*The Mother Of Us All,* 2/11/20
I saw *The Mother Of Us All* at the Met Museum on 2/10/20. An opera at the Met - - but wait, the Met Museum? It was a collaboration between the Met Museum, the New York Philharmonic, and The Juilliard School. Here’s a blurb from the Met website:
"Marking the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, The Mother of Us All (1947) is a historic collaboration between The Met, the New York Philharmonic, and The Juilliard School. Hailed as "the best of all American operas" by revered critic Andrew Porter, the fully staged production will be performed in The Met's magnificent American Wing sculpture gallery, the Charles Engelhard Court.
"Composed by Virgil Thomson with libretto by Gertrude Stein, The Mother of Us All embodies a range of contradictions that, since the opera's premiere at Columbia University in 1947, have only become deeper with time. The gaining of women's suffrage was a great victory, but it was also a gateway to broader struggles over civil rights for women, African-Americans, and other racial and sexual minorities."
UW Opera in Madison had done it the year before I arrived there - - there were a number of cassette recordings of the Santa Fe Opera production of the opera and I took one. Clearly they weren’t using them for anything, why not? I had seen about ten or twelve operas before I got to college and I was into opera, but *The Mother Of Us All* turned me into an opera fanatic. I knew every note, every word of it by the end of the year.
It’s the story of Susan B. Anthony and her fight for the vote for women. Only Thomson and Stein would have the nerve to put such a powerful female figure center stage, and put her partner Anne onstage with her. I can only think of one other opera written before 1950 (*Lulu*) that has a lesbian character. Stein surrounded Anthony with historical figures from throughout American history, from John Quincy Adams to Lillian Russell, people from Anthony’s time and before and after. She also created a few fictional characters to round it out, give it some flavor. I’ve heard the opera described as a pageant, which pretty much hits it on the head.
It was Thomson and Stein’s second collaboration, after *Four Saints in Three Acts* from 1927. Stein’s language is much more concrete in *Mother* than in *Four Saints,* but still with her signature repetitions. Like Indiana Elliot’s outburst: “I have a great deal to say about marriage, either one or the other married must be economical, either one or the other, if either one or the other of a married couple are economical then a marriage is successful, if not not. I have a great deal to say about marriage.” It’s quirky and off kilter but also full of wit and charm. And Thomson deepens all of that with this fascinating, beautiful, crystal-clear music.
The New York Philharmonic presented the opera as part of their multi-year project celebrating the centenary of the 19th amendment. They’ve commissioned nineteen female composers to write pieces for the orchestra, it’s a very exciting project. They supplied the ensemble for the opera - - rather than use a full orchestra they used a reduction for six players: trumpet, percussion, piano/celesta, organ, violin, and cello.
The singers all had body mics, the little stem variety that’s mounted along the jawline. I imagine the sound in the courtyard is too reverberant, so maybe it was a good idea to have them be miked, to give clarity to the sound, but it didn’t work all the time, the sound quality was variable. That was frustrating.
The singers were all from Juilliard, all of them (I assume) current students, with the exception of Felicia Moore, a Juilliard grad who played Anthony. She's a rising young singer, she recently sang Ariadne, Donna Elvira, the Beethoven 9th, etc. I’m going to reveal myself to be a true opera queen by confessing that I was on the lookout for her high notes: her high B flat in the prologue was glorious and her high C later in the show (which is optional, but I’m glad she took it) was even more impressive. Her voice is even throughout her range, she sings with assurance and command, her diction is supreme, she’s the real deal. The one thing I thought was lacking was her quiet singing - - it lacked body, it was quite thin and colorless. This May she’s playing Lady Macbeth in a new one-woman montage of music from the Verdi opera, being presented by Heartbeat Opera. You can bet I’m going to be there.
The other stand-out in the cast was Ian Matthew Castro as John Adams. Thomson made him a sort of satire of a romantic opera tenor, and Castro really poured on the voice, he was something else. I’d love to hear him again.
I was shocked by the variable level of quality in the singers. Some of them weren’t very good at all, I would expect more from Juilliard students, and these were not big roles. Let me tell you, if I was singing a role at the Met Museum, in a show being presented by the NY Phil, I would be sure that I was at my very best. I’m sure each performance had a few people who could make a career. Hm.
Director Louisa Proske used the space in an imaginative way. I generally liked what she did with the staging but she tacked on a moment at the very end of the opera, after the music had died away, that could have ruined the show. It was an intensely dopey choice that I’m sure was meant to be a shocking, dramatic choice. It was not, it was a grave misstep.
But it was a delight to see and hear the opera in this unusual setting, and the performance had a strong sense of occasion, something you don’t get very often. I’m glad I went.
I'll close with what I think is the most beautiful music in the opera, Susan B's marriage aria.
"Will they remember that it is true that neither they, that neither you, will they marry? Will they carry aloud the right to know that even if they love them so, they are alone to live and die? They are alone to sink and swim. They are alone to have what they own, to have no idea but that they are here, to struggle and thirst to do everything first, because until it is done, there is no other one."
Here's the great American mezzo Mignon Dunn singing it on the recording that introduced me to this wonderful opera: