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.
Steven Watson is a cultural historian and documentary filmmaker. His other books include Strange Bedfellows, The Harlem Renaissance, The Birth of the Beat Generation, and Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism. He lives… More about Steven Watson
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Published by Random House Sep 05, 2012| 400 Pages| ISBN 9780307822734
"This heroic, pathbreaking generation vitally shaped the tastes of this century. Steven Watson has set America’s modernists down in these pages with vivid accuracy."–Philip Johnson
"Like the Seven Wonders of the World, Four Saints in Three Acts is a one-shot deal, coming from nowhere, producing no offspring, and remaining today–after seventy years–one of a kind. It has even been argued that Four Saints is America’s first and only opera. What Steven Watson stresses, in this sociological biography of a work of art, is that Four Saints represents a joining not just of words with music but of well-heeled all-white bohemians with all-black semi-professional vocalists. For myself, old enough to have known many of the participants, the effect is of intense nostalgia by association."–Ned Rorem, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer
"The indispensable guide to the indispensable American opera. Steven Watson fords modernist waters low and high with intrepidity, charm, and skill. He tells a good story, and he brings Gertrude Stein to life."–Wayne Koestenbaum, author of The Queen’s Throat
"A stylish, engaging, and knowing history of a great artistic collaboration that continues to change our minds."–Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic