Opera at Bard
SummerScape Opera 2015: The Wreckers
July 24 and 31 at 7:30 pm
July 26, 29, and August 2 at 2 pm
July 24 and 31 at 7:30 pm
July 26, 29, and August 2 at 2 pm
Video: Opera at Bard
Louis Otey (Pascoe)American baritone Louis Otey has performed with leading theaters throughout the world for more than 30 years, including the Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Chicago Lyric Opera, and San Francisco Opera. His many roles include Scarpia in Tosca; Count di Luna in Il Trovatore; the title roles in Don Giovanni, Falstaff, Rigoletto, and Der fliegende Holländer; Athanael in Thais; and the four villains in Les contes d’Hoffmann. He was Grandier in Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun with the Royal Danish Opera and Warsaw Opera, and Tonio in I pagliacci with Hawaii Opera Theater. Otey performed the title role in Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero with Antonio Pappano and the orchestra of Santa Cecilia in Rome and in London. This season he returned to Covent Garden in I due Foscari, and sang Sharpless with Florida Opera Festival’s Madama Butterfly and Monfort in Verdi’s Les vêpres sicilliennes at the Royal Danish Opera.
Katharine Goeldner (Thirza)Recent performances include the title role in Carmen with the Savonlinna Festival and Lyric Opera of Chicago; Giovanna Seymour (Anna Bolena) at the Metropolitan Opera and Welsh National Opera; Brangäne (Tristan und Isolde) at Salzburg’s Festspielhaus; Mrs. Grose (The Turn of the Screw) with Opéra National de Lyon; and Gertrude (Hamlet) with Minnesota Opera. Goeldner has performed in concert with such prestigious orchestras as the Berlin Symphony, the Munich Radio Orchestra, and Parma’s Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini. Recordings include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Vienna Symphony, Spohr’s Die letzten Dinge with the Mozarteum Orchestra, and a recording of works commissioned by her trio, The Prairie Song Project. Future engagements include her role debut as Amneris (Aida) with Utah Opera, Marcellina (Le nozze di Figaro) for Lyric Opera of Chicago, Hippolyta (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with Hawaii Opera Theater, and the world premiere of JFK with Fort Worth Opera.
Neal Cooper (Mark)English tenor Neal Cooper’s current and future engagements include Melot (Tristan und Isolde), Royal Opera House Covent Garden; Tristan (Tristan und Isolde), Longborough Festival Opera and Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern; Mark (The Wreckers), Bard SummerScape; and Paul (Die tote Stadt) and Erik (Der fliegende Holländer), Reisopera. Cooper was born in South London. He studied German literature at Durham University and singing at the Paris Conservatoire and National Opera Studio. He made his Royal Opera House Covent Garden debut as Thibault (Les vêpres siciliennes). Other engagements have included Gabriele Adorno (Simon Boccanegra), English National Opera; Radames (Aida), Riverside Opera; and Ciccillo (I gioielli della Madonna) and Nick (La fanciulla del West), Opera Holland Park. Concert appearances include the title role in extracts from Siegfried in the Wagner 200 Celebrations at Royal Festival Hall, and in the Good Friday scene of Parsifal, with John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz.
Sky Ingram (Avis)Sky Ingram trained in Australia and the United Kingdom, most recently at the National Opera Studio in London (sponsored by Opera North) and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She has performed with the English National Opera, English Touring Opera, Opera North, Ardente Opera, and Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Ingram made her debut at Royal Opera House in November 2014 as Lea in the world premiere of Glare, which was met with huge critical acclaim. In October and November 2015, she will perform the role of Venus in a Royal Opera House production of Rossi’s Orfeo at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London.
Dennis Petersen (Tallan)Hailed by the Chicago Tribune as a “wonderfully natural singing actor,” through his innate sense of style, command of languages, and superior acting abilities, tenor Dennis Petersen is sought after for a variety of operatic roles. He has made forays into some of the most dramatic tenor roles in the repertoire, such as Tristan in Tristan und Isolde, Florestan in Fidelio, the Captain in Wozzeck, Aegisth in Elektra, Canio in Pagliacci, and the title role in Peter Grimes. He is scheduled to return to the Metropolitan Opera as Nathanael/Spalanzani in Les contes d’Hoffmann, and for productions of Die Zauberflöte, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and The Rake’s Progress. His debut with the Seattle Opera as Mime in Das Rheingold and Siegfried brought the highest accolades from Ring fans and critics alike. He returned in 2013 and was once again praised by Opera News for his superb “tone, technique, expressivity [and] diction.”
Michael Mayes (Lawrence)Known for his consummate portrayals of iconic characters in the operatic repertoire, baritone Michael Mayes has performed with opera companies throughout the United States. The 2013–14 season brought his role debut as Rigoletto with Boston Lyric Opera and his debut with Gotham Chamber Opera in Baden-Baden 1925, as well as reprisals of his Joseph De Rocher in Dead Man Walking with both Madison Opera and Central City Opera, and the premiere of The Canticle of the Black Madonna. Engagements for the 2014–15 season and beyond include Charlie in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers with UrbanArias, role debuts as Sharpless in Madama Butterfly with Michigan Opera Theater and Jack Rance in La fanciulla del West with Opera Omaha, Joseph De Rocher with Opera Parallèle in San Francisco and Glory Denied with Memphis Opera, and the premiere of Jake Heggie’s Great Scott! in Dallas and San Diego.
Kendra Broom (Jack)Mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom embraces repertoire from Haydn to Hindemith, and has been involved with productions that “move, perplex and stimulate” (New York Times). This season Broom appears as the lead in Sheila Silver’s A Thousand Splendid Suns as part of OPERA America’s New Works Forum. Other recent credits include Lakme (Mallika), alto soloist in Mozart’s Requiem with the New York Master Chorale and, in New Jersey, Menotti’s Missa O Pulchritudo. Additional highlights are Barber’s Hand of Bridge (Sally), Hänsel und Gretel (Hänsel), Bloch’s Macbeth (Le Fils de Macduff), Haydn’s Orlando Paladino (Alcina), Orphée aux Enfers (Cupidon), Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner (Genevieve), The Mother of Us All (Isabel Wentworth), and Bernard Rands’s Vincent (Marguerite). Broom is a recent graduate of Manhattan School of Music, where she was awarded the Voorhis, Monell, and Birgit Nilsson Scholarships. In the fall, she will be joining Curtis Institute of Music for vocal studies.
Peter Van Derick (Harvey)Baritone Peter Van Derick made his Metropolitan Opera debut in April 1995 in John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, and returned for roles in Die Zauberflöte, Salome, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Capriccio, and Andrea Chenier. In 1997 he portrayed the title role in Gianni Schicchi with the Metropolitan Opera Guild. He has sung frequently with the American Symphony Orchestra in rare masterpieces such as Smyth’s The Wreckers and Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang (also staged at Bard’s SummerScape). Since 1994, he has been on the faculties of New York University’s Collaborative Arts Project 21, Lee Strasberg Institute, Marymount Manhattan College, and Columbia Teachers College, teaching private voice and classes in vocal technique, and serving as music director of industry showcases and productions. His private students have appeared in Broadway and national tour productions of Spring Awakening, A Chorus Line, Phantom of the Opera, Ragtime, Man of La Mancha, and The Producers, among others.
Thaddeus Strassberger (Director)
Thaddeus Strassberger returns to Bard SummerScape 2015 to direct his fifth production with the festival, previously having created productions of Les Huguenots, Der ferne Klang, Le roi malgré lui, and Oresteia. He recently made his debut with the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera, directing and designing Satyagraha, the first-ever production of a Philip Glass opera in Russia. Further debuts in 2014 included The Royal Opera Covent Garden, where he directed Placido Domingo in I due Foscari and a world premiere opera, Glare, by Søren Nils Eichberg. This past season he also directed Andrea Chénier and The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (Staatstheater Braunschweig), I due Foscari (Theater an der Wien), and Don Giovanni (The Norwegian Opera). Notable past productions include: Hamlet (Washington National Opera/ Minnesota Opera/Fort Worth Opera/Lyric Opera of Kansas City), Nabucco (Washington National Opera/Minnesota Opera/Opera Philadelphia/Florida Grand Opera, l’Opera de Montreal), La fanciulla del West (l’Opera de Montreal, Tiroler Landestheater Innsbruck), and Le nozze di Figaro and The Rape of Lucretia (The Norwegian Opera). His production of I due Foscari has recently been seen in Los Angeles and Valencia. His production of the rarely heard La Gazzetta (Rossini, in Wildbad Festival, Germany) garnered nominations for both best production and best direction from Opernwelt magazine.VIEW MORE >>
Leon Botstein (Conductor)Leon Botstein is now in his 23rd year as music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra. He has been hailed for his visionary zeal, often creating concert programs that give audiences a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear live performances of works that are ignored in the standard repertory, and inviting music lovers to listen in their own way to create a personal experience. At the same time he brings his distinctive style to core repertory works. He is also artistic codirector of Bard SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival, which take place at The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, where he has been president since 1975. He is conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, where he served as music director from 2003–11. VIEW MORE >>
Botstein leads an active schedule as a guest conductor all over the world, and can be heard on numerous recordings with the London Symphony (including its Grammy nominated recording of Popov’s First Symphony), the London Philharmonic, NDRHamburg, and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Many of his live performances with the American Symphony Orchestra are available online, where they have cumulatively sold more than a quarter of a million downloads. Upcoming engagements include the Royal Philharmonic, Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Aspen Music Festival, and the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden. In recent seasons, he has conducted the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Russian National Orchestra in Moscow, Taipei Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, and Sinfónica Juvenil de Caracas in Venezuela.
Highly regarded as a music historian, Botstein’s most recent book is Von Beethoven zu Berg: Das Gedächtnis der Moderne (2013). He is the editor of The Musical Quarterly and the author of numerous articles and books. He is currently working on a sequel to Jefferson’s Children, about the American education system. For his contributions to music he has received the award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Harvard University’s prestigious Centennial Award, as well as the Cross of Honor, First Class, from the government of Austria. Other recent awards include the Caroline P. and Charles W. Ireland Prize, the highest award given by the University of Alabama; the Bruckner Society’s Julio Kilenyi Medal of Honor for his interpretations of that composer’s music; the Leonard Bernstein Award for the Elevation of Music in Society; and Carnegie Foundation’s Academic Leadership Award. In 2011 he was inducted into the American Philosophical Society.
Erhard Rom (Set Designer)
Erhard Rom was named as a finalist in the Designer of the Year category of the 2015 International Opera Awards in London. He has designed settings for over 200 productions across the globe; his design work has been displayed in the Prague Quadrennial exhibition and at the National Opera Center in Manhattan. He teaches design at Montclair State University. His credits include: San Francisco Opera, Wexford Festival Opera, Seattle Opera, Vancouver Opera, Glimmerglass Festival, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Minnesota Opera, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, Fort Worth Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Opéra de Montréal, Atlanta Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Boston, and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. In 2014 he designed the European premiere of Kevin Puts’s opera, Silent Night. The production received the audience choice and best opera production awards at the 2015 Irish Times Theatre Awards ceremony.
JAX Messenger (Lighting Designer)
JAX Messenger has lit productions for such companies as Bard SummerScape (Oresteia); Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (Laurencia, Waltzpurgisnacht, Majisimas); Merola Opera (Barber of Seville); Washington Ballet (Sleeping Beauty, Fluctuating Hemlines, WAM2, Shostakovich Concerto); WAM! (Don Quixote); San Francisco Opera (Requiem, The Elixir of Love for Families). He has recreated the designs of Tony Tucci, Mark McCullough, Nick Phillips, Keven Meek, Nacho Duato, Jeff Bruckerhoff, and Jennifer Tipton. His associate and assistant Broadway work includes Of Mice and Men, The Heidi Chronicles, and The Visit. As an assistant lighting director he managed the creation of four operas for New York City Opera and 48 for the San Francisco Opera. As lighting supervisor he produced tours for the Washington Ballet and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in venues around the world, including the John F. Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.; Théatre du Chatelet, Paris; Teatro degli Arcimboldi, Milan; and Victorian Arts Center, Melbourne.
Kaye Voyce (Costume Designer)
Kaye Voyce’s work has previously been seen at Bard SummerScape in productions of Osud, Rocket to the Moon, The Wild Duck, and Judgment Day. Her Broadway credits include The Real Thing, The Realistic Joneses, and Shining City. Other recent credits include Il turco in Italia (Teatro Regio Torino, Festival d’Aix); Enemies, A Love Story (Palm Beach Opera); The Mystery of Love and Sex (Lincoln Center Theater); The Evening (Walker Art Center, The Kitchen); The Wayside Motor Inn (Signature Theatre); Dialogues of the Carmelites (Opera Theatre of St. Louis); Luna Gale (Goodman Theatre and Kirk Douglas Theatre); and Trisha Brown’s final two dances, I’ll toss my arms—if you catch them they’re yours and Rogues.
Hannah Wasileski (Projection Designer)
Hannah Wasileski is a visual artist and projection designer from Berlin whose work spans theater, opera, music, and installation. Her recent design work includes Albany Symphony’s American Music Festival (with Sleeping Giant and Theo Bleckmann), architectural projection design for La Celestina (Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Manual Cinema and Opera Erratica), The World Is Round (BAM), Livin’ La Vida Imelda (Ma-Yi Theatre prose du Transsiberien (Yale Beinecke), ReAnimator Requiem (Abrons Arts Center), the world premiere of Dear Elizabeth (Yale Rep and Berkeley Rep), and The Strange Tales of Liaozhai and My Life in a Nutshell (HERE Arts Center). She is the recipient of an Obie Award. Her installation and video art have been exhibited in London, Brighton, and Glasgow. Hannah holds an M.F.A. in design from Yale.
J. Jared Janas (Hair, Wig, and Make-Up Designer)Broadway designs include The Visit, The Real Thing, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Motown, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Peter and the Starcatcher, All About Me, and Next to Normal. Recent off-Broadway designs include The Tempest (Shakespeare in the Park), Pretty Filthy, A Month in the Country, Allegro, Passion, and Bad Jews. TV/films include Inside Amy Schumer, 30 Rock, Lola Versus, Gilded Lilys, Six by Sondheim, and Angelica.
James Bagwell (Chorus Master)James Bagwell maintains an active international schedule as a conductor of choral, operatic, and orchestral music. In 2009 he was appointed music director of the Collegiate Chorale and principal guest conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra, leading them in concerts at Carnegie Hall during the 2013–14 season. In July 2012 he prepared the Collegiate Chorale for concerts with the Israel Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival under Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti. This August he will return as chorus master for the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center and the Bard Music Festival. He has recently begun a collaboration with singer Natalie Merchant, appearing with her and major orchestras throughout the United States. Bagwell is professor of music at Bard College and codirector of the Graduate Conducting Program at The Bard College Conservatory of Music.
