In 1947, Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson did for Susan B Anthony what Donizetti did for Anne Boleyn, Purcell did for King Arthur, John Adams did for Richard Nixon and Anthony Davis did for Malcolm X: they helped define her place in history by putting her in an opera. The Mother of Us All isn’t an easy work and it isn’t often staged. It’s also far from one of Stein’s best pieces of writing. But in this centenary of women in America (or, at least, white women) getting the vote – a fight for which Anthony was a pivotal figure – it’s an important one, and its four-night run at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was certainly much discussed in the city’s news media.

Felicia Moore (Susan B Anthony) © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Felicia Moore (Susan B Anthony)
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The staging in the Charles Engelhard Court couldn’t have been more appropriate. The large hall features at one end the façade of a Wall Street bank building that had been slated for demolition in the 1920s, making it an age appropriate stage set for the opera of suffrage. It was also a serviceable backdrop for the projection of newsreel footage, along with names of characters, their occupations and birth and date years, as well as portraits of both the actual figures and the actors depicting them. All of that information made the production into something of a museum piece, or maybe a TV movie, but it did help in keeping track of a cast of considerable size. Twenty characters in all (plus another ten as unnamed extras and chorus members) came on and off the stage at the center of the room, singing their way through meetings, rallies and ceremonies. The cast of singers from The Juilliard School’s Ellen and James S Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts was headed up by Felicia Moore, who as Anthony carried most of the weight of the production. With a strong voice and articulate delivery and showing the slightest bits of bemusement, exasperation, persistence and a pervading wisdom, she was a convincing and considerable heroine.

<i>The Mother of Us All</i> © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
The Mother of Us All
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Stein is a pleasure to read and at least quadruple the pleasure to hear spoken or sung. To hear her making a political argument, taking a position, is a fantastic dissonance, the repetitions based not on conviction but Stein’s own maddening, fascinating semantic obsession. And Moore’s clear delivery of the circuitous lines (“I understand that you undertake to overthrow my undertaking”) was a pleasure, even with the supertitles.

Thomson’s score, however, is less interesting, although it was given a lively delivery by a sextet comprised of members of the New York Philharmonic joined by the fine pianist Steven Beck. Musically It was certainly more in keeping with opera of the day, or even musical theater, than working in support of Stein’s text. It’s an unusually linear text for Stein, and one written to be sung. But it’s a far cry from, say, Petr Kotik’s much later settings of Stein, where the music is constructed to bolster her circular poetry, not to push it along. As such, it is the rare example of Stein’s work that stands a chance of entering the American canon; and so it should, where it might sit alongside Copland and Ives as not just an example of what this country has produced but what this country has been, and might become.

<i>The Mother of Us All</i> © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
The Mother of Us All
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

In telling Anthony’s story, Stein and Thomson didn’t just relate the history of women’s suffrage. It’s a surprisingly prescient work. Anthony expresses concern that once women got the vote, they would, like men, grow obstinate out of fear of losing their power. Later, she is shown asking a black man if he would vote while a woman couldn’t, clearly considering the inequities embedded in her battle. (Non-whites wouldn’t be guaranteed the right to vote in the United States until 1965.) Other, perhaps younger, women are depicted questioning the institution of marriage as a mechanism for the continued subjugation of women and the persuasive while Anthony considers the undue power of female physical beauty, a power held by women other than the protagonist in the story. It’s perhaps not irrelevant that neither Anthony nor Stein married and that recent historical reconstructions suggest that Anthony, like Stein, was a lesbian.

If the strengths of the opera aren’t primarily artistic, it is nevertheless a powerful piece of work. Stein and Thompson wrote Anthony into the cultural memory. In dubbing her “the mother of us all”, they cast her as the mother of democracy, the historic equal of George Washington. A century later, little more is often remembered about her than her name; even the dollar coin depicting her is long out of circulation. It’s the right time to have Anthony in opera revived.

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