A big part of Bard College president/American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) conductor Leon Botstein’s mission in life is to dust off unjustly neglected operatic works, give them a rousing full staging during each year’s Bard SummerScape culturefest and then (hopefully) watch the rest of the musical world begin to add the rediscovered pieces to their repertoires. This year’s entry in that “lost masterpieces” department is an epic work that Botstein has championed for a long time, giving it its US orchestral premiere with the ASO in 2007: Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers (1902-04). It’s a tragic tale of illicit love, religious fanaticism and betrayal in 19th-century Cornwall, where desperately poor people in isolated coastal communities deliberately lured passing ships onto the rocks to murder their crews and plunder their cargoes, all ostensibly for the glory of God.
In these days when fundamentalists of many persuasions play a disproportionate role in national and world politics, it’s a theme that should continue to resonate. But mostly it’s the strength of the music that Botstein champions: “The entire opera is shaped by a powerful display of orchestral writing, memorable motivic recurrences and a brilliant use of chorus; the final scenes of Acts 1 and 3 are…on a par with the finest moments in the operatic repertory,” he writes, terming The Wreckers “Smyth’s finest achievement.”
Aside from being the only female composer ever to have one of her works (Der Wald) performed by the Metropolitan Opera, Dame Ethel Smyth was quite the feisty character. She had to battle a disapproving military father to pursue her musical education, but managed to meet Dvorák, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Clara Schumann while studying in Leipzig. Upon her return to England she got deeply involved in the movement for women’s suffrage, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union and composing its anthem, “The March of the Women.” Eminent conductor Sir Thomas Beecham reported watching a crowd of suffragettes chorusing the song outside Holloway Prison while Smyth conducted by lustily banging a toothbrush on the windowsill of her cell; she had been jailed for her part in a campaign organized by Emmeline Pankhurst to smash the windows of politicians who opposed women’s suffrage.
Later in life Smyth began losing her hearing and switched from musical composition to writing many volumes of memoirs. A mostly lesbian bisexual, she purportedly fell in love with Virginia Woolf; it was unrequited, but the two became friends. Smyth favored “mannish” tweeds, smoked cigars and played a mean game of golf. By the time her contributions as a composer received the acclaim that they deserved, with a royal command performance at Albert Hall on her 75th birthday, she was entirely deaf. One of her lifelong regrets was that Gustav Mahler had been sacked from the Vienna State Opera just as he was considering premiering The Wreckers in 1907. By the 1970s, she was honored as the subject of one of the 39 place settings commemorating key women in history in Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist sculpture The Dinner Party. But still, her great works are very rarely performed.
Clearly, Smyth is a composer whose work is overdue for some rediscovery, and Bard will be doing its part with five performances of her masterpiece beginning this Friday: the first time ever in the US that The Wreckers will receive a full staging. It’s also the first time a Bard Summerscape opera has been performed in English. It’s a historic occasion that serious music-lovers will not want to miss. Thaddeus Strassberger conducts; the main cast members are Katharine Goeldner as Thirza, Neal Cooper as Mark, Louis Otey as Pascoe, Sky Ingram as Avis, Dennis Petersen as Tallan, Michael Mayes as Lawrence, Kendra Broom as Jack and Peter Van Derick as Harvey.
The Wreckers will be performed by the ASO, conducted by Leon Botstein, in the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts’ Sosnoff Theater beginning at 7:30 p.m. the next two Fridays, July 24 and 31, with 2 p.m. matinées on Sunday, July 26, Wednesday, July 29 and Sunday, August 2. Ticket prices range from $20 to $95 and can be reserved by calling the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900 or visiting https://fishercentertickets.bard.edu.
Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, Friday, July 24/31, 7:30 p.m., Sunday, July 26/August 2, Wednesday, July 29, 2 p.m., $20-$95, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; (845) 758-7900, https://fishercenter.bard.edu.