David Sytkowski (Principal Music Coach)
David Sytkowski is based in New York City. Recent engagements include Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner and Von Schillings’s Mona Lisa with the American Symphony Orchestra, Weber’s Euryanthe with Bard SummerScape, the world premiere of Paul Richards’s Biennale at The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, guest coach at the Seattle Opera Young Artist Program, and Opera Moderne’s production of Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis. Before moving to New York, he served as vocal coach for University of Wisconsin Opera in Madison, as well as pianist for various Madison Opera productions and outreach. In addition to his operatic work, he frequently collaborates with singers and instrumentalists, and has performed with tenor James Doing, soprano Mimmi Fulmer, and violinist Felicia Moye.
R. B. Schlather (Assistant Director)R. B. Schlather is pleased to return to the Richard B. Fisher Center’s SummerScape festival after previously assisting on Euryanthe and Die Liebe der Danae. His recent directing credits include Norma at the Gran Theatre del Liceu, and Orlando and Alcina as open process art exhibitions at Whitebox Art Center in Manhattan—called in the New York Times “a valuable project that deserves enthusiastic support” and “a gift given to the New York cultural scene.” In the 2015–16 season, Schlather makes his directing debut with Boston Lyric Opera on a new production of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, returns to his alma mater to direct Semele for the Ithaca College Department of Theater Arts, and prepares for an exhibition of Ariodante in New York City. His work has been presented by CATCH, and published in Emergency INDEX 2011.
Zachary Schwartzman (Assistant Conductor)
Zachary Schwartzman has conducted around the United States and in Brazil, Mexico, England, and Bosnia. His orchestral performances have been featured on NPR, including a national broadcast on Performance Today. He has received a career development grant from the Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation and served as assistant conductor for the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opera Atelier (Toronto), Berkshire Opera, Opera Français de New York, L’Ensemble orchestral de Paris, Bard SummerScape, Gotham Chamber Opera, and Opera Omaha, among others. He was associate conductor for two seasons with New York City Opera, as well as conductor in their VOX series, and has been associate/assistant conductor for 15 productions at Glimmerglass Opera, where he conducted Carmen and Jeanine Tesori’s A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck (world premiere). His credits as assistant conductor include recordings for Albany Records, Naxos Records, and a Grammy-nominated, world-premiere recording for Chandos Records. He has been music director of the Blue Hill Troupe since 2004.
Lynn Krynicki (Stage Manager)
Lynn Krynicki just finished her 15th consecutive season at Washington National Opera (WNO) at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This summer she enjoys her 12th consecutive season as opera stage manager for Bard SummerScape. At WNO, her opera stage managing credits include Florencia en el Amazonas, Der fliegende Holländer, Siegfried, Werther, Anna Bolena, Madama Butterfly, and La forza del destino. Other notable stage management credits include the Latino Inaugural 2013 at the Kennedy Center; the first non-Russian premiere of Taneyev’s Oresteia at Bard SummerScape; North American premiere of The Picture of Dorian Gray at Florentine Opera; Carmen, performed in Van Andel Arena for Opera Grand Rapids; and the world premiere of Gabriel’s Daughter at Central City Opera. Among the other companies for which she has worked are Seattle Opera, Central City Opera, Nashville Opera, Milwaukee Ballet, Chautauqua Opera, Pine Mountain Music Festival, Des Moines Metro Opera, and Madison Opera.
David Burke (Costume Supervisor)
David Burke is a freelance costume assistant and supervisor, working primarily in opera. He spent 15 years as costume director for the Santa Fe Opera, where he started his career. Recent credits include Acis and Galatea, Isaac Mizrahi design for Mark Morris; The Magic Flute, Isaac Mizrahi design for Opera Theatre of St. Louis; and Peter and the Wolf, Isaac Mizrahi design for the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process. For Bard SummerScape, Burke has supervised costumes for Oresteia, Mattie Ullrich design, and Euryanthe, Jessica Jahn design. Burke has an M.F.A. from New York University, Tisch School for the Arts, and is a member of USA Local 824, Costume Design.
