Why a 1947 Opera About Susan B. Anthony Feels Right Now


History comes around again in surprising ways. Places fall apart and are put back together. People come together, go away, and come back again. Issues once fought over and determined fall under scrutiny and must be debated again.

Social reformer and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony spoke at the Hudson Opera House in 1860 and 1898. Hudson Hall, at the historic Hudson Opera House, in partnership with The Millay Colony for the Arts, is marking the upcoming centenary of women’s suffrage and the reopening of NY’s oldest surviving theater with a new production of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s 1947 opera, The Mother Of Us All — a comic and profound musical pageant of 19th century American social and political life.

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Stein’s text presents Anthony as a noble, moral voice in a landscape of mythic and invented American characters navigating the social and political issues related to women’s suffrage. In Robert K. Martin’s 1988 critical appreciation of the work, he wrote:

The lesson to be learned from Anthony’s life is the need “to make a noise, a loud noise.” Stein does not identify the principal accomplishment of Anthony as the narrower goal, achieved only after her death, of voting rights for women, but rather as the creation of a new sense of self, the ability to make oneself heard and to speak for oneself. This achievement by women is for Stein a fulfillment of the original democratic and emancipatory mission of the United States.

The Mother of Us All addresses gender, race and poverty, and provides timely commentary on contemporary American social issues, including our right as diverse individuals to gather, voice our beliefs, and be represented with respect and equality. The work also echoes the anxieties expressed in the comments on our social media feeds: Who am I, in the face of patriarchy, ideology, false rhetoric and the oppression of basic rights? Do I speak up or do I remain in my comfort zone?

More than just a theatrical revival, The Mother of Us All is conceived as a major community exhibition designed to engage and reflect the issues of today by creating spaces for dynamic exchanges of history and performance. The historic ground floor spaces of Hudson Hall will be activated to become experimental salons, spectacles and public gatherings led by some of the region’s best minds, makers and musicians. These public conversations are a modern-day call to civic engagement, while highlighting the unique history of the building as the central hub of Hudson’s 19th century civic and cultural life.

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Director R. B. Schlather re-imagines the two-act opera as speaking directly to today’s heated political climate and to the struggle between the personal and political in an era of armchair activism.

The Mother of Us All runs Nov. 11 to 19. More information and tickets are here. And here is a great bio of Schlather, a leader among the nation’s most intriguing young opera directors.

And now, 5 questions R.B. Schlather has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
When someone perceives that the work isn’t representational.

Director R.B. Schlather. Photo: Tobin del Cuore.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
What the audience is going to see?

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
How’d you come up with that?

4) How did the original libretto of The Mother of Us All play with gender and how are you playing with it now? How have contemporary notions of gender fluidity impacted the piece?
Stein’s libretto offers a landscape of mythic, historic American figures of the 19th century, as well as invented ones. I was reading that she and Thomson immersed themselves in the oratory of 19th century moral debates, and that led to choosing Susan B. Anthony and focusing on the theme of women’s suffrage as the outstanding discussion from the period of 1830 to 1900. To present that discussion today, with all the dialogues about gender in the news right now, is thrilling.

The way we were going to pull off casting this show is to use creatives and musicians local to the Hudson River valley. When we had our open calls in the spring, I immediately saw that we weren’t going to try to do one-to-one casting. Meaning: I wasn’t going to cast someone who looks like Gertrude Stein to play Gertrude Stein (Gertrude Stein is a character in the story!). So it became more of a puzzle to match the personalities, the energy of the artists who were coming in and singing, to the “roles” in Stein’s libretto. And for our cast, that didn’t line up with gender.

The conversation with my collaborators during the casting process excitingly became about representing the diversity of ages, vocal styles, backgrounds, bodies, and personalities of our region, to realize Stein’s fictional landscape with our reality, now.

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5) Voting rights are still in question for so many today. How can The Mother of Us All help increase not just the ability but also the proclivity of Americans to vote?
I think the impact of the piece is more about the existential questions we all have about having a voice and being listened to. And legacy. And maybe this piece, heard today, can fire people up to not be silent, to richly add their voice to our American political and social life, get off their phones, get onto the streets, get into their communities and activate people to speak out against policies that enforce inequalities. Voting is voice. The goal of this performance is to bring people together in this community, to create a gathering space to meditate and heal, and energize. So, if experiencing this opera creates a proclivity to participate in larger cultural and political life, that would be rad.