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WIU Professor Writes Opera on Children's Book

Dec 9, 2014

Many contemporary composers choose to write an opera about current events and to make a political statement.

But Western Illinois University music professor Paul Paccione went in a different direction. He chose to base his first opera on a children’s book.

The cover of an early edition of Gertrude Stein's "The World is Round"
Credit The University of Florida

The World is Round is a 1939 book by American writer Gertrude Stein. It was illustrated by Clement Hurd, who would go on to illustrate many classic children’s books including Good Night Moon and The Runaway Bunny.

It’s the story of a young girl named Rose who is curious about the world around her. She decides to climb to the top of a mountain and sit in her favorite blue chair so she will be able to see everything. She is accompanied on some of the journey by her cousin Willie.

Stein’s Style

Gertrude Stein’s writing is a mix of prose and poetry that is at times shapeless and often repetitive.

I am a little girl and my name is Rose, Rose is my name
Why am I a little girl/And why is my name Rose
And when am I a little girl/And when is my name Rose
And where am I little girl/And where is my name Rose

Merrill Cole, an English professor at WIU and an expert on Stein, said the author used many different kind of styles to convey various moods.

“One of those (moods) is playfulness, which appears very early in her writing, “ Cole said. “It’s easy to see why it would adapt itself to children’s literature or to other kinds of writing because even when it’s very serious -- and some of it is very serious -- the playfulness never goes away.”

Gertrude Stein didn’t follow the rules of writing, according to Cole, and that is what makes her work so versatile. That’s also why Paul Paccione chose The World is Round for his opera.

Music and Words

Paccione said he sees parallels between his compositional style and Stein’s writing style. What always interested him with text setting is the idea of characterization.

Composer Paul Paccione during a rehearsal of his opera "The World is Round"
Credit Jonathan Ahl

“How do you characterize a phrase, musically? That’s what Stein does in her language,” Paccione said. “She has different kinds of characterizations of not only the same word, but of different words and how she combines them in a very musical way.  And that’s very suggestive, musically.”

Stein subdivided The World is Round into 32 micro chapters, and included little bits of poetry that are suggested to be songs. Paccione said that makes the text ripe for a musical setting.

“I wanted the tunes to be memorable.  But at the same time there is an element of abstraction because I wanted to treat the tonal material in the way she treats words -- in an abstract way," Paccione said. 

“So that while the materials are tonal, and they are melodic, through repetition, they can go anywhere I want them to. They don’t have to follow the rules of traditional musical language.”

Performing the Opera

The simple text and pleasant music is wonderful for the audience, but challenging for the performers. Penelope Shumate is the soprano performing the lead role of Rose.  “It’s deceptively challenging.  It seems like very simple, beautiful music to the listener.  But it is very challenging for the artists, and we like the challenge,” said Shumate

Soprano Penelope Shumate (Rose) and Tenor Terry Chasteen (Willie) in rehearsal of Paul Paccione's "The World is Round".
Credit Jonathan Ahl

Shumate is new to the WIU faculty, but comes with a significant opera resume.  She has performed all over the world and recently completed her third solo performance at Avery Fischer Hall in in New York.  

Other faculty members will play the lead roles, and WIU students will make up the eight voice choir and the chamber orchestra when the piece is premiered Thursday, December 11 and Friday, December 12 at 7:30 pm in Hainline Theatre on the WIU campus.

An Opera for All Ages

Paccione said he wants his opera to appeal to many different audiences, and that is a natural fit with Stein’s book. “It’s a book for young readers, but then Stein would say, ‘Who is a young reader?’ We should always be young readers," Paccione said.

"That playfulness is something that is in adults, or that innocence -- that’s the word. It’s an innocence that we find not only in children, but hopefully we keep with us when we are adults as well. And I tried to capture that in the music."

Paccione said he isn’t actively promoting the work for future performances yet, but opera companies are always looking for accessible works in English that can bring in new audiences. A chamber opera with a small cast might be an attractive add to the repertoire.