Don't feed the pigeons

Mark Pappenheim on Houston Opera's tribute to Virgil Thomson

Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson were made for one another. Two gay Americans in gay Paree, she wrote texts full of sound and syntax, signifying nothing (or maybe everything), he believed that if composers would only set texts for their sound, the meaning would take care of itself. Together, they conceived an opera in which the daily life of 16th-century Spanish saints would offer a paradigm of being for "consecrated artists" such as themselves - who were, in Thomson's words, "trying to learn and needing to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity".

The result, Four Saints in Three Acts - an opera in four acts with at least 30 saints - was given its premiere 62 years ago today in Hartford, Connecticut, by a group cheekily calling itself the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. With trend-setting cellophane sets by Florine Stettheimer, choreography by the young Frederick Ashton and an all-black cast - hand- picked by Thomson in Harlem for what he saw as their innate dignity, poise and, above all, good diction - Four Saints transferred straight to Broadway for a record-breaking six-week run. Extraordinary then that, despite receiving an excellent 1981 Elektra Nonesuch recording, the work has not had a major American staging since.

So full marks to Houston Grand Opera - the company that gave us John Adams's Nixon in China and Sir Michael Tippett's New Year (as well as, less proudly, Philip Glass's Planet 8) - for choosing to celebrate Thomson's centenary with a new production of his first Stein opera. And bonus points for its inspired choice of director.

Robert Wilson was, of course, born to stage this piece. He has long cited Stein as a key influence on his "theatre of images", and her freely associative brand of automatic writing - which here amounts to a running commentary on the process of composition, complete with stray and second thoughts, random doodles and diary entries - oddly echoes the "nonsense" texts that the autistic Christopher Knowles was to provide for Wilson's 1976 Philip Glass collaboration, Einstein on the Beach.

While Stein's text plays its incessant counting and rhyming games around the persons of Saints Teresa and Ignatius, Thomson's score plunders his Southern Baptist roots for more good tunes (and a great tango) than virtually the rest of 20th-century opera put together. Wilson matches their quirky spirituality in images of still strength and innocent beauty - a flock of sheep sprouting from the ground in the Prologue, or a little white porcelain biplane flying in over a gold acrobat walking a silver wire to accompany Loyola's vision of the Holy Ghost ("Pigeons on the grass alas"). Anyone who saw Wilson's recent Clink Street installation will know the sort of thing, only here the tableaux were vivants. It all left its Texan audience confused: "Why the giraffes?" was the constant cry. Make up your own mind when the show comes to Edinburgh later this year.

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