Celebrated Boston-based experimental theater director Jay Scheib, Brooklyn-based composer Anthony Gatto, Minneapolis-based new music stalwarts Zeitgeist, and upstart New York string quartet JACK conspire to re-imagine Gertrude Stein’s groundbreaking history of “everyone everywhere at every time” with the Walker Art Center-commissioned opera The Making of Americans. Conceived as a cross-media opera for small orchestra, string quartet, six singers, an actor, and a chorus of families, this ambitious collaboration has its world premiere Friday–Saturday, December 12–13, at 8 pm in the Walker’s William and Nadine McGuire Theater. The Making of Americans unfolds in front of sets and machines by Minneapolis artist Chris Larson with Scheib’s signature live and processed video streams. In addition to JACK’s strings, live chorus, and six principal singer/actors (including local favorites Bradley Greenwald and David Echelard, and The Builders Association’s Tanya Selvaratnam), the unusual instrumentation includes accordions, autoharps, hurdy-gurdies, scrap-yard percussion, and church bells. Music composed by Anthony Gatto, book adapted from the novel by Jay Scheib, libretto by Anthony Gatto and Jay Scheib with performances by Rachel Calloway as Martha Hersland, David Echelard as David Hersland, Jr., Bradley Greenwald as David Hersland, Sr., Michael Müller as Alfred Hersland, Elizabeth Munn as Martha Redfern, Pamela Stein as Julia Dehning, and actress Tanya Selvaratnam as Mary Maxworthing.
Adapted from Stein’s 900-plus page cubist novel of the same name, The Making of Americans was developed in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where two studio showings took place November 21 and 22 at the Kresge Little Theater. The Making of Americans was first published in 1925 in France. Stein’s contribution to an environment of extraordinary experimentation in the arts was realized in her telling of a history of everyone everywhere at every time. Her novel is a painstaking description of exactly that—humanity in America through the lens of a single family’s progress across three generations. The result is a detailed motion portrait described from an array of ever-shifting perspectives. Through her obsessive description of both the mundane and the fantastic events of living, succeeding at living, failing at living, and coming eventually to the end of living, Stein’s portrait of “a decent family’s progress” becomes not only a meaningful meditation on the making of American people, but a profound and moving history of the making of America itself.
In this production, storms fill the sky, a tree is torn from the ground, its roots obscenely pointing to the sky. Shingles are torn from the roof of a small house and slowly, from wedding to funeral, families fill the stage. “It’s the Cubist alternative to Little House on the Prairie,” says Scheib. “There’s a quote from Gertrude Stein, who said [the novel] is about the history of everyone, at every time, at every point in space. Representing that in a single frame, what does that look like? I’m trying to show that here.” Scheib remains faithful to Stein’s novel, in which she describes humanity through the path of three generations of a single family. He boils down the narrative to this: “Every individual is going to fail sometimes, every individual is going to succeed sometimes, and everybody is going to die. So this coming of every generation—doing the best they can do—is the making of Americans. Notice I didn’t say the making of America.”
Jay Scheib, Director
“What a pleasure to encounter an artist like Scheib, with so many ideas and so many means of presenting them . . . In a video clip, Dr. Zubrin insists: ‘We have to go to Mars simply because it’s there.’ If Scheib’s leading, we just might go along for the ride.” (Untitled Mars)
—The Village Voice
“Luckily, the American avant-garde set had a piece in the festival as well, and it was a jaw-dropping doozy. The title ‘Under the Radar’ may imply undiscovered potential. But in the case of Mr. Scheib, we are actually seeing an already major talent coming triumphantly into its own.” (This Place is a Desert)
—New York Sun
”Jay Scheib’s production of this disturbing 75-minute real-time family/relationship drama is electrifying. Actors smack each other, break into wrestling matches, vomit water, leap over tables. It has to be seen to be believed.” (Women Dreamt Horses)
—Time Out New York
Writer/director/designer Jay Scheib has developed new works for performance for more than 10 years in the United States and throughout Europe. Recent productions include the Obie Award-winning Untitled Mars (This Title May Change), which premiered at Performance Space 122 in New York, followed by performances at the National Theatre in Budapest, Hungary; and This Place is a Desert, which premiered at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art followed by a sold-out run at the Public Theater in New York as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Scheib has collaborated with acclaimed punk rock ensemble The World Inferno Friendship Society on a multimedia performance titled Addicted to Bad Ideas, Peter Lorre’s 20th Century, which premiered at Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and opened the 2008 Season of the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University in New Jersey, followed by a European tour. Past works staged in New York include the critically acclaimed Women Dreamt Horses, by Argentinean author Daniel Veronese, at Performance Space 122 as part of BAiT – Buenos Aires in Translation; and a studio production of Slovenian writer Saska Rakef’s new play Shelter, first in conjunction with New York Theater Workshop as part of the European Dream Festival and later in Ljubljana as part of the PreGlej Festival of New Plays. At Raum (Space) Bologna, Scheib took part in the Xing Festival, presenting his Shakespeare adaptation All Good Everything Good as a performance installation with Italian singer Margareth Kammerer. Other international works include the world premiere of Irene Popovic’s opera Mozart Luster Lustik at the Sava Center in Belgrade, Serbia, and a new staging of the Novoflot science-fiction opera saga Kommander Kobayashi in Saarbruecken, Germany.
