Text by Gertrude Stein (1916), first published in 1922 by Four Seas Co., Boston (public domain).
“Ladiesʼ Voices” is one of Gertrude Steinʼs earliest “gossip” plays, inspired by a party that she and her partner Alice B. Toklas attended in 1916. Stein derived so much joy from the snippets of conversation she overheard while there, despite no awareness of the contexts to which those snippets belonged, that this play became an attempt to recreate that experience. Specific place names, like the “Hotel Victoria” and “Mahon,” place the action in Majorca (the location of the party), and it can be assumed that personal names—Mrs. Cardillac, Miss Williams, Genevieve, Mr. Richard Sutherland—are “real” and originated there, as well. There is coded language throughout the play, too—Aliceʼs nickname for Stein was “Caesar,” and “passing an archduke” is a euphemism for flatulence.
I came across “Ladiesʼ Voices” while enjoying a composer residency at Copland House in Cortlandt, NY. I was looking for a text to set for the wonderful soprano Chelsea Miller, who would premiere my setting with Chautauqua Opera, where I was to serve as the first composer in residence in 2016. Copland loved reading books of letters—there were shelves of them in his home library—and for whatever reason I was drawn to The Letters of Alice B. Toklas. She, in turn, turned me on to Gertrude Stein, so I went to the local bookstore in nearby Peekskill and bought everything of Steinʼs on their shelf, including this bizarre little play.
I was immediately attracted by the form of the play—five very short sections that I felt I could turn into characteristic miniatures, giving equal play to the voice and the orchestra. But I knew that I couldnʼt set all the text for Chelsea alone (there was too much), and, besides, I had no idea what the play meant, strictly speaking! When I floated the idea with Chautauqua Opera, they allowed me to commandeer other singers in the program to participate as speakers, solving the text problem, and I drafted the whole piece in a single morning. I worked out the details over the next two weeks, finishing the work a couple of days before my residency at Copland House ended.
Steinʼs theatrical works arenʼt performed all that often, but there are many musical settings of them. Her lines are so evocative, and they “mean” something expressively, even if they don’t “mean” anything literally—this is how I approached setting “Ladiesʼ Voices.” Of course, it helped to remember that Stein was channeling gossip—overheard snippets of speech full of scandal, loathing, titillation, but little “useful” information. “Ladiesʼ Voices” was an excellent text for Chelsea because my resulting setting allowed her to employ a wide range of singing types (the “chesty”” second act, the virtuosic first, the floating, sensuous third) in a work of relatively modest duration (the whole play, as set by me, lasts a little over 7 minutes).
My work celebrates one of the most important writers of the early 20th century, written in what was the hundredth anniversary of this, her first “gossip” play. Steinʼs writings stand apart from those of her contemporaries via their playful tone and persistent use of stream-of-consciousness—a technique Stein pioneered—but Iʼve always loved early 20th-century literature in general for its optimism, its sense of adventure, and the deep belief among its practitioners that what one did (artistically) was of vital importance to how one lived. This play is a strange and funny but no less sincere expression of that earnest artistic adventure-seeking.