An Interview with Author Karren LaLonde Alenier
by Book Review Editor: Grace Cavalieri, exclusive to The Montserrat Review
Here is a new book now illuminating the music/literature scene:
The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas, by Karren LaLonde Alenier, Unlimited Publishing LLC, c2007. ISBN: 978-58832-192-3. 310 pages. Order online only at http://www.unlimitedpublishing.com/alenier/
Here is what music reviewers said:
“She describes the dedication, drama, and luck necessary to successfully write and produce an American opera. This book exposes its audience to a unique niche in today’s musical arts, new American opera. Opera fans will enjoy the book…William Scott & Constance MacDonald, The Montserrat Review”
We thought those who read this book would like to know more about its author, so here’s an undercover look at the woman behind the book, the woman behind the opera: Poet Karren LaLonde Alenier
Grace Cavalieri: Why did you write The Steiny Road to Operadom?
Karren Alenier: After writing an opera column for Scene4 Magazine for several years, I realized no one else had told the story about what it takes to develop an opera in America. I also learned from my theater director that it’s important to teach people how hard it is to bring a new opera to the stage. So I wanted to do my part to help advance the cause of new opera. I also think that the book will help bring attention to my opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On. Finally it seemed like a logical thing to do to advance my opera education—if I put together what I had already written and published on the Internet, I would reinforce the information I was trying to master.
GC: What is the one remembrance you’d like the reader to have, after finishing the book?
KA: I would like a reader to come away from the book with this thought: opera offers something for everyone and an operagoer can have not only deep intellectual and emotional experiences but also satisfying pleasure.
GC: How does this book augment the creation of a work of art, specifically your opera “GERTRUDE STEIN INVENTS A JUMP EARLY ON”?
KA: The book puts my opera into the perspective of contemporary American opera. For example, by exploring the differences between opera, music theater, and the Broadway musical with other composers such as Mark Adamo and Deborah Drattell, I could better understand what my collaborating composer William Banfield wrote. That’s just one aspect because I also dug in deep to understand what a director and a dramaturgy do for the development of a new opera. I talked to a singer to understand her investment in the field of opera and how hard it is to get hired. I also talked to critics to understand their responsibilities and to form a critical philosophy and approach for the work I was doing as an opera critic. The subject of my opera is how an artist faces her critics so going straight to the experts was not only daring but imperative.
GC: What is the gift you believe music gives to the world?
KA: Like religion, politics, and all the other arts (poetry, dance, sculpture, just to name a few), music provides an organized response to a chaotic world. Through sound, music offers a possible bridge to a new understanding of external things, events, and ideas that we live with and may not know how to cope with.
GC: What structures exist in America to invite the creation of new American Opera?
Currently the most prominent opportunity for new work-in-progress operas in the United States is New York City Opera’s VOX program. Since 1999, NYCO through VOX has been showcasing excerpts from new operas. In the last several years, VOX has featured twelve new works annually. There is no other program that meets the scale of this exciting offering.
There is an annual program by a consortium of small opera and music theater companies in New York City (Encompass New Opera Theatre, American Opera Projects, The Center for Contemporary Opera, and Music-Theatre Group) presenting work-in-progress operas and music theater pieces. In the last several years, they have presented some of their work both in their annual program and as an add-on to the VOX weekend.
Manhattan School of Music hosts an annual program co-sponsored by Opera Index and the National Opera Association that usually presents two work-in-progress pieces that are either opera or music theater.
Finally, some opera companies across the United States help develop new operas and then give them a world premiere.
GC: What is a libretto?
KA: The libretto is the textual script of an opera. Some libretti are lines of poetry. Others are prose. Effective libretti usually contain short lines of text. Some operas contain spoken lines of text like Mozart’s singspiel opera The Magic Flute. Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On is singspiel. True to subject matter—Gertrude Stein—the Stein opera has a lot more text than the average opera.
GC: List the steps/processes you engaged before opening night? How long was this opera in the making? From planning to production?
KA: Once the commission for the opera was in place (meaning there was a commitment to pay the composer and the theater was on board to develop the work with the composer and poet-librettist), the poet, composer and director-dramaturgy met in New York City several times to review the work on the libretto. Next the composer took the libretto and set selected portions of the text. In this case, the text was not altered. Sometimes the lyrics are produced by someone other than the librettist. When the piano vocal score was completed and presented by the composer to the poet and director, a first workshop was organized. In the development of the Stein opera there were five public workshops and one closed studio workshop to film the entire work so that the composer could create the orchestration. It took five years from the signing of the commission to the world premiere production in June 2005.
