The art of opera mostly flunks the Bechdel test. Susanna and the Countess discuss the Count; Butterfly and Suzuki go on at length about Pinkerton; Isolde and Brangäne lack any topic but Tristan.
Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson changed all that in 1947 when they premiered their opera The Mother of Us All, a fantasia on the 19th century feminist Susan B. Anthony and her her lifelong fight for women’s suffrage in the United States. A dozen women or more talk and sing about all sort of important and exciting things, with “a man” near the bottom of their list of priorities.
Now, a lifetime later, that thrilling, divisive and eventually ecstatic struggle for the vote is ideally mirrored in an almost painfully brilliant new production of the piece by R. B. Schlather in Hudson, NY.
Though abstract in detail, the staging, which takes place in an around the newly-restored auditorium of Hudson Hall, eventually reveals itself as being yet another operatic love story. It’s the rocky romance between an activist and her cause.
Schlather upends the usual dramatic arc of this piece. Generally we see Susan B. as tough, energetic fighter beaten down by the system and intoning her magnificent final monologue in dejected isolation. This time, though, Michaela Martens‘ nuanced Susan began the show already weary with defeat, even daring to sing the first scenes in a feeble, unsupported tone congruent with the character’s malaise.
As the activist returned to her mission, Martens gradually let her voice grow warmer and fuller until it rang out with Amneris-like force in public debate. Finally she mellowed her tone to an autumal gold, suggesting that Susan in the afterlife could finally smile with satisfaction at the delayed fruits of her long life.
The production in every way reveled in the American ideal of democracy: casting was almost all from local Hudson artists and Schlather himself observed the action reclining in the least expensive seating section on the auditorium’s carpeted floor.
The performing space, handsome as it is, let the piece down musically, muffling a lot of words especially (and ironically) from the women singers and creating imbalances with the feisty band led by Tony Kieraldo.
What I liked best about this show, though, was how well it caught the intrinsic sweetness and kindness of Stein and Thomson’s work. If there is an antagonist to Susan B. in this piece, it’s the Jo the Loiterer, who never quite understands why his bride Indiana Elliot refuses to take his name.
Performed here with ferocious gusto by tenor Dominic Armstrong, Jo was confused and aggressive right to the razor’s edge of violence, and yet the production treated him kindly. Jo isn’t really bad, Schlather seemed to be telling us, he’s just clueless. He may be a man, but he’s as human as you or I.
Photos: Matthew Placek