Daniel Thomas Davis’ new chamber opera, Six.Twenty.Outrageous: Three Gertrude Stein Plays in the Shape of an Opera, is a work of extraordinary accomplishment with moments of wondrousness and swaths of bafflement. In this setting of three of Gertrude Stein’s early plays, the skill of the show’s stellar creative team–and especially of the creative scenic fabrication designer, Doug Fitch–elevated the absurdist scenes with a visual style reminiscent of Wes Anderson at Symphony Space on February 11, 2018. The opera is replete with contrasting musical materials ranging across centuries of styles, and conductor and musical director David Bloom evenly unified the musical forces of the extraordinarily gifted soloists and the pioneering and ever-experimental Momenta Quartet.
Adapted into a sort of parody of a drawing room from several of Stein’s absurdist plays by the composer and librettist Adam Frank (an English professor at the University of British Columbia who specialises in American literature and is a champion of Stein), Six.Twenty.Outrageous opens with three characters staging a parlour play. Two women in dowdy brown pre-war suits (played by mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and tenor Andrew Fuchs) are joined by a third woman (soprano Ariadne Greif) in an exaggerated French maid costume. Pianist Dimitri Dover and the string quartet form a group of friends who’ve been invited to attend the play. In this act, Greif sang a sublime siren song that rendered everyone on stage soporific; perhaps an unusual choice for the first part of a lengthy opera. The guests variously attempt to make their farewells and go home from the apparently interminable evening.
I realised afterwards that the three main characters were written, according to the programme note, “more or less” as Gertrude Stein, her partner Alice Toklas, and a housekeeper cousin. Even having understood that, much of the opera’s narrative and settings would have remained elusive. The programme notes describe each act and include a synopsis of each scene, though Symphony Space’s 168-seat Thalia theatre was low-lit throughout the show, making following along impossible. This indeterminate meaning, of course, is at the very core of Stein’s work, and most in the audience were enraptured and fully-engaged with each scene. Perhaps letting go of semantics was the point. The music was at times stunningly beautiful as Davis’s score swept through styles and played imaginatively with pitting just intonation and equal temperament ensembles against each other.
Stein is revered more, perhaps, in North America than elsewhere, and many directors have used the elasticity of her writing to create their own imagined worlds. The question is always whether to create meaning despite the inscrutable texts or to let the words exist as distinct points from which no meaning can be derived. Stein’s gnomic writing–eschewing narrative and inherent meaning–has variously been interpreted as a feminist reworking of patriarchal language systems and a commentary on the meaningless nature of life. The title of Davis’s opera is taken from Stein’s play A Curtain Raiser, the text of which is, “Six. Twenty. Outrageous. Late, weak. Forty. More in any wetness. Sixty three certainly. Five. Sixteen. Seven. Three. More in orderly. Seventy-five.”
The language is fun to look at and fun to say, but for me it was difficult to enjoy over the full duration of the opera. In the first act, the women staged a beautifully-crafted shadow play within a play (…within an opera), and the clever use of a phonograph to play pre-recorded tape music was a successful and enjoyable conceit. In the second act (featuring a gloriously noisy and larger-than-life incandescent sewing machine and enormous dress mannequin), a love scene between Stein and Toklas is deprived of eroticism through the paradoxical choice of a man (Fuchs) in drag to play Stein’s lesbian lover. While the love scene was campy and fun and fitting of a parody, in all the light-hearted, abstract weirdness I found myself searching for a moment of weight.
As an historical figure, Stein is a series of contradictions. A Jewish lesbian writer, she at times espoused anti-Semitic, anti-gay, and anti-socialist views. The opera doesn’t touch on these complexities, yet for me, they hovered uncomfortably throughout the show, and especially in the third and final act when a presidential election party goes wrong. News updates from a wireless radio–stylised as wartime radio broadcasts–interrupt the partygoers, and an electronic keyboard and half the string quartet play in a tuning quite removed from the piano, voices, and remaining strings. The off-kilter tuning and disruptions of the staticky, stuttering radio heighten the absurdity and disquiet which build towards the final climactic act: unexpectedly and inexplicably, a murder.
Six.Twenty.Outrageous received a standing ovation, and in all my bemusement, I was impressed by the sheer amount of work and talent brought together to stage such an unusual and polystylistic production. A child sitting along from me summed up the experience in one concise question to her father: “What just happened?”