Monday, February 10, 2020

'The Mother of Us All'

There aren't too many opportunities to get to see a production of the three operas by composer Virgil Thomson, who was also a highly-regarded critic in an age when such conflicts of interest were not regarded as problems. So this past Saturday, an unusual combination of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Philharmonic, and the Julliard School of Music presented a semi-staged version of Thomson's 1947 opera about Susan B. Anthony, The Mother of Us All, in the Engelhard court which is located in front of the old Subtreasury building facade that once stood at Wall and Broad, but now fronts the American Wing of the Met.

The space was set up with a raised stage that stood amid three banks of folding wooden chairs for viewers. Surtitles were flashed on a well-suited space in the colonade around the court and pictures were flashed with major points on the front of the Subtreasury facade. Felicia Moore was the excellent soloist who portrayed Susan B. Anthony, and the many other parts, ranging from John Adams to Ulysses S. Grant were filled by Julliard students. A half-dozen Philharmonic musicians, dominated by the trumpeter, provided the orchestral component.

Thomson's music was most enjoyable. He used techniques that Charles Ives was employing--drawing on American patriotic songs, folk music, and marches among many other influences. The plot, if it can be called that, was hard to follow because it was disjointed and mixed real and fictional characters. (Images of many of the characters were flashed up on the facade and identified as appropriate "Real" or "Fictional".) But what would you have expected from the famed avant-gardist who wrote it, Gertrude Stein?

She also had provided the libretto for Thomson's opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which had been written twenty years earlier in 1927-28. The Mother of Us All did win praise from many--an example comes from Opera News in 2013, regarding a Manhattan School of Music production:

"The opera remains riveting, too, in the lightness and wit of its approach to serious themes such as the struggle for women's suffrage. Preaching would soon pall, but Stein's playfulness, surprises and absurdities, like the Mozartean clockwork of so much of Virgil Thomson's all-American music, have a tonic effect, especially in their ability to keep the listener off guard."

The opera was originally produced at Columbia University, but later was presented (in this century) by the Santa Fe Opera and the San Francisco Opera.

It did not drag and I found myself wanting to know more about the long life and career of Susan B. Anthony, who lived to be 86 and died in 1906, fourteen years before the 19th Amendment giving women the vote went into effect.  

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