Vivian Fine





The Women in the Garden
A chamber opera for five singers and nine instruments




62 minutes


Isadora Duncan…………………..dramatic soprano
Virginia Woolf……………………lyric soprano
Emily Dickinson…………………..mezzo-soprano
Gertrude Stein……………………contralto or dark mezzo
The Tenor………………………..tenor

instrumental combo

Flute, B-flat clarinet or bass clarinet, bassoon, piano, viola, cello, double bass, and percussion (2 players): snare drum, triangle, suspended cymbal, wood block, field drum, gong, castanets, temple bells, sleigh bells, wind chimes, vibraphone, marimba, chimes, glockenspiel, medium and low timpani, tuned tom-toms. Handbells played by singers


Compiled by the composer from the writings of the characters.


National Endowment for the Arts


February 12, 1978, San Francisco, California, Port Costa Players. Anna Carol Dudley, Vicky Van Derwark, Susan Rode Morris, sopranos, Barbara Baker, mezzo-soprano and John Duykers, tenor, with chamber ensemble. Alan Balter, conductor


Available on demo CD

program notes

In The Women in the Garden, four women, the writer Gertrude Stein, the dancer Isadora Duncan, the novelist Virginia Woolf and the poet Emily Dickinson are brought together, and, in the course of the opera, come to know one another. There is no attempt to recreate the women historically. They appear through an imaginative process in which the past is enacted as if it were the present, much like in a dream. Three of the characters, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and Isadora Duncan, were actively engaged in their careers in the 1920s. There is, however, no record of them ever having met. Emily Dickinson died when the others were children. These discrepancies of time and place do not present a barrier to all four meeting in the garden as contemporaries. A fifth character, the Tenor, plays multiple roles, some defined, others not, and freely shifts from one to another. The surreal, dreamlike aspect of the encounter is reinforced by the plotless, freely associated libretto, drawn from the writing of the four women.

–Vivian Fine


The disparate concerns and energies of the characters, expressed singly or ensemble, create an ever-shifting emotional landscape, alternately philosophical, romantic, humorous, and tragic….A 9-piece chamber ensemble of winds, strings, piano and varied percussion supports the singers with accompaniments that define the different characters and moods even as they weave an otherworldy spell throughout the opera.

–Berkeley Opera production, 2002


Fine creates finely drawn musical portraits of the four women through a series of solos, duets, trios, and quartets. In the first scene Isadora Duncan tells us, “I was born under the star of Aphrodite,” and in Scene 4 she sings of the great tragedy in her life–the death of her two young children by drowning. Later a tempestuous duet with the tenor reveals how she suffered in her relationship with Gordon Craig. Huge leaps in the vocal line and dramatic accompaniment convey Duncan’s anguish and her larger-than-life persona.
     Gertrude Stein is the benevolent mother-figure of the opera. Her philosophical comments, repeated in Stein-like fashion throughout, give the work unity and humor. Scene 5 is a virtuosic duet between Stein and the tenor as her friend Picasso.
     The simplicity and beauty of Emily Dickinson’s poetry are reflected in the music Fine has written for her. There are delicate convergences of the vocal lines in a tender duet in Scene 2 between Dickinson and the tenor as her imagined romantic correspondent. Elsewhere Dickinson alludes to her devotion to her father and the toll it took on her artistic life. In Scene 7 she takes the spiritual helm: “Our journey had advanced, Our feet were almost come to that odd fork in Being’s road, Eternity by term.”
     Several contrasting sections convey Virginia Woolf’s complex persona. Interspersed elegiac utterances reveal her fragile, tormented inner state, at other times she ecstatically prophesies “some other order and better which makes a reason everlastingly,” and in Scene 6 she and Stein discourse wittily on the relationship between money and creative freedom.
     In real life, the four women led very different sorts of lives from one another. Yet beyond these outward differences, they shared, together with the composer, some larger realities. All were great modernist pioneers who stripped away artifice and convention from traditional forms in order to more directly express the emotional reality that lay hidden beneath. And they all had to deal with the double prejudice against radical innovation and their sex. From these commonalities the opera creates a spiritual sisterhood among the four.


In the opening scene, the women introduce themselves. Gertrude sings of man, human nature, and time, Emily of “that sacred closet entitled memory.” Isadora of her affinity for the sea, and Virginia of novel writing and the effect of sex upon the novelist.

Scene II is a meeting between Emily and the Tenor as her imagined lover. They sing about an exchange of letters. “The way I read a letter’s this: ‘Tis first I lock the door, and push it with my fingers next, for transport it be sure.”

Emily is joined by Virginia and Gertrude in Scene III. Virginia sings “My shattered mind is pieced together by some sudden perception.” Emily reflects on immortality and tells that when she died her occupation was recorded by the Amherst town clerk as “at home.” Gertrude continues to make aphoristic remarks on human nature, time, and money.

Scene IV opens with a long lament sung by Isadora on the loss of her three children. She begins with the line, “Oh why, oh why should my mama be so sad and so sorry?” These are the words one of her children used when seeing Isadora dance to the Chopin Funeral March (the harmonies from the Funeral March appear in the score in this section). When two children died in an accident soon afterwards, Isadora found the words to have been strangely prophetic. Continuing, Isadora sings of her anguish, “My spirit is crushed forever.” Emily joins her with “Pain has an element of blank.” Then Virginia sings, “Sleep, sleep I croon…wrapping in a cocoon made of my own blood the delicate limbs of my baby.” The scene ends with a quartet sung by the four women.

In Scene V, Gertrude, departing from her role as commentator, expresses a concern about the difference between human nature and the human mind. She quotes Jules Verne, “He weeps, that shows he is a man.” “But,” she says, “a dog can have tears in his eyes when he has been disillusioned.” The Tenor joins her in a duet. (There is a short musical quotation from Erik Satie’s Three Flaccid Preludes for a Dog in this scene.)

Virginia begins Scene VI with a story of the difference an inheritance can make to a woman. Virginia and Gertrude then sing a duo, speaking of the position of women, “The woman composer stands where the actress stood in the time of Shakespeare,” and of money, “I cannot begin too often to wonder what money is.”

In Scene VII, Emily sings, “Our journey had advanced, Our feet were almost come to that odd fork in Being’s road, Eternity by term.” Emily and Isadora are joined by the Tenor, who appears to Emily as her father and to Isadora as her lover, Gordon Craig. Isadora continues, using Emily’s words, “For each ecstatic instant we must an anguish pay.” Emily and the Tenor sing of her decision to remain with her father…”because he would miss me.” There follows an angry exchange between Isadora and the Tenor. “Why do you want to go on stage and wave your arms: Why don’t you stay at home and sharpen my pencils?” The scene concludes with a trio in which the words and experiences of Emily and Isadora merge and entwine as the Tenor continues in his dual role of father and lover.

In Scene VIII, the four women continue to draw on each other’s words as well as their own. They sing of bells, chimes, clocks, directions: “How still the bells in steeples stand till swollen with the sky they leap upon their silver feet in frantic melody…a bell tolls, but not for death…I am in love with life!…The sailor cannot see the North, but knows the needle can…At this moment a church clock chimed in the valley…cymbals, drums, bones beaten perpetually.” Musical materials recur as each woman, joined by the others, sings of a personal concern. Isadora evokes the memory of an early love, Emily recalls her fear of asking her father how to tell time, Isadora and Emily begin to quote Gertrude’s views on man and human nature, and the four woman together repeat the opening lines of the work. Virginia’s words, “The ceremony is over,” herald the end of the opera. In a final quartet, the women’s thoughts interweave: “The ceremony is over…Now I must go on waving…my longings go out to you in waves…where are we going? Never fear that I shall forget.” The opera closes as Gertrude and the Tenor sing once more, “Man is, Man was, man will be gregarious and solitary.”

–Vivian Fine and Judith Jamieson


“A remarkable contemporary work, with a tintinnabulating orchestral score of delicate beauty, thoroughly idiomatic (if difficult) vocal lines, and a civilized, wholesome warmth. Dramatically uninflected, it gets its tension from strict musical forms (arias, duets, ensembles), metaphysical conflict and human interaction. The women in the garden…are Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, Virginia Woolf, and Emily Dickinson. The composer has used their actual words in such a way that they seem to have an ongoing discussion about the concerns of women in a hostile world. A feminist piece by definition, it does not preach or rage and concentrates on the positive aspects of sisterhood.”

–Stephanie Von Buchau, Opera News


“The ensembles were high moments, lovely, especially the radiant climax on the joyfulness of life, when the women find each other as one. Fine’s music for this opera of character counterpoint is lyrical, rhythmically alive, beautifully proportioned and phrased and as vocal as can be. The textures are clear, the contrasts and color values are refined. It’s never extreme, never overreaches for novelty. The score, which uses a mixed septet and much percussion, is original and distinctive in the ways it achieves its expressive purposes.”

–Robert Commanday, San Francisco Chronicle


“Fine integrates the eclectic texts with extraordinary clarity, a masterful sense of contrasts and a capacity for sheer beauty in the vocal composition…orchestral interjections are always pointed and discreet.

–Allan Ulrich, Los Angeles Times


“…the differing values of those four remarkable women interact, not in…dramatic conflict, but in response to their own experiences with men…and…to each other. ‘The Women’ suggests…really communicative theater…where plot narrative gives way to…narrative of mood and idea.”

–Charles Shere, Oakland Tribune


“‘Women’ is filled with beautiful interweaving melodies, from a lovely, melancholy soprano and flute duet to a moving harmonic quartet in which Duncan laments the death of her children and the other women gather to comfort her. There is an abundance of musical wit and delight, as well. Stein and the Tenor engage in a musical debate on human nature that is a virtuosi duet of humorous counterpoint and rhythm.”

–Jennifer Dix, Berkeley Daily Planet


“A wonderfully engrossing hour…accessible…rewarding….The personalities of the four women (superbly presented, far more than a mere impersonation of famous figures) create drama in the absence of plot.”

–Margery Goldstein, Sojourner, Boston


“After a succession of isolated soliloquies, the interrelationships among the texts begin to emerge and build to a stunning climax in a quartet where the ringing of bells signifies the celebration of life….Fine writes so expressively for voice that the best sections, including two ensembles on the themes of suffering and joy, were overwhelming in their effect.”

–Arthur Kaplan, High Fidelity/Musical America


“The music for the four female voices is remarkable, a richly textured quartet. The opera has a feminist spirit, but is amusing and lively, not bitter….

–Thomas Putnam, The Buffalo News

audio files

Scene 1

GERTRUDE STEIN: Man is man was man will be gregarious and solitary, he will be because it is his nature to be he will be cause he has a mind to and even once more it is more and more and more as if he wants to. What has the human mind got to do with talking. Just that what you say makes you want to say it again and what you say wants to make you say it another way say the same thing another or the other thing in some way. In the month of February were born Washington Lincoln and I.

EMILY DICKINSON: We must be careful what we say. No bird resumes its nest. That sacred closet when you sweep Entitled memory, select a reverential broom and do it silently.

G.STEIN: Anyway is another way if you say it the same way. There is no reality to a really imagined life any more.
E.DICKINSON: Select a reverential broom and do it silently.

G.STEIN: What is the diff’rence between rememb’ring what has been happening and rememb’ring what has been as dreaming. None. Therefore there is no relation between human nature and the human mind. One and one makes two but not in minutes.

E.DICKINSON: To flee from memory Had we the wings

G.STEIN: No never again in minutes.

E.DICKINSON: Many would fly inured to slower things

E.DICKINSON: Birds with dismay would scan the mighty van Of men escaping from the mind of man.
G.STEIN: One and one makes two but not in minutes. No never again in minutes.

ISADORA DUNCAN: I was born by the sea, and I have noticed that all the great events of my life have taken place by the sea. I was born under the star of Aphrodite. Aphrodite also born of the sea, and when her star is in the ascendant events are always propitious to me, but when this star disappears there is disaster for me. My first idea of movement of the dance came from the rhythm of the sea. My life and art were born of the sea.

G.STEIN: Tears do not bring pleasure to the home. They give pleasure in reading.

VIRGINIA WOOLF: But one could perhaps go a little deeper into the questions of novel writing and the effect of sex upon the novelist.

G.STEIN: Tears do not bring pleasure to the home. They give pleasure in reading.

V.WOOLF: First there are nine months before the baby is born. Then the baby is born. Then there are three or four months spent in feeding the baby. After baby is fed there are certainly five years spent playing with baby. You cannot it seems let children run about the streets.

G.STEIN: Yes there I told you human nature is not at all int’resting.

V.WOOLF: It is only for the last forty-eight years that Mrs. Seton has had a penny of her own. For all the centuries before it would have been her husband’s property—a thought which perhaps may have had its share in keeping Mrs. Seton and her mothers off the Stock Exchange.

G.STEIN: Yes money. Money has something to do with the human mind.

V.WOOLF: For all the centuries before it would have been her husband’s property.

G.STEIN: Yes money money has something to do with the human mind.

Scene 2

E. DICKINSON:    The way I read a letter’s this:
‘Tis first I lock the door,
and push it with my fingers next,
for transport it be sure.
And then I go the furthest off
To counteract a knock;
Then draw my little letter forth
And slowly pick the lock.
Then glancing narrow at the wall,
and narrow at the floor,
for firm conviction of a mouse
Not exorcised before.
Peruse how infinite I am, how infinite I am
to no one that you know,
and sigh and sigh for lack of heav’n,
but not the heav’n God bestow,
TENOR:          Going to her Happy letter tell her,
tell her the page I never wrote.
Tell her! I only said the syntax
and left the verb and pronoun out.
Tell her just how the fingers hurried,
then how they stammered slow slow
and then you wished you had eyes in your pages
so you could see what moved them so.
Tell her it wasn’t a practiced writer –
you guessed from the way the sentence toiled,
you could hear the bodice tug behind you
as if it held but the might of a child!

E. DICKINSON:         Tell him: I only said the       TENOR:          Tell her! I only said the
syntax and left the verb and pronoun out. Tell him syntax and left the verb and pronoun out,
just how the fingers hurried then how they waded Tell her just how the fingers hurried then
slow slow and then you wished you had eyes in how they stammered slow slow slow
your pages so you could see what moved them so. slow slow slow slow slow slow slow
Tell him it wasn’t a practiced writer, you guessed slow slow slow slow slow slow. Tell her
from the way the sentence toiled, you could hear it wasn’t a practiced writer, you guessed
the bodice tug behind you as if it held but the from the way the sentence toiled. You
might of a child! You almost pitied it it worked so. could hear the bodice tug behind you as if
Tell him – No – you may quibble there, For it it held but the might of a child! You
would split his heart to know it, And then you and almost pitied it it worked so. Tell her –
I were silenter No – you may quibble there.

E.DICKINSON + TENOR: For it would split his/her heart to know it. And then you and I were silenter.