Scheib is currently Associate Professor for Music and Theater Arts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a guest professor at the Mozarteum Institute für Regie und Schauspiel in Salzburg, Austria. He received his master’s of fine arts in directing from Columbia University in New York City. He is a past directing fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts/Theater Communication Group Career Development Program and the recipient of the 2008 Edgerton Award from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Anthony Gatto, Composer
“A spectacular fantasy . . . humorous and virtuosic.” (Black Dog/Lucky Dog)
—The New York Times
“Haunting, brilliant musical score.” (Elijah’s Wake)
Born in Brooklyn, NY, composer Anthony Gatto has developed collaborative works and concert music with a wide range of artists and ensembles in the United States and Europe, including scores and sound design for film, theater, dance and performance art. Studying improvisation and composition with Ornette Coleman in New York City was formative in his universalist concerns for sound, time, and human feeling. He later studied composition with Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick at the Yale School of Music, where he completed his Doctorate of Musical Arts in 2001. Recent commissions and performances include The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (The Sheltering Sky), the Walker Art Center (The Making of Americans), the string quartet Ethel and guitarist Mark Stewart (Black Dog/Lucky Dog), the chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound (Eat a Peach), the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet (Unbreak My Heart), MATA Festival 2002/guitarist Michael Nicollela (Because a Pony (for John Lennon)), the Minnesota Orchestra (Summer Hockets), and the Bakken Trio (Falling and Waving). Gatto has received honors and awards from the Fulbright Fellowship program, the Bush, McKnight, and Jerome Foundations, Meet the Composer, Minnesota State Arts Board, an Aaron Copland Award, Yaddo residencies, and an ASCAP Grant to Young Composers. He is the founder and artistic director of The Festival Dancing in Your Head, a three-day music and media festival for commissioning emerging and established artists and juxtaposing performances of styles and ideas from around the world. His upcoming works include compositions and sound design for a remounting of Elijah’s Wake, commissioned by Michael Sommers and Open Eye Figure Theater, Fall 2009; Monster, for string quartet and sound design, commissioned by Rebecca Pappas and Dancers, premiering in Los Angeles in spring 2009; New Stage Work, commissioned by Ensemble Laboratorium, Winterhur, Switzerland, premiering in fall 2009.
Chris Larson, Scenic Design
Multimedia artist Chris Larson’s work examines the relationship between humans and machines—sometimes expressed through a moment of impact, sometimes through great toil and effort. His sculptures, films, and photographs are collected and recognized around the world. His 2004 life-size sculpture, Pause (The Dukes of Hazard ‘69 Charger and Ted Kaczynski’s Montana Refuge), was recently purchased by Ruth and William True of Seattle, named among the world’s top 200 collectors by ARTnews in 2008. His exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Crush Collision, garnered international attention when it was exhibited at Magnus Miller in Berlin earlier this year. Larson is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. He was born in 1966 in rural Minnesota.
Peter Ksander, Lighting Design
Peter Ksander is a sculptor and theater artist currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Credits include designs for: Untitled Mars (This Title May Change), The Brothers Size (The Public Theatre), Laude in Urbis (Compania di Colombari), This Place is a Desert (Under the Radar, ICA Boston), The Blackamoor Angel (Bard Summerscape), Women Dreamt Horses and Panic (Bait Festival/PS122). He is co-founder of Tiny Elephant, a theater company dedicated to the performing object, and collaborates with Banana, Bag, and Bodice, The Ontological-Hysteric Theater, and TENT. He is also a curator for the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator. In 2005 Ksander was a recipient of the NEA/TCG Career Development Program grant, and in 2008 he received an Obie Award for Scenic Design for Untitled Mars.
Zeitgeist, a chamber group of two percussionists, woodwinds, and piano, is the only full-time ensemble in the Twin Cities dedicated to the performance of new music. Zeitgeist is a unique resource for local audiences presenting an annual concert series (four productions) and audience enrichment programs (Eric Stokes Song Contest, Lowertown Listening Sessions, Zeitgeist: Back to School, and St. Paul Listens) as well as artist enrichment programs (Zeitgeist/Composer Workshop and Tuesday Salons). Zeitgeist’s performance space, Studio Z, is home to most of the ensemble’s productions and programs as well as other new music performances. Zeitgeist tours, has produced six recordings, and has commissioned more than 200 works. Its theatrical music performances include Sound Stage by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert (2001), Vinculum Symphony by Beth Custer (2001), Shape Shifting: Shades of Transformation by Scott Miller (2004), and Pine Eyes by Martin Bresnick and Puppetsweat (2006).
Praised for its “powerhouse playing” by the Chicago Sun-Times, the JACK Quartet maintains a steady appetite for today’s most demanding string quartet repertoire. Comprised of violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland, the quartet has given high-energy performances in Europe and North America, including appearances at Carnegie Hall, La Biennale di Venezia, the Lucerne Festival, and the Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea de Michoacán. The members of the quartet met while attending the Eastman School of Music, where in addition to learning standard and contemporary repertoire, they pursued period, non-western, and popular performance styles. The JACK Quartet studied with the Arditti Quartet at the Pro-Bio Foundation Summer School for Contemporary Quartet Music, the Kronos Quartet at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, and with members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Lucerne Festival Academy. The commissioning and performance of new works for string quartet is integral to the ensemble’s mission, leading them to work closely with composers Helmut Lachenmann, Wolfgang Rihm, Matthias Pintscher, Aaron Cassidy, Aaron Travers, Roberto Rusconi, Cristian Amigo, Robert Wannamaker, Randall Woolf, Kirsten Broberg, Alexandra du Bois, and Samuel Adler. The quartet has also worked with composition students at Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and in Italy with the Intrasonus Project. In addition to working with composers and performers, JACK Quartet seeks to broaden and diversify the potential audience for new music through educational presentations designed for a variety of ages, backgrounds, and levels of musical experience.
Tickets to The Making of Americans are $25 ($21 Walker members) and are available at walkerart.org/tickets or by calling 612.375.7600.