I have so much to say about the Met Live Arts’ (with help from Juilliard and the NY Phil) densely packed, visually rich, and perfectly pitched production of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, almost all of it good.
The show was presented in the American Wing in the Met Museum on Fifth Avenue, with the stage built around the gold statue of Diana in the center of the enclosed sculpture atrium. Costumes were laid out around the perimeter of the stage, with cards denoting to whom they belonged: “Lillian Russell” or “Jenny Reefer” or “Ulysses S. Grant.”
The actors milled around (sort of) inconspicuously before emerging from the audience to take up their characters, pulling military jackets over their t-shirts, or removing coats to reveal 1950s style gowns; their mic-packs gave them away, as did the general impossibility for opera singers to be nonchalant while intensely peering at statues in a room full of seated audience members for over 20 minutes. Then it got started, and I quickly forgot any awkwardness.
Stein’s libretto, packed with her signature linguistic play of sense and nonsense, words shifting kaleidoscopically with each repetition in their phrases or sentences, was beautifully handled throughout the night by both design team and cast.
For Stein, American history is a site of intrusion, interruption, and confusion; outbursts of sentimentality are paired with political seriousness, empty rhetoric paired with moments of searing self-doubt and honesty. Anachronism breaks in upon linearity, confounding the idea of history itself as a story that can be told by any one narrator or that is a “story” at all.
There’s endless quotation, paraphrasing, and repetition, a cacophony of voices contradicting each other and themselves. There are people talking past one another, people changing their names, people chattering, dead historical figures debating other dead historical figures whose lives never crossed paths, fictional characters interacting with real ones, and Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein themselves, acting as narrators.
And at the center of all this is Susan B. Anthony, the suffragette who through tireless work eventually got a bill before Congress that would allow votes for women. She died fourteen years before it would be ratified as the 19th Amendment. Thomson’s music, full of snare drum rolls, fifes, and trumpet, hymn tunes and folksy melodies, is half-ironic Americana at its finest; I simultaneously want to roll my eyes and to burst into tears, so I settled for doing both.
This production has a lot going on; actors appear and reappear all over the atrium, some from high balconies above, some emerging from the doors of the façade of the Branch Bank, once located down on Wall Street, on the north side of the large space.
At times, it was impossible to see who was singing or where they were. Projections broke up the scenes, giving valuable information about who was who, though not always flashing up for long enough to internalize which actor was playing which character in a show with twenty named parts.
Everyone was mic’ed, even Susan B., who barely needed it, but was occasionally positioned so far from the audience that it was useful to keep her voice in the center of the room, even if her body was elsewhere, and provided an acoustic effect that heightened the beautiful unreality of the show.
It was frustrating at times, especially when a rogue statue with a sword through its head blocked my view of the singers, who were occasionally positioned below us on the steps down to the Branch Bank entrance, but ultimately did little to detract from the overall excellence of this production. This was funny, poignant, and striking, showing again what a female creative team (almost everyone involved in the production was female) can do with an opera that is sadly under-performed.
But let’s talk about the singing.
Felicia Moore was spellbinding as Susan B., her enormous voice and expressive face carrying the evening, conveying a woman who, even as she creates it, is already thinking about how she will fit into to history. She knows she’s right; women must have the vote. She tirelessly debates men whom she knows will never vote her laws. She answers their every call to speak.
But, as she says in her final scene, when she appears as a ghost, singing from her unveiled statue: “Do we want what we have got? Has it not gone? What made it live? Has it not gone because it is had?” Moore handled these shifts in mood, from self-doubt to staunchness, with honesty, warmth, and a hint of irony.
She’s got a powerful voice, slightly prone to over-singing, but searing and wall-shaking at its heights. Her best moments were when she got to rein it in, showing her ability to sing with grace, clarity, and tenderness. These moments, as well as her superb acting, far overshadowed the moments when her voice flew off the handle into pitchiness.
One expects Susan B. to be the standout of the night, but for me the real show stealer was Chance Jonas-O’Toole’s Jo the Loiterer. His effortless tenor, a perfect blend of an opera singer’s support and legato with a musical theater singer’s expressive openness, his command of the text and his character, his perfect handling of Jo’s sillier lines made him hard to look away from, even in all the hubbub on stage.
Another beautiful tenor outpouring came from Ian Matthew Castro’s John Adams, a strange role that mainly consists of courting one Constance Fletcher and basically never interacting with anyone else. His lovely, rounded voice made him an ideal romantic lead, and he made a charmingly pompous lover, who won’t be pitied because he’s an Adams. Adorable.
William Socolof was excellent as Daniel Webster, his smooth, stentorian baritone giving way to near-hysterics during the debate, taking on a fire-and-brimstone darkness in his “He digged a pit” moments, and finally, erupting into lyricism in his outbursts of love for the fictional Angel More (Jaylyn Simmons, with appropriately angelic tone). He felt like a formidable enough opponent for Moore, whose all-encompassing stage presence makes this a challenging task, and was beautifully sensitive in his final lines.
