Neoromantic composer and iconoclastic classical music critic Virgil Thomson is remembered today primarily for his movie scores – notably for The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), The River (1937) and Louisiana Story (1948), the latter of which won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for a film score. But Thomson also composed three operas, two of them with librettos written by Gertrude Stein, who had been his mentor in the heady Paris of the 1920s. Both Four Saints in Three Acts (1928) and The Mother of Us All are highly regarded – but rarely performed, on account of the fact that Stein as a writer was generally more interested in language as sound patterning than as a device for storytelling.
Four Saints, while a delight to hear, is pretty much nonsensical in content. The Mother of Us All at least makes an attempt at narrative: It’s a very loosely adapted, occasionally Absurdist life of Susan B. Anthony, incorporating snippets from the pioneering suffragist’s writings and speeches but placing her in a dreamlike setting populated by characters from many periods of American history (including two narrators known as Gertrude S. and Virgil T.) – or simply from the author’s imagination. If you go to hear the new production being mounted in mid-November at the Hudson Opera House, be prepared for something a bit more head-scratching than straightforward historical drama set to music.
This new interpretation was commissioned by the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz (with generous support from the New York State Council on the Arts) to commemorate the centennial this November of women’s suffrage in New York State, as well as the reopening of the Opera House’s freshly restored Hudson Hall. It’s also meant to honor the history of the Hall, as Susan B. Anthony herself spoke twice on the very stage where this opera will be performed. Quite the harmonic convergence! Performances begin at 4 p.m. on November 11, 12, 15, 18 and 19, with tickets going for $45 and $25 for the Wednesday show and $55 and $35 for Saturday and Sunday shows. Call (518) 822-1438 or visit http://hudsonhall.org or http://bit.ly/2vIUO8E to reserve yours.
The young and visionary stage director R. B. Schlather reimagines this two-act opera as a musical theater pageant, performed in a site-specific arrangement by a vocal and instrumental ensemble of Hudson Valley residents and starring mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens in the lead role. His team of collaborators includes the renowned Stein scholar and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor Emerita of Humanities at Bard College, Joan Retallack.
The team is also planning a series of public spectacles and salons in response to the building’s history as a space for civic exchange, and to provide essential commentary on who we are today as women, people of color, queers, activists, rural residents and, ultimately, individuals with the right to gather, voice our beliefs and be represented with respect and equality: themes that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago. On Saturday, November 4 from 2 to 5 p.m., a free workshop titled “Looking at the Issues” will take place at the Hudson Area Library, led by Bard faculty member Delia Mellis.
Open to community members and students aged 14 and above, the workshop will allow community members to explore The Mother of Us All as an artwork, examining its language and historical context (voting rights, suffragism and abolitionism) through the lens of contemporary political issues. All participants will be invited to attend a final dress rehearsal of the opera, followed by a question-and-answer session with director Schlather. The Hudson Area Library is located at 51 North Fifth Street in Hudson.