The Mother Of Us All, by Myles Miller

Susan B. Anthony, (image credit Biography.com)

Susan B. Anthony, (image credit Biography.com)

The Mother Of Us All, the second and last collaboration between the composer Virgil Thomson and the poet Gertrude Stein, is an underdog of twentieth-century opera. With few performances and fewer recordings, the work lies beneath a mountain of other compositions favored by the public and struggles to find its way into the limelight. However, despite this relative obscurity, Thomson and Stein’s masterpiece deserves far more recognition than it currently receives. An amazing combination of style and substance, the duo channeled the emotions of more than a century of activism and political understanding into a two-act staging.

The opera begins with Susan B. Anthony writing letters advocating her cause, worrying whether or not her fight is even possible to win. Stein and Thomson narrate the scene, and the whole passage sounds as if taken straight from a book. The plot moves forward into a political meeting between famous figures of U.S. history. Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, John Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Comstock, and Thaddeus Stevens all represent the male establishment, while two humorously named veterans of the Civil War, Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen, mock the politicians’ overly somber demeanors during political discourse. Susan B. Anthony declares herself to the assembly and begins debating with Daniel Webster, who throughout the debate refers to her as “sir”. This specific title in reference to Susan B. is historically important with no explanation as to why located within the libretto. In the media of the nineteenth century, the suffragettes were often described as “unsexed” or “manlike” with newspapers going so far as to refer to the suffragettes as actual men. This kind of slanderous dialogue led to Sojourner Truth, another well-known suffragette, famously baring her breast during a speech in Indiana (Truth being the deliverer of the iconic “Ain’t I A Woman” speech).
Susan B. Anthony next dreams of the allies to her cause and how, in the end, their assistance is meaningless if women themselves do not rise up together to achieve the right to vote. The scene is marked by the VIP’s of politics, again Johnson, Stevens, and Webster, finally taking a serious interest in the idea of women’s suffrage, and Susan B. lecturing Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen on the differences between the rich and poor. In the final scene of the first Act the opera begins to truly take on a political slant, as Susan B. argues that perhaps marriage is necessary only because men are helpless without women to guide them. Proceeding from this dispute, Susan B. and the chorus rise up together and declare that all people of this nation will one day obtain the vote.
The second Act opens with Anthony and the supporting cast addressing the double standard of women being required to take the man’s name in marriage, and Jo the Loiterer’s girlfriend, Indiana Elliot, refuses to marry Jo until he agrees that she will not have to take the name of Loiterer (Stein’s playful libretto here shows its face again, as “Loiterer” is obviously not a real last name). Anthony accepts an invitation to speak to a gathering of politicians at the behest of a crowd of fervent supporters. She returns from the speech with a new air of confidence, having spoken convincingly enough that the reactionary politicians of the government have deliberately written the word “male” into the Constitution out of plain fear of her movement. This new confidence is shadowed by only one doubt; that if Anthony succeeds, women will become as weak and as afraid as the men who are resisting this movement towards equality. In contrast to this doubt, Jo the Loiterer and Indiana Elliot finally agree to be married, each taking the other’s last name and becoming Jo Elliot and Indiana Loiterer. Finally, in a stunning display of choreography and composition, Susan B. Anthony sings her closing aria summarizing a life well-lived and one that was dedicated towards a singular purpose. As the final notes of the aria fade away, Susan B. becomes a statue in front of the Capitol, symbolizing the eternal achievement of the movement that brought women the vote.
Gertrude Stein’s libretto, combined with Virgil Thomson’s unique compositional style, lends this artistic accomplishment a sense of unity nestled between abject dissonances. The lyrics are often direct in their message, yet interspersed between them are series of nonsensical phrases that seem to digress from the main subject. At the same time, Thomson feeds us a musical landscape of minimalism and romanticism that flows between the words, at times almost as if they are completely separate yet whole. In Thomson’s own words, the score is “a memory-book of Victorian play-games and passion…with its gospel hymns and cocky marches, its sentimental ballads, waltzes, darned-fool ditties, and intoned sermons… a souvenir or all those sounds and kinds of tunes that were once the music of rural America.”
Rehearsing this opera presented a challenge. As an orchestra, we were immediately met with an unfamiliar work and had no context of what it should sound like and no idea of how to bring it together. With many disjointed rhythms and eclectic harmonies composed throughout each scene, the first rehearsals sounded similar to an orchestra warming up before a real performance. To tackle a work like this, one where the orchestra did not possess any familiarity with it beforehand, the rehearsals required slightly different tactics than what would be expected of a standard symphony or even a more well-known opera. The early rehearsals consisted of attempts to run through the opera as far as we could, with intermittent pauses in playing that were filled with explanations as to what would be happening on stage during a section had we been actually been performing, and also a brief synopsis of what was happening in the plot. Eventually the orchestra felt more comfortable with each scene and had an idea of what the whole picture was meant to sound like. When the vocalists finally joined us for rehearsals, the opera truly began to take on a polished form. We were now able to hear a cohesive melody above our minimalist, repetitive sections of quarter notes and down-beat chords.
Along with trying to make an unfamiliar opera sound true to form, this was my first time to be principal of a viola section. This meant that I had to also account for and be responsible for an entire group of violists that was as unfamiliar with the work as I was. I spoke with a few of my friends and fellow violists in the UNT viola studio, along with my professor, for some insight as to what would be expected of me as principal and some tips on how to bring the section together. Recommendations ranged from holding sectionals to offering enticements, such as chocolates, when the group performed admirably. While I personally felt that the music was simply not difficult enough to merit full sectional rehearsals apart from the orchestra, and the director, Dr. Stephen Dubberly, bought chocolate and other candies for the whole orchestra at every performance, I was left with the role of being a micromanager. I would give suggestions and directions on how to perform certain passages in the music, such as where to shift and what position to play in, and all the rest of the basic instructions that a principal is tasked with delivering. In the end, the group did not need much more than the occasional fingering suggestion or technique advice, and I ended up being extremely proud with my section’s progress.
Despite the pride I took in my section and the relatively little work that I had to do because of their strengths, being principal of the viola section for this opera was still a privilege that I do not take lightly. Being in an orchestra and playing an instrument requires hard work, but it is work that I love dearly more than anything else in my life. I am appreciative of the people in my life that allowed me the position and provided me with an experience that will stay with me and guide me through any and all future endeavors as a violist. In the words of Susan B. Anthony, “I don’t want to die as long as I can work; the minute I cannot, I want to go.”

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