Gregory Feldman’s Virgil T. was beautifully sung in a warm, generous baritone, while Libby Sokolowski’s Gertrude S. had a little quirk of fun around the eyes that made her very nice to watch. Their coordinating tragic vests were so awesomely ugly that I wanted to steal them. Gertrude Stein would definitely have approved.
Lousia Proske’s direction was creative, interesting, and clever throughout, starting with a top-hatted man (Andrew Johnson, played by Richard Pittsinger) seated with a red ballot box which Susan B. tried desperately to reach, before her ballot is torn up. Her work with Daniel Webster and his little crew of minions, Andrew Johnson and Thaddeus Stevens (Santiago Pizzaro, who shone in this small part) was particularly excellent, these men, the primary antagonists of Susan B., appearing both supremely silly as they executed Zoe Scofield’s choreography and imminently threatening.
They circle Susan B., slithering around her, relying on insincere promises and occasionally outright threats to keep her work from moving forward, saying they’ll vote on her laws and then delaying endlessly. These men hold the ballot box, you see, and until women get the vote, they make the rules. The ballot box returns twice more, with Susan B. stealing it in her dream sequence and ripping up the ballots inside in fury, and at the end, after women have won the vote, when Webster, Adams, and Stevens stomp on it in a childish rage, the box, which appeared to be made of stronger stuff, a magician’s trick of materials, collapses flat under their feet.
Proske handled the central tensions beautifully, combining the rah-rah feminism with a healthy dose of irony, taking seriously Susan B.’s fears that women acquiring the same political power as men will make them behave like their oppressors, a prescient critique of the “we just need more female CEO’s” brand of feminism that has come under fire for, well, missing the point about what creates these patriarchal power structures in the first place.
Beth Goldenberg’s costume design deserves high praise for creating characters that look appropriately visually distinct (a big task in cast this large and confusing) and for her creative use of anachronism, going even further than what Stein already has in the libretto.
The fictional Jenny Reefer (Alma Neuhaus, with a rich, covered sound) and Indiana Elliot (the brash Carlyle Quinn) were dressed to look like a 1970s feminist protester, belt buckle proclaiming “Vote!,” and a punk chick, all chunky high-heeled Docs, eyeliner, and big hair.
Henrietta M. (Yvette Keong), a minor character who has only six lines including the iconic “Daniel Webster needs an artichoke,” was dressed as a cigarette-smoking 1940s lesbian in wool trousers and button down (another great outfit that I wanted for my own). The visual implication was clear; these fictional women are the “daughters” of Susan B., carrying on her work in the hundred years since her dream of women voting came true.
It also brought forth one of the most beautiful elements of the opera; that, perhaps these women are all reading Susan B. Anthony’s speeches, taking inspiration from her and in turn creating a conversation with the long-dead suffragette.
The Mother of Us All stages not only history, but the act of reading it and engaging with it from a later perspective, the way one can argue with texts from long ago as if their writers are really here to debate us or answer our questions.
The debate between Susan B. and Daniel Webster is a perfect example of this imperfect practice; they “converse” in the same way that we “put texts in conversation with one another” but it is only Susan B. who can really listen and respond to what Webster is saying because she lived after him.
Webster comes off as a blowhard who talks in ridiculous proverbs and florid language in contrast to Susan’s honest, emotional questioning but also, the show knows that Susan B. has the advantage of hindsight, just like Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson themselves did. T
he daughters of Susan B., as they are staged in this production, are the next line of this debate, showing how discourse accrues and repeats itself, how voices from the past are brought into the present with all their attendant baggage. History as collage, as half-living conversations between texts, ideas, and people, between fiction and reality, between myth-making and critique, this is what this opera plays with, and this production does it justice.
This production also brought to the forefront exactly how timely and relevant (overuse of these phrases aside) The Mother of Us All continues to be, with women’s rights to their bodily autonomy being threatened all over America by male politicians who only claim to care about us. Susan B. has a speech in the second act that so perfectly encapsulates our current political climate that I think it’s worth simply quoting verbatim:
Yes, “but.” What is man, what are men, what are they? I do not say that they haven’t kind hearts. If I fall down in a faint, they will rush to pick me up. If my house is on fire, they will rush in to put the fire out and help me. Yes, they have kind hearts, but they are afraid… They fear women. They fear each other. They fear their neighbor. They fear other countries. And then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other. And when they crowd together, they are brutes, like animals who stampede. And so they have written in the name “male” into the United States Constitution, because they are afraid of black men, because they are afraid of women. Men are afraid.
Later, she describes how these same kind hearts will turn to hatred because of their fear. This is the kind of fear that locks children in cages and separates them from their families, and the kind of fear that turns to rage against women, particularly trans women and women of color, to treating them like they are disposable or that their lives are less important than their fetuses.
It’s the fear that got us into this mess of a presidency and and the group mentality that empowers him daily to treat women, LGBT people, and people of color as subhuman. Is it on the nose? Yes! So were all the signs that said “Vote” in all capital letters that appeared repeatedly onstage, and the giant banners that read “Failure is Impossible” that unrolled in opera’s final bars.
But sometimes you have to speak loudly, even to speak louder than you can, to make anyone listen.
Photos: Stephanie Berger