Four Saints in Three Acts is an opera by American composer Virgil Thomson with a libretto by Gertrude Stein.
First staged on Broadway on February 20, 1934, the opera was notable in that it defied many traditional aspects of opera. Stein's libretto focused more on an affinity for the sounds of words than on presenting a narrative. The plot of the opera focuses on two sixteenth century Spanish saints—Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila—as well as their followers, St. Settlement and St. Chavez. The cast also includes St. Teresa's alter ego, "St. Teresa II", and the master and mistress of ceremonies called the Compere and Commere.
The first act takes place at the Ávila cathedral, the second act is a picnic and the final act is set at the garden of a monastery. Thomson's simple, melodious and imaginative music was considered unconventional for an Opera. Protestant hymns, quotations of known melodies and dance rhythms are teamed with glass-beaded cellophane sets. Costumes also included colorful lace, silks and taffetas. Also considered unusual was the all-black cast portrayed the European saints as there was little or no precedent for this in stage history.
The wild elements led to a successful and well-received first production. While critics were divided, audiences accepted the created fantasy world created by the singers who gave meaning to the words and melodies given to their saintly characters.
The cast of the original production included:
The opera would be performed later as a concert oratorio such as the 1942 and 1947 radio broadcasts. Stage performances were produced in 1952 and 1973. In 1981, a New York concert version was performed for Thomson's eight-fifth birthday celebration. For this performance, Betty Allen, Gwendolyn Bradley, William Brown, Clamma Dale, Benjamin Matthews, Florence Quivar and Arthur Thompson sang the principal parts.
The Music of Black Americans: A History. Eileen Southern. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition. ISBN 0393971414