Early in 1927 composer Virgil Thomson and his fellow Parisian expatriate Gertrude Stein decided to collaborate on an opera. After pondering a variety of topics, the pair settled on the lives of saints. “Not just any saints,” Thomson wrote in his reminiscences, “ours turned out to be baroque and Spanish, a solution that delighted Gertrude, for she loved Spain, and that was far from displeasing me, since mass-market Catholic art was still baroque.”

Seven years later, Four Saints in Three Acts was mounted on Broadway by the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. The production, conducted by Alexander Smallens and choreographed by Frederick Ashton, caused a sensation. Stein’s libretto, filled with tongue twisters, nonsensical ditties, alliteration, and other wordplay, is beguilingly surreal. But the opera has no plot to speak of: its action is a cavalcade of highly stylized vignettes. Incidents, imaginary and otherwise, from the devotional lives of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Ignatius of Loyola are intertwined kaleidoscopically with doings of fictional characters named Saint Settlement and Saint Chavez. On the sideline, characters called Commere and Compere–substitutes for Stein and Thomson–comment on the action, turning the opera into a Pirandellian meditation on art. In contrast with the abstractness of the narrative and its setting is a folksy score rooted in the Southern Baptist hymns of Thomson’s Missouri childhood.

The meshing of the two sensibilities was “perfect and unique,” says Alan Stone, artistic head of the Chicago Opera Theater, which will present a revival of Four Saints this month. Chicago Opera Theater is no stranger to the team of Stein and Thomson. In 1976 it staged The Mother of Us All, another collaboration between the two and a musical celebration of Susan B. Anthony’s life; the opera’s libretto was Stein’s last completed work. “That show put us on the map,” recalls Stone. “It was televised on Channel 11 and got us several big-time contributors. It gave Frank Galati his first big break.”

Galati, who’s directing Four Saints, his ninth production for COT, was introduced to Stone a decade ago as “that Gertrude Stein freak who could make sense of her fragmentary style.” Ever since then, Galati has been asking Stone to do Four Saints. In the past Stone was reluctant. “There’s no story to this, I told Frank. It’s all about spirits and experiences. . . . Then I saw Frank’s show about Gertrude, She Always Said, Pablo, in which he used a lot of music from Four Saints. I was delighted by the dichotomy, the whimsy between the strange text and the simple, gorgeous American music.”

One startling–and controversial–feature of the 1934 premiere was the all-black cast. Stein and Thomson didn’t intend this landmark casting, explains Stone. “It was during auditions that Thomson was struck by the way black singers enunciated. Virgil told me he felt their clear diction and deep resonance and physical carriages would make the spiritual side of his music more deeply felt. So even though the opera doesn’t require an all-black cast–like Porgy and Bess or The Emperor Jones–we are honoring the tradition.”

COT’s decision has proved to be a boon for local African American singers and dancers. Four Saints will showcase 30 cast members, including Bonita Hyman, Jonita Lattimore, Bereniece Jones, Alfonse Anderson, and Lawrence Craig in the lead roles. Lattimore and Hyman, who play two different facets of Saint Teresa, “have two of the most striking voices I’ve heard in a long time,” rhapsodizes Stone, a longtime vocal coach. “I think, physiologically, black singers do produce distinctive sounds. It may have something to do with the chest cavity or body size. Usually I can tell a black voice blindfolded. And Bonita definitely has that type of timbre.”

Hyman, whose mezzo-soprano is as thick and sweet as molasses, agrees. “Yeah, mine has a certain resonance, firmer and deeper.” As the pious and serious side of Teresa, she must come across as mystical and devout. “Thomson loved the sound of black voices,” she says. “He thought we were drawn to religion.”

Hyman grew up in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant singing Baptist gospels. After education on scholarships at Oberlin and Yale she tried diligently to crack the east-coast music scene–but with little success. Now in her mid-30s, Hyman finds Chicago a more congenial home. “As long as I live close to a major airport, I can have a career.” And ever since garnering a top prize in the most recent biannual Marian Anderson Competition, she’s gotten plenty of engagements. Stone obviously thinks highly of her: “I should’ve hired her as my Orfeo when she auditioned for us five years ago,” he says with a sigh. “I’m looking for roles suitable for her.”

Lattimore, on the other hand, is just getting ready to embark on her professional career. At 24, she’s about to obtain a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, and she’s the baby of the cast. “This is not a typical opera to make a debut in,” says the south-side native and alumna of the Chicago Children’s Choir. She plays the more lively and frivolous side of Saint Teresa. “I have to deal with a lot of humorous plays on words. For example, I sing ‘across’ and right afterwards ‘a cross.’ I have to pause for punctuation. That’s tricky.” She’s proud to have inherited the part that was also soprano Leontyne Price’s first professional role.

Stone believes that Lattimore shows the promise of becoming a “world-class” singer. “There’s a special personality in her voice and stage presence that demands attention. She’s about to bloom. I can’t wait to hear her in Verdi roles.”

Both budding divas hope Four Saints will turn out to be the theatrical event of the season. “Not just for the sake of the careers of the cast members,” says Hyman with a broad grin, “although it’s nice for us African American artists in town to get the exposure. And not in a black life-style opera like Porgy. We think the audience will respond to the theatricality and eccentricity of the narrative. Then, for us singers, there’s Thomson’s music. It’s profoundly religious and genuinely American. We want you to hear it the way he experienced black church choirs.”

Four Saints opens tomorrow night at 8 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Sets and costumes, said to pay homage to the cellophane scenery by the original designer Florine Stettheimer, are by Mary Griswold and Birgit Rattenborg-Wise, both longtime Galati associates. Extensive choreography sequences are by codirector Paul Amster. Philip Bauman conducts. Tickets for this and the six additional performances throughout April cost $13.50-$47.50. For more information call 663-0048.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.