Salon of Stein, Toklas comes to life in the opera ‘27’

Elizabeth Futral and Stephanie Blythe rehearse a scene from ‘27.’  Photo by Ken Howard. 

By Susan Fadem, Special to the Jewish Light

His parents, a one-time Borscht Belt singer/comedian mom and an enterprising New York electrician dad, knew early on there was something special about Ricky. 

When he liked something, he loved it. Craved it. Wanted more. 

“I think I’ve always just been very intensely who I am,” composer Ricky Ian Gordon says. “I always had an aesthetic. I was always obsessively into whatever I was into.”

Gordon’s latest work, “27,” has its world premiere Saturday, June 14, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. A convergence of two of Gordon’s passions, “27” is named for 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris. It is the address of the home and fabled salon of Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate writer, feminist and poet, and her lover/partner Alice B. Toklas.

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Gordon’s infatuation with opera traces to age 8, when he and a friend attended each other’s piano lessons. While listening to his pal, Gordon pulled “The Victor Book of the Opera,” the classic reference to many of the world’s most performed operas, from the teacher’s shelf. 

She gave it to him. Shortly after, he attended his first opera, Verdi’s “Il Trovotore,” performed in New York City’s East Village. 

“I started going like every Saturday,” he recalls.

Gordon was first smitten with Gertrude Stein, a fellow Jew, during a short-term, teen-age malady. Home sick one day, he picked up “Charmed Circle.” 

Written by James R. Mellow, the book meticulously reconstructs the Saturday night salons where the sizable Stein and her partner, the diminutive and also Jewish Toklas, hosted such luminaries as Picasso, Matisse, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

For a week, Gordon says, he did nothing but eat tangerines and read “Charmed Circle.”

For adolescent angst and ambition, Stein, who left the United States for Paris in 1903, seemed an ideal mentor. 

“She became a role model in terms of presiding over your own life and deciding upon the contents, saying ‘yes’ when you mean yes and ‘no’ when you meant no,” Gordon says. “And being openly who you were in the world without assuming anyone was going to judge you. … It was beyond courage.”

Stein inspired him again at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he enrolled at age 16 and studied piano, composition and acting. 

“Just to be like Gertrude Stein,” whose home showcased what were considered outrageously modern paintings, he started buying art, mostly produced by friends.

After graduation, Gordon’s new Saturday night salon series at home was another Stein-ism, plus an opportunity to premiere many of his new compositions. 

Over the years, Gordon would emerge as a leading composer of genre-spanning vocal music, from what have been called Gershwin-esque song-and-dance numbers to twangy ballads and opera. 

His work has been performed by the likes of Renee Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, Audra MacDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Betty Buckley, Andrea Marcovicci and Frederica von Stade. 

Among Gordon’s pieces are the song cycle “Green Sneakers,” which is about the loss of Gordon’s partner, Jeffrey Michael Grossi, to AIDS at age 32. An Opera Today reviewer wrote of “Green Sneakers” that “members of the Miami String Quartet were no longer mere strings, but humanized voices.”

Gordon also wrote  “Grapes of Wrath,” a full-scale opera based on John Steinbeck’s iconic Dust Bowl novel. Opera News Magazine has ranked “Grapes of Wrath” and Gordon’s “Orpheus and Euridice” song cycle, also about Grossi’s death, among “Masterpieces of the 21th Century.”

Yet not even the much-acclaimed Gordon could have expected the passion-melding phone call he received from James Robinson, the artistic director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis who wanted to commission Gordon to compose an opera for mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. 

As if on cue, Gordon responded: “Gertrude Stein.” 

“It was a Zeitgeist moment,” says Gordon, 58. “The whole thing came to me, especially because I know Stephanie. She is by nature a presider. She’s like Gertrude Stein. It seemed absolutely right.” 

Because Opera Theatre has a thrust stage, surrounded on three sides by seats, Gordon envisioned the stage as Stein’s salon and audience members as salongoers.

To play Toklas, the California native Stein met in 1907 on the day Toklas arrived in Paris, Gordon wanted coloratura Elizabeth Futral, for whom he wrote “Orpheus and Euridice.” 

“She’s one of my best friends and one of my favorite artists in the world,” he says.

Gordon sometimes writes both the music and words. For “27,” however, he wanted a librettist. Desperate after his first choice didn’t work out, he thought of Royce Vavrek, a Canadian introduced to him months earlier by a conductor. 

“I’ll do anything to work with you,” Vavrek had said.

On March 16, 2013, Gordon phoned him with a proposition. 

“If you can read about 15 books (about Stein, Toklas and what came to be known as the ‘Lost Generation’) and write an opera libretto in a month, you have the job,” he said. 

Gordon specified that he wanted to include his favorite of Stein’s lines: “Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded.”

Vavrek accepted. About a month later, he delivered what Gordon deemed “a stunning libretto.” Not only would the onstage paintings sing, courtesy of three males Vavrek added to the cast, but these men would also sing roles including Stein’s brother Leo,   American soldiers and Fitzgerald.

Moreover, Vavrek was struck by the fact that Toklas, who died in 1967, outlived Stein by about 20 years. For Vavrek, it was “Alice’s loneliness that animates the salon again,” Gordon says. 

His imagination fired by Vavrek’s word, Gordon spent the months from late May to October last year composing. 

“27” made the cover of this month’s Opera News. This month, too, Gordon’s opera “A Coffin in Egypt,” for which mezzo Frederica von Stade came out of retirement, concludes its run in Philadelphia after its world premiere in Houston.

Life is good, Gordon says. His partner of a dozen years, Kevin Doyle, the former executive editor of Conde Nast Traveler magazine, plans to attend the opening here.

Gordon says of his ability to recover from loss, including the death four months ago of the second of his three sisters: 

“You know that thing about how — is it in Japan, when they unearth things architecturally and they’re broken, and instead of gluing them together, as things usually are, they put them together with gold so the cracks glisten and shimmer? I sort of think that’s me. I’ve lost a lot, but maybe my cracks glisten and shimmer.”