts remembered ”. In: 4 Saints in 3 Acts – A snapshot of the American Avant-garde in the 1930s. Ed. Patricia Allmer and John Sears, Manchester University Press and The Photographers’ Gallery.

3. See Hubbs, N. The Queer Composition of America’s Sound. Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity. University of California Press, 2004.

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