|Political Rally in Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All
Photo by Carol Rosegg
How Dona D. Vaughn, Artistic Director of the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, took Gertrude Stein's incomprehensible word salad and made a dramatically valid production out of it was a source of great amazement to us; our curiosity was rewarded by Ms. Vaughn herself who shared the secret with us. She first staged the work as a play, asking each singer to create a valid character with a backstory and motivation and to perform off the book. It was only then that the music was added. This device worked wonders; the stage was filled with a plethora of interesting characters interacting with one another such that the characters overwhelmed any need for plot.
There's the composer of The Mother of Us All, Virgil Thomson (portrayed by Chad Sonka) onstage with Gertrude Stein, the poet and librettist (portrayed by Megan Gillis); they are narrating the opening scene of the opera in a "she said" format as if they were doing the creating right on the spot. The audience is immediately drawn into the story. But there isn't much of a story. Susan B. Anthony, convincingly portrayed by mezzo Noragh Devlin, was a feminist who fought valiantly for women's right to vote; it was a long uphill battle which she eventually won in spite of overwhelming male resistance.
Ms. Stein peopled the opera with historical characters from different periods, fictional characters, and people she knew as well--feminists and intellectuals.
That this all worked so well was due to the incredible amount of effort put into forming the ensemble and to the fine production values. Erhard Rom designed the simple set--classical columns, an American flag, a desk, a chair, a table, a Picasso portrait of Ms. Stein. Tracy Dorman designed the effective and colorful costumes. Francis Patrelle was the choreographer.
But this is, after all, an opera so what about the musical values? Mr. Thomson's music was given a frisky performance by the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra conducted by the esteemed Steven Osgood. The music is nothing if not tuneful and such accessibility is uncommon in 20th c. opera; we heard a lot of "Americana"--folk tunes and dance music, much of it seeming to come from an earlier time as befit the story. The voices were excellent and were used to limn the characters. There is not a thing about the production to fault.
There is one performance left on Sunday at 2:30. Snag a ticket if you can. This is opera as entertainnment!
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