New (to me): Four Saints in Three Acts

Image via flickr user tambako

My poetry professor is an opera lover. He’s never explicitly stated this, but it is easy to infer. Even relatively slim connections to opera in our reading materials are expounded upon in great detail, and he organized a screening for students of a DVD of The Rake’s Progress (relevance to reading material: a libretto by W. H. Auden).

Today in class he introduced me to an opera I’d never heard of before: Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein. I found the short segment he played in class to be utterly charming – the musical language familiar to anyone fond of romantic-era opera; the words entirely opaque. Hearing a chorus sing “Prepare for saints” with all the musical earnestness of the announcement of the coming of a Verdian king is an interesting operatic experience, especially for those of us who do not speak the language of our favourite operas.

Listening to an Italian opera when you don’t speak Italian is to experience the words as sound-patterns or elements of the music, rather than as referential or communicative. A single word might leap out here and there – amore, morto, avanti – but it’s mostly syllables. Four Saints in Three Acts, although it’s in English, isn’t that different. An understandable phrase will leap up now and then – prepare for saints – but most of the time it’s music-word after music-word.

I leave you with the text of what is, according to Wikipedia, the most famous aria: Pigeons on the grass alas.

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the grass.
If they were not pigeons what were they. If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had heard of a third and he asked about it it was a magpie in the sky. If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.They might be very well they might be very well very well they might be. Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily Lily let Lily Lucy Lucy let Lily. Let Lucy Lily.


  1. Brigid de Jong

    I did a scene from this opera with my Opera Workshop class at the university where I teach. It was a huge challenge to get the students to act out the main subtext of the story without using the words as reference. It is easier for them to sing and act in a foreign language than it was for them to do this!

    • Cecily

      That’s very interesting! I remember doing a few acting classes when I was a teenager and one of the exercises was learning to convey plot and emotion while speaking only nonsense words. It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds – and I bet it’s even tougher when the words are English but jumbled.