Saints alive: Experimental opera revived

‘Four Saints in Three Acts” by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein is not for the fainthearted or mathematically exacting.

The deliberately bizarre experimental opera features not what the title says, but many saints in one or four acts — depending how viewers count — and Stein herself making fun of the situation by having characters in the opera ask, “How many saints?”

Last seen locally in a San Francisco Opera Center production 40 years ago, the 1934 “Four Saints” comes this week to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, presented by Ensemble Parallele, YBCA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum currently feature exhibits about Stein and her family — “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” and “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” respectively.

Although Stein’s original libretto was more of a pageant than a traditional narrative, the new reworked production has a more pronounced story line: the modern-day Saint Teresa (sung by Heidi Moss) is euthanized by the physician Saint Ignatius (Eugene Brancoveanu), who is later executed for it.

The two meet in heaven in the original, but may not in this version by stage director Brian Staufenbiel and music director Nicole Paiement, of Ensemble Parallele.

“I think the whimsical words in this production are purely sound tools as well as providing some comic relief,” Moss says. “It may seem crazy and random, but there is profundity and beauty in it.”

The cast includes Kristen Choi as Saint Teresa II, J. Raymond Meyers as Saint Stephen, Jonathan Smucker as Saint Chavez, Maya Kherani  as Saint Settlement, Jason Detwiler as Saint Plan and Brooke Munoz as Saint Cecilia.

Thomson, a music critic and avant-garde composer, has said Stein’s words should not be taken literally or construed in symbolism. In his score, he used what he called simple elements in the musical vernacular to match “the poet’s liberties with logic.”

The collaborative production has two parts. Preceding “Four Saints” is a new piece called “A Heavenly Act,” which was inspired by a shorter version of “Four Saints” Thomson wrote in the 1950s.

Performance artist Kalup Linzy is featured in “A Heavenly Act,” which includes video projections and music set to Stein’s libretto by San Francisco Conservatory of Music teacher, pianist and Vietnamese dan bau (musical saw) player Luciano Chessa.

“Act” segues into “Four Saints” without pause. There is no intermission, and the entire production runs about 90 minutes.

SFMOMA associate curator Frank Smigiel, who initiated the project, says the updated multimedia restaging of “Four Saints” explores “the rich platform of artistic collaboration that characterized Gertrude Stein’s circle. “It also creates an entirely new circle of artists. Chessa brings crucial insight into Thomson’s original score and imaginatively responds to it. Linzy’s sophisticated approach to language and his knowing burlesques of identity politics are a formidable match for Stein’s libretto. And Ensemble Parallele lends an impressive track record of developing truly contemporary opera.”


Four Saints in Three Acts

Where: Novellus Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday  Aug. 21

Tickets: $10 to $85

Contact: (415) 978-2787,

artsentertainmentPop Music & JazzSan FranciscoYerba Buena Center

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