GC: Why did you do it?
KA: In my formative years as a poet, I hung out with Deirdra Baldwin who said we needed to move toward a poet’s theater. For years, people had told me my poetry was musical and would lend itself to being set musically. Around 1983 after seeing Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, I wrote a kernel play about Stein and brought it out of my drawer to do a public tribute to Stein on her birthday in 1996. From that public reading of the play, I was convinced my work about Stein should be set to music.
GC: Who is your ideal operagoer?
KA: My ideal operagoer welcomes new work and does not measure everything they hear by the work of Puccini.
GC: How can opera keep up with the rapid eye movement of technology we are accustomed to?
KA: New opera often includes today’s technologies of computer images, film, and electronic sounds. Younger artists and audience members are influencing opera in this way. It’s an exciting time to be working in the field.
GC: What astonishes you?
KA: Practically everything about working on opera astonishes me. I felt like a combination of Alice-in-wonderland and Voltaire’s Candide and thus was born my persona The Steiny Road Poet. Collaborating was harder than I ever imagined. Hearing my words being sung knocked me into the stratosphere. The combination with music and sung voice really extended the meaning of what I had written. Seeing people emerge from the theater on opening night with tears streaming down their faces.
GC: What brings you pleasure?
KA: Learning something new every day. Writing a poem that moves a reader willing to talk to me. Dancing on a wooden floor to live music with another person who loves dancing and knows how to move. Discovering a class full of children who read poetry at home and like it. Taking a well-framed picture that shows me something that I didn’t know I saw. Inventing a new recipe that I can share with someone who loves to try new dishes.
GC: What in art do you believe in above all else?
KA: Art is the only way to leave something of yourself on Earth. Although your children may have some of your genes, they are not you.
GC: How do we artists overcome the grayness of self doubt?
KA: You get up every day, make your bed, exercise, eat right, and get straight to work. After that, play with all your heart.
GC: What do you wish you’d done differently in writing the book? And making the opera?
KA: I had to make a lot of choices for what would be in the Steiny Road book. At this juncture, I am satisfied with my choices. In the future I might develop another book on opera based on my Scene4 Magazine columns from which this book is drawn.
The collaboration on the opera shaped my choices there and the results were good. Left alone, I would have made the libretto more experimental. Still I have no regrets about the completed work.
GC: Where is your personal energy source?
KA: Starting with water and then getting a good night’s sleep and sticking to a regular routine of eating, exercising, working and playing. Getting a few hugs everyday helps a lot too! I am pleased to have a devoted spouse.
GC: Describe your art activities beyond individual creation.
KA: I write criticism on opera and theater regularly. Occasionally, I write criticism on classical music, dance, literature, and the visual arts. My critical essays are published in Scene4 Magazine, my Scene4 Magazine blog called The Dressing, and on CultureVulture.net.
I also lead The Word Works, a nonprofit literary organization dedicated to publishing contemporary poetry in collector editions. The work I do for The Word Works is important in keeping poetry alive in our culture which does not always appreciate poetry.
GC: What is globally understood about opera?
KA: Only war is more expensive than opera. It is the pinnacle artistic expression in the performing arts combining all the other arts: song, instrumental music, dramatic skills, dance, movement, scenic art, lighting and sound designs. Because it has always included so many kinds of arts, people didn’t expect to understand everything happening on stage. Therefore the language barrier was often forgiven because one could enjoy the music, movement, dance, and visual effects. Now an operagoer expects surtitles to ensure understanding in the dominant language of the audience. This however hasn’t stopped me from enjoying Mozart’s The Magic Flute written in German with subtitles in Italian. (I saw Julie Taymor’s production in Florence, Italy some years back.)
GC: What in your life means the most to you?
KA: Having a balance of loving family and friends with a steady schedule of creative work and play.
GC: What did you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner today?
KA: Breakfast- Oatmeal with raisins and maple syrup, fresh pineapple and orange slices, mint tea with honey;Lunch -Leftover broiled salmon, peapods, boiled potatoes, a sesame bagel with apricot jam; Dinner- Whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce and ground sirloin (no antibiotics), salad with balsamic vinegar dressing, steamed acorn squash with maple syrup and a dash of cinnamon sugar.
GC: What was the last film you saw?
KA: Atonement and I loved the visual aspect of the cinema photography. The story about a girl who falsely accuses a man his sister loved is quite engrossing. And the bonus is this girl becomes a writer.
GC: What aspects of film inspire you?
KA: I love to go to a movie theater and lose myself in the flashing images. I like the largeness of the experience, how the dark draws me into the action. Live theater is a totally different experience which I love for the way it lets me drift in and out of reality.
GC: How does opera use the most powerful ingredient of silence?
KA: Usually it sets up an important emotional action. In our culture of sound bites and the need to keep people entertained, silence is a difficult commodity to use well.
GC: How does public praise affect a work of art?
KA: Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On was reviewed positively by Anthony Tommasini, the senior music of The New York Times. When I have heard on occasion someone I do not know say that they had read that review, I realize that my opera no longer belongs exclusively to my collaborators and me. The work because of the public praise (such as it was – Tommasini gave more praise to my words than to my composer’s music) makes it a public entity. Therefore praise gives legs to a work so that it stands apart from its creators.
GC: If opera is a country of its own, describe its citizens.
KA: They wear funny hats and skin-tight gloves. Seriously, opera audiences cannot be set apart from the rest of the population since opera has a broad definition that includes all kinds of subject matter and styles of music. In the Steiny Road book I write about Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rough Plant, a successful pop opera supported by American labor unions.
GC: What bewilders you the most about opera in America?
KA: How people still ask if I am writing my operas in English.
GC: What is your struggle at this moment to move onward and operaward?
KA: I am trying to find a reliable but gifted composer to work with me on my second opera.
GC: What is the most beautiful thing you can call to mind right this moment?
KA: Poet Anne Becker holding poet Jacklyn Potter’s hand and talking to Jacklyn as she lay comatose. Anne’s outpouring of love for a friend who had no family and who was not going to recover or live too many more hours was a scene not only of great compassion but divine beauty.
GC: What spiritual principles underlie your daily practices?
KA: Opening to grace—an anusara yoga practice—is my ideal spiritual principle. Anusara means "to step into the current of divine will."
GC: What do you hope for?
KA: I hope that our planet will not implode because we are selfish and are not taking care of Mother Earth.
GC: What are you working on now?
KA: A second opera libretto about Jane and Paul Bowles based on a collection of poems about them that I have been writing and continue to work on.
GC: Here are some quotes about your new book, said by the experts:
“Karren Alenier's peripatetic The Steiny Road to Operadom is a must read for any librettist, composer, or opera aficionado in search of an inside look at the creation and performance of a contemporary opera.”
Director of Opera Studies
Manhattan School of Music
“The Steiny Road to Operadom is a fascinating look into the mind of American poet and librettist Karren Alenier. A must-read for anyone aspiring to write for contemporary American Opera. A truly Stein’ian landscape full of reflections, advice, interviews and objects trouvés from her creative journey starting in Tangier with Paul Bowles in 1982 until the full production of Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On in New York in 2005. Full of surprises and fun to read.”
Dr. Frank Hentschker
Director of Programs,
The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center,
The Graduate Center, CUNY
“Karren Alenier gives us a fresh view into the world of perhaps the most important writer of our time. She shows the rocky and fruitful collaboration of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson through a wide range of scholarly sources and through her own process with composer William Banfield. The romantic myth of the artist alone crumbles in the glow of a community of artists, as does the myth of the blissful communion of collaborators, whether in 1930's Paris or New York in the twenty first century. We see the awkward beauty of two operas conceived, born, and bred, and through the eyes and ears of the Steiny Poet, we can hear the music of language, and the language of music, all the more clearly.”
librettist for James Sellars' opera, The World is Round
GC :What are your websites and other vital electronic statistics where we can find out more about you and your work?
KA: There are 5 sites -
Karren LaLonde Alenier is author of five collections of poetry, including Looking for Divine Transportation (The Bunny and the Crocodile Press), winner of the 2002 Towson University Prize for Literature. Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On, her jazz opera with composer William Banfield and Encompass New Opera Theatre artistic director Nancy Rhodes premiered at New York City’s Symphony Space Leonard Nimoy Thalia in June 2005. Alenier developed The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas from work published in Scene4 Magazine at scene4.com, including her monthly column on opera known as The Steiny Road to Operadom.
Grace Cavalieri is author of several books of poetry, 21 produced plays; and has authored books/librettos and lyrics for two American operas with composer Vivian Adelberg Rudow.