It has to be hard for anybody to fashion a narrative for a 100-minute opera from Gertrude Stein’s famously difficult, many believe unreadable 900+ page novel, The Making of Americans. Jay Scheib’s re-imagining, which surely achieves more through its use of multimedia than any other attempt to bring the novel to the stage, highlights key moments not only in the lives of the families that are the subject of Stein’s novel, but perhaps much of humanity itself. The creators of the opera seemed to strike a balance between a narrative involving marriage, broken relationships, and death and the images that make the work resonant far beyond these individual characters and families.
Hometown new music-heroes Zeitgeist and the JACK Quartet from New York deftly performed Anthony Gatto’s score. Much of Gatto’s music was post-minimalist in character, appropriate for a work so dependent in form and content on repetition. At other points, though, passages sounded like an almost Bach-like chorale and, elsewhere, the rich, slow moving harmony of a Debussy piano etude; the joyous wedding music that opens the work was some of Gatto’s best. The singing was generally expressive, clear and, in-tune, though at times sounded a bit strained, perhaps explained by the fact that many of the characters were attempting to sing in extreme registers while in all sorts of positions.
The opera not only drew upon the content of Stein’s novel in its exploration of the Hersland and Dehning families, but also its form. In addition to her almost tortuous repetition of precise grammatical structures, Stein foregrounds her own presence throughout the book, calling attention to the very processes of creation that are crystallized in the final work. The opera reflected and built upon these ideas: the musicians were on stage right, stage lights descended from the ceiling to the middle of the stage, and little effort was made to hide microphone battery packs. The aspect that best bridged the gap between form and content, though, was the projection of footage from the cameras inside Chris Larson’s house from Crush Collision were projected onto a screen suspended above the stage; their slightly grainy and delayed image gave the impression of YouTube voyeurism, a sense of looking in at this family, and being made slightly uncomfortable for our efforts.
Much of the work’s visual logic emanates from Scheib’s idea of “motion portraiture,” the slow moving development of moving images, both in terms of film as well as the developing images that make up the opera’s visual and sonic landscape. Despite the potential embedded in such a concept, Stein’s words were far more powerful than most many of the work’s images. (Many of them seemed predictable, with their emphases on roots and trees, both plant and familial.) The constant repetition with a crucial difference of words such as being, dead, history, and repeating opens up a window to the possibilities of reflection and imagination that language in Stein’s skilled, almost obsessive hand, affords us.
Through this language, Stein’s words extend far beyond two American families, which Scheib echoes in similarly universalizing tones in his Director’s Notes:
I hope that [The Making of Americans] will remind us of the perfect depiction of an event—a marriage, a funeral, a divorce—a motion portrait of ordinary lives. Something about becoming Americans, about doing the best we can with the time we have. And about it only mattering so much, since the next generation will do the same. And it just goes on like that.
I have to say, this statement left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Such bald generalizations—are Americans the only people that do “the best we can with the time we have”?—seem out of a place within an artistic and philosophical environment of such detailed introspection about the nature of familial ties, be they part of one’s own family or a more utopian idea of a “human family.” There’s a history of white Americans believing the world revolves around them, and many histories have been written through this lens Americans alone, often with disastrous consequences.
And while all involved see the opera as possessing meaning for the contemporary world, it seems hesitant to ascribe any meanings that might be too specific, such as the wide-ranging and often inflammatory debates about immigrants as “becoming American.” By not really going down that path, the work in the end seems ambivalent about who actually fits into the category of “a real American,” a phrase repeated incessantly near the beginning of the opera.
Illustrating this was the fact that the actress Tanya Selvaratnam, who is of South Asian descent, was the only prominent person of color on the stage. Her performance as Mary Maxworthing that ended the opera, though, contained the most powerful moments of the entire evening. Numerous people in the audience were moved to tears as her character reflects on the fate that awaits us all.
There is, of course, so much in both versions of Making of Americans that you could most likely come up with an alternate interpretation to address whatever criticisms I may have. Yet the attempt to make the ordinary extraordinary, which Scheib and the rest of those who expertly brought forth this multi-faceted imagining of Stein’s novel, threatens to be hamstrung by all-too familiar ethnocentric conceptions that structure much of the world’s inequality today, inequality that all families, including those in America, must live under.