American Symphony OrchestraThe American Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1962 by Leopold Stokowski, with a mission of making orchestral music accessible and affordable for everyone. Music Director Leon Botstein expanded that mission when he joined the ASO in 1992, creating thematic concerts that explore music from the perspective of the visual arts, literature, religion, and history, and reviving rarely performed works that audiences would otherwise never have a chance to hear performed live. VIEW MORE >>
The orchestra’s Vanguard Series consists of multiple concerts annually at Carnegie Hall. ASO also performs at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Bard’s SummerScape festival and the Bard Music Festival. The orchestra has made several tours of
Asia and Europe, and has performed in countless benefits for organizations including the Jerusalem Foundation and PBS.Many of the world’s most accomplished soloists have performed with the ASO, including Yo-Yo Ma, Deborah Voigt, and Sarah Chang. The orchestra has released several recordings on the Telarc, New World, Bridge, Koch, and Vanguard labels, and many live performances are also available for digital download. In many cases, these are the only existing recordings of some of the rare works that have been rediscovered in ASO performances.
It is hard to imagine an opera whose argument is more pertinent to our times than Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers. This is because Smyth, both in the choice of the story and the man- ner of its musical setting, forged a synthesis between art and politics with uncanny power. That synthesis mirrors her life and work. Born in 1858, she lived an unbelievably full life (recounted in her sprawling but spellbinding memoirs) and crossed paths with any- one who was somebody. She died in 1944, a legend in her own time, an authentic pioneer and iconoclast.
The Wreckers, which was premiered in 1906 in Leipzig, is Smyth’s finest achievement because of her brilliant exploitation of the potential political and moral impact of oper- atic form. In this work, music and drama, consistent with Romanticism and particularly the Wagnerian model, become more than pleasant distraction and entertainment. The human predicaments that evolve on stage transcend the personal, and the music turns the spectacle of opera into an experience of ethical and political recognition that con- tests the confines of narrow aesthetic criteria.
Smyth’s own extraordinary courage as an individual—a woman composer and a lesbian political activist who defied dominant expectations and norms—defines the work. In the foreground is the alarming power of fundamentalist religious conceit within a close-knit community. The very opening line of the opera (sung by the chorus) states the claim: “God’s chosen people shall not pay the price of sin, for Jordan’s wave has washed them white.” Persuaded of their status as God’s elect, as instruments of a divine truth that trumps the logic of human reason, ethics, and law, the chorus—the community— assumes the right to wreak violence on others, to steal, plunder, and kill with impunity. They are persuaded that they are doing God’s work and pursuing a higher good. This insu- lates them from any sense of wrongdoing, sin, or guilt.
One of the consequences, as Smyth understood all too well, is the evisceration of any notion of a rule of law that protects the freedom of the individual, the sanctity of every human life, the right to life, liberty, and therefore dissent. Throughout the opera, the ideal of the secular state in which religion is construed as a private choice, and the priority of individual and Enlightenment traditions of religious tolerance—including the protection of atheism and agnosticism (all contexts indispensable to the life and work of an artist)— are powerfully present by their terrifying absence on stage. The audience witnesses the failure of individual idealism and the willful destruction of love and hope by collective fanaticism.
Smyth chose as the subject of her opera the psychological and political allure of absolutist religious faith and doctrine, especially within communities defined by carefully guarded isolation. The parallels with our own time are all too obvious and painful. They range from the doctrinaire factions in American Christianity that seek to control the public realm, to the intolerant ultra-Orthodoxy within the Jewish religion that threatens secular democ- racy in Israel, to the violence of Islamic fundamentalism. The opera is set in an isolated community in Cornwall that possesses a religiously based, fanatical self-regard that leads it to justify theft and murder as God-given rights and virtues. Led by its own pastor, vio- lence becomes the instrument of realizing God’s will. The opera depicts the conse- quences of mass hysteria and populist justice, draconian in its nature, against those who resist the imposition of a moral code based solely on perceived divine justice, not human justice. The toxic roots of this fanaticism are ignorance, poverty, and economic despair. And Smyth’s victims of that extremism are deeply sympathetic characters—young ideal- ists who should, by any human standard of ethics, be protected, if not by law then by ties of family and affection. But all these are subordinated to doctrine and the will of the majority.
Though the story is fictitious, the existence of wreckers on the British coast was a histor- ical fact. In small, desperately poor villages, bands of villagers formed secret cadres that at critical moments extinguished the beacons established on the coast to guide ships, thus forcing them onto the rocks. They then plundered the cargo and murdered the crews. The time period in which Smyth chooses to set the opera suggests that she knew of the great Methodist minister John Wesley’s unsuccessful attempt to stop the practice of wrecking. But Smyth’s minister, Pascoe, uses religious enthusiasm for a very different end.
Richard Wagner was inordinately proud of his thin credentials as a revolutionary during the heady days of 1848. Ethel Smyth, in contrast, possessed real courage. She was arrested and went to prison for advocating for the right of women to vote. Smyth conducted her life, whether in sports, politics, or art, with fearless zeal, pride, and conviction. That The Wreckers is the finest opera written in modern history by a woman before World War II is a matter of fact, and not a qualified compliment, since the range of choice, owing to the recalcitrant prejudice against women composers, is narrow indeed. But the legitimate desire to rectify a longstanding prejudice against the few female composers who man- aged to establish themselves is not the primary reason that The Wreckers merits revival. The story Smyth chose is brought to life with music of extraordinary stylistic and dra- matic range, from the Debussy-like painterly sensibility of the opening of Act 2 to the intense post-Wagnerian musical drama driven by the deft employment of the chorus and orchestra. Amidst it all are moments of folklike evocation of rural England.
When a work of the scope and magnitude of Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers is brought back in a fully staged professional production more than 100 years after its first performance, inevitable questions come to mind. Why this long neglect? Does some sort of flaw or inferiority justify the work’s obscurity? Furthermore, even if the work possesses powerful qualities, can a revival be successful and provide The Wreckers a foothold in the repertory? One cause for optimism is the fact that this 2015 SummerScape production follows a con- cert performance by the American Symphony Orchestra in Avery Fisher Hall in 2007 at which the power of the music, the timeliness of the story, and the opera’s potential as theater were evident.
Cases of neglected or forgotten works are complex. Too often we assume that special pleading or an elaborate explanation is required for neglected works; they don’t “speak for themselves.” But we conveniently forget that well-known “masterpieces” survive the ages not only on account of excellence and originality but because historical circumstances assisted their endurance, just as circumstances hindered the careers of certain composers and important and compelling works. We conveniently forget the large number of com- positions that had immediate success but have since been forgotten. Works that endure may do so because they lend a sense of coherence and comprehensibility to a historical community, or they succinctly exemplify a nation or sensibility at a crucial moment. In some cases, such as Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, advocacy by a singularly famous artist, long after the composer’s death, helps. Conversely, if works do not immediately match the expectations of their contemporary audience, they are set aside and can be reclaimed at a later time. This was the case with the late Beethoven string quartets.
Or, if single works possess none of the advantages that have traditionally marked success —such as mirroring the aesthetic prejudices of a culture with a dominant musical legacy, or even being composed by a white European man—they may never come in for consid- eration as worthy of repeated performance. Nearly all of the operas produced at SummerScape fall into this category, as does much of the repertoire of the Bard Music Festival. The neglect of The Wreckers has multiple sources. Before Benjamin Britten’s suc- cess as an opera composer, English opera was an object of disregard even inside England. Elgar, the most famous composer of English music’s renaissance, never wrote an opera, despite the enormous impression Wagner had made on him. Although many noncomic English operas were written, particularly during the first half of the 20th century (notably by Frederick Delius and Ralph Vaughan Williams), they never seemed to have taken hold. The