Monday, October 27, 2014

The Collage of Cultures in Four Saints, by Andrea Andresakis

In our last post we learned about a glamorous and dissonant production of Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, brought to us by director Mary Birnbaum. Here we look at this work, sometimes called the "great-great-grandparent of performance art" through a very different lens.

Andrea Andresakis is a native New Yorker, and after a successful career as a dancer (dancing in everything from the original Fame to Zefferelli's Turandot), she now spends her time as a director and choreographer for opera, theatre, musicals, and dance works.

Here, Andrea breaks down the many ways in which Four Saints intrigues her as a director.


Four Saints in Three Acts intrigues me for several reasons:

The opera has been described as ritualistic, but not religious. Having experienced diverse cultures from over thirty countries, I would be very interested in drawing upon these cultures for my dream production.

I would incorporate practices from Europe (as the libretto takes place in Spain) and the US (as the composer was a Southern Baptist) as well as South America, Japan and India (where I have lived and worked).

Wishes left on a Muslim dargah shrine
Taking a world view would illustrate how many basic components are shared. Icons, relics, holy water, bells, gongs, candles, fire, halos and angels are used in religions from Christianity to Hinduism. In India, I was surprised to see cupids carved on 6th century portraits of Hindi gods. By abstracting the common physical components of various religious rituals, I would hope to make the opera accessible to people from all cultures and lifestyles.

St. Ignatius of Loyola
St. Teresa of Avila
Adding to the cultural mish-mash is the fact that the original cast of Four Saints in Three Acts, which takes place in Spain, was black. Thomson said the African-American cast really “got it”, which made sense considering the score was written from Thomson’s Baptist background.

The Baptist church developed in Trinidad as a mixture of European Christianity with African beliefs. Another combination of Spanish Catholicism and African beliefs exists in Brazil in the form of Candomble. It also takes shape in some startling images, like the site of a prosthetic leg hanging from the ceiling of a gilded Cathedral.

Prosthetic body parts in a Brazilian cathedral
Balancing serious qualities such as piety and discipline with humor is crucial in Four Saints; and who doesn’t love a prosthetic limb joke, a la Monty Python?

Another source of humor is spoofing musical theatre conventions. The opening of Four Saints reminds me of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The picnic scene reminds me of the Act Two opening of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. The saints sitting around in heaven remind me of both Princess Ida and of Carousel. Combining musical theatre aesthetic with colorful religious festivities, my sets and costumes would reflect the sense of lightness and fun which Thomson stresses is so important.

As a choreographer, I would relish the opportunities for movement, dance and rhythm that the opera has to offer. A former ballerina, I often compared the discipline and daily ritual of our lifestyle to that of a nun. The similarity between the monastic life and that of an artist was exactly what Thomson was trying to express in Four Saints:

“I saw in the religious, a parallel to the life we were leading, trying to learn the terrible disciplines of truth and spontaneity of channeling skills without the loss of inspiration. The daily life of saints could be, as regards to their work and their preparation of it, a model to ours.”

This pertains to all creative endeavors. He also said his that his intention was “evoking the inner gaiety and the strength of lives consecrated to a non-materialistic end." Realizing this core theme would be the focus of my production.

Sisters at the Taj Mahal
Learn more about Andrea Andresakis's work at

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