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A scene from Virgil Thomson’s opera The Mother of Us All, performed by the Santa Fe Opera Company, costumes and set design by Indiana, in August 1976

A scene from Virgil Thomson’s opera The Mother of Us All, performed by the Santa Fe Opera Company, costumes and set design by Indiana, in August 1976. Photo: Ken Howard/ Courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera

Predestination set in when Gertrude Stein gave the romantic lead in her second opera with Virgil Thomson, THE MOTHER OF US ALL, the unlikely name of Indiana Elliot! The ailing American expatriate was writing this celebration of the American woman’s victory over her obstinate opposite kind—her final work—just as I was finishing high school in Indianapolis and I knew her extraordinary likeness then from the reproduction of Picasso’s unforgettable portrait. For in that last year in Indiana I was taking Art six “hours” a day under a most remarkable teacher, a lady water-colorist from Philadelphia named Sara Bard and she was intent that I should know art history since Impressionism as well as she. Miss Bard could have stepped primly from the pages of MOTHER herself and there was perhaps disproportionate attention given in her drills to Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe and the famous art patroness Miss Stein. Somewhat like “Missouri” Eliot I left my home state that year never to return to live there again. There was even a year’s stay in Britain for me.

As for a knowledge of Stein’s writing I think it was beyond high school level in the Midwest at that time, but when I got to Chicago a few years later I was introduced to her first opera with Thomson—and my first American opera to hear and appreciate—FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS—from the original 78 rpm album. This was a gift from a fellow schoolmate at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early ‘50s. Roland Duvernet had once studied theater design himself in New York and it curiously was he who, upon a visit to his native New Orleans, pointed out Tennessee Williams on the street in the French Quarter. Of course it was he who unknowingly inspired me to become Robert Indiana many years later.

As far as I know the only other person in history named Indiana was a half-breed Indian maiden killed in an early insurrection on the site of the future Chicago. That was until I found Indiana Elliot fighting the masculine suppression in the middle of the Phoenix Theatre stage in New York in the middle ‘50’s.

After becoming an Indiana myself in the late ‘50’s and a Pop artist much concerned with themes explicitly American, I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know the author of that music which had so fascinated me as a young bohemian art student in a Chicago garret. I was never destined to pull the Paris gig and by then even Virgil Thomson had long since become a New Yorker. It was upon realizing that almost everyone of my paintings due to be exhibited in my second one-man show in New York at the Stable Gallery in 1964 touched upon one or another theme that Mr. Thomson had set musically, either in collaboration with Gertrude Stein or otherwise, that it seemed immensely appropriate to enhance the opening with an all-Thomson concert. Luckily I just happened to know, through another Chicago friend, the assistant manager at the Metropolitan Opera, Herman Krawitz, who proceeded to arrange such an offering with singers from the Metropolitan Opera Studio Group. This was on Mother’s Day.

Shortly thereafter Mr. Thomson invited me to do the sets and costumes for a production of THE MOTHER OF US ALL to be presented in Los Angeles in 1964. Due to pressures at the time it was not possible for me to carry through with this, but the preliminary sketches that I made then were used later when Jan van der Marck, the Curator for Walker Art Center in Minneapolis who organized my first museum show there, invited me to design a MOTHER given at the Tyron Guthrie Theater in 1967. For the poster of the event Virgil Thomson asked that I proclaim it an “American Pop Opera” and that is how it was.

Not being a professional stage designer myself and having no particular ambitions in that direction, I felt compelled to contribute to this endeavor more than a scenically conventional rendering of a very traditionally cast work, such as I had seen it treated. Taking my cue from the original scenaricist, Maurice Grosser, a fine painter in the realistic tradition, who wrote that he did not consider his staging “the only one capable of presenting the work convincingly” I proceeded to revise the scenario, injecting something of myself—the spirit of my own work—just as the authors themselves had done with their own physical presences as actual characters. This struck me as certainly not a very customary thing in the history of opera and I didn’t want to present a customary staging.

So just as my every painting or sculpture includes a word or words, I costumed each of the 30-odd characters, very curiously plucked from history at random and very easily confused to observers less than utterly devoted Steinians (I myself could not tell a Henrietta M. from another suffragette Anna Hope, nor even a Daniel Webster, bass, from an Andrew Johnson, tenor, particularly when the tenor looks more like Daniel and the bass like Andrew, nor as Miss Stein herself admits much less “even remember Isabel Wentworth!”) complete with his or her own individual name sash which, at an appropriate moment, handily becomes by reversal the ubiquitous “Votes for Women” emblazonment worn with proud dignity by all right-thinking ladies of that era—even if, in Stein’s time mash, she be a sweetheart of old John Adams. Hopefully this zany jumble of personnae [sic], real and made up, is therefore no little relieved in the parade from the mythic Indiana Elliot to General Ulysses S. Grant and Lillian Russell on to many still alive today in this age of the aeroplane itself. Chiaroscuro costumes and lovely old Victorian furniture and finery were not what I was about. Like the pageant it really is MOTHER holds forth in a blaze of color. Nor did it seem improper to add another conspicuous element of that passing American parade, missing as it were with others often missing on stages: one of the very keystones of the Dream itself, the Model-T Ford which with its numerous progeny has contributed far more to the liberation of the citizenry of this nation than all the legislation combined.

A natural stroke for me in that Indiana, the state, is synonymous with American motor car history (there were some 50 different makes—from the Dusenberg to the Cord and the Stutz to the Studebaker—manufactured there before the industry was centralized in Detroit), but also because I had used the Model-T conspicuously in one of my own favorite and most exhibited paintings, MOTHER AND FATHER, shown at the time of the all-Thomson concert. A diptych portrait in oil of my parents taken from family snapshots—my “Mother” red-caped in the operatic guise suggested by her name Carmen (my grandfather’s favorite opera)—standing there in a Hoosier landscape just as proudly with their Tin-Lizzie as did Gertrude and her life-long companion Alice B. (substitute Anne) as evidenced in several photographs made around the First World War. One of their prized possessions in France it probably ranked right up there with the Picassos but cost much more.

On the limited thrust stage of the Tyrone Guthrie Theater Ford’s creation became the central scenic motif, albeit mobile with some help from the original postillions [sic] turned filling station attendants, the very symbol of those struggles that Gertrude Stein and Susan B. Anthony ardurously [sic] shared, as this very autobiographical libretto suggests, in their separate battles, one for elective suffrage, the other for literary sufferance.