Published in 1925, Gertrude Stein's "The Making of Americans" was described as a cubist novel.
It embraced the ideas of cubist painters, most notably Stein's friend Pablo Picasso. Cubists would paint images of objects disassembled into their component parts and then re-imagined them from several perspectives at once.
Stein's novel had a much larger subject.
"(It's )a telling of everyone, at every time, at every place," says director Jay Scheib.
Scheib says the novel is an extended portrait of multiple generations of a single family.
"For Gertrude Stein this creation of a history a single family's progress would in some way be symbolic of all Americans or most Americans," said Scheib.
“Stein very interesting said that in the theater you are very rarely in the same time as the performance. Either you are a little bit ahead of the performance, i.e. you know what will happen next. Or you are a little behind, and you are disoriented aJay Scheib
"The Making of Americans" set sprawls across the stage of the Walker's Maguire Theater.
A small two story clapboard house, made by Minnesota sculptor Chris Larson, sits on one side and mini-orchestra on the other side. There is just one actor, but six solo singers, an 18 member chorus and several dancers.
It's a lot of activity, but Scheib wants to create a situation where the audience is constantly in the moment.
"Stein very interesting said that in the theater you are very rarely in the same time as the performance," explained Scheib. "Either you are a little bit ahead of the performance, i.e. you know what will happen next, or you are a little behind, and you are disoriented and trying to catch up to what is happening."
To help with this there are large screens mounted over the stage.
"We use a lot of video in this production, so we film some scenes live, and then we manipulate those signals in real time," said Scheib.
For example, there are cameras in the house allowing the projection of giant images of anyone inside to appear above the orchestra, images which can then be time shifted.
"The ballerina runs inside the house and performs a pirouette on camera, and when she comes outside the house to perform another pirouette, we still see her spinning on the screen even though she's now here in front of us."
The performers for "The Making of Americans" are drawn from all over. There are members of the St. Paul based Zeitgeist new music ensemble, and local singers Bradley Greenwald and David Echelard.
Other members of the ensemble come from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where Scheib teaches drama. He says they bring their own dynamics and understanding to the production.
The ballerina works for NASA during the summer, and one of the singers is a mathematician at MIT.
"I think they have an understanding of space and time," said Scheib, "a more radical understanding of space and time, and it just turns out they are able to apply it in performance."
The performers and images are in constant movement, giving the audience an impression of the larger world encompassed in Stein's novel.
The Walker's Performing Arts Curator Phillip Bither says he believes the ensemble has done a remarkable job of distilling Stein's novel, which he also believes may actually just be coming of age.
"It's a non-linear mediation about families and about the country of America and about multiple generations that is compelling and emotional and at the same time very rigorous both musically and theatrically," said Bither.
Bither says this is one of the few new contemporary operas around this year. Given a recent success over at the Guthrie he says composer Anthony Gatto joked it should be called the "Cubist Little House on the Prairie."
Joking aside, director Jay Scheib says he hopes audience members will realize Gertrude Stein's theatrical vision.
"The most ideal thing in my mind would be for someone to be engaged minute by minute and moment by moment, and be as much as possible at the same time as the performance that is happening before them," said Scheib.
Scheib also hopes the images from the show will return to audience members in coming weeks and months.