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Prepare for Saints

Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism

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Perhaps the oddest and most influential collaboration in the history of American modernism was hatched in 1926, when a young Virgil Thomson knocked on Gertrude Stein's door in Paris. Eight years later, their opera Four Saints in Three Acts became a sensation--the longest-running opera in Broadway history to date and the most widely reported cultural event of its time.
        Four Saints was proclaimed the birth of a new art form, a cellophane fantasy, "cubism on stage." It swept the public imagination, inspiring new art and new language, and defied every convention of what an opera should be. Everything about it was revolution-ary: Stein's abstract text and Thomson's homespun music, the all-black cast, the costumes, and the com-bustible sets. Moving from the Wadsworth Atheneum to Broadway, Four Saints was the first popular modernist production. It brought modernism, with all its flamboyant outrage against convention, into the mainstream.
        This is the story of how that opera came to be. It involves artists, writers, musicians, salon hostesses, and an underwear manufacturer with an appetite for publicity. The opera's success depended on a handful of Harvard-trained men who shaped America's first museums of modern art. The elaborately intertwined lives of the collaborators provide a window onto the pioneering generation that defined modern taste in America in the 1920s and 1930s.
        A brilliant cultural historian with a talent for bringing the past to life, Steven Watson spent ten years researching and writing this book, interviewing many of the collaborators and performers. Prepare for Saints is the first book to describe this pivotal moment in American cultural history. It does so with a spirit and irreverence worthy of its subject.

NOTE: This edition does not include photographs.

From Publishers Weekly

Jan 04, 1999 – Virtuoso literary journalist Watson's Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde (1991) set the standard for books seeking to accessibly summarize complex literary and artistic movements, blending time lines, lexicons of period argot, unfamiliar photos and accounts from the newspapers of the day. Here, Watson applies the same formula to a definitive moment in Modernist history: the collaboration of Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thompson on the 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts, the first large-scale, homegrown avant-garde theatrical production to surface on the cultural radar (revived two years ago in Houston and New York by Robert Wilson). Coming a year after Brenda Wineapple's Sister Brother laid bare the finally explosive relationship between Gertrude and Leo Stein, Watson's book shows how the galaxy of talent that orbited around the Stein/Toklas household at 27 rue de Fleurus joined forces with a group of echt-Harvard tastemakers who saw a good thing and ran with it, mounting the incomparably lovely but plotless opera with an all-black cast, gracing it with innovative sets by the still under-appreciated Florine Stettheimer and promoting it with the sort of PR machine unknown in the art world at that time. Watson doesn't miss an angle on the story of how these forces came together and eventually took the show from its Hartford, Conn., premier to a smash Broadway run: Thompson's odyssey from small-town America to cosmopolitan composer; Stein's brilliant writing and imperious holding of court; the involvement of Philip Johnson and the fledgling Museum of Modern Art. Most refreshingly, Watson details the inseparability of African-American artists and culture from the opera, from the sexual stereotypes of the era and from modernism at large. FYI: Watson has also written, directed and coproduced the documentary Prepare for Saints: The Making of a Modern Opera, hosted by Jessye Norman, to be aired on PBS in February.
Prepare for Saints
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  • $13.99
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: History
  • Published: Jan 26, 1999
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Seller: Penguin Random House LLC
  • Print Length: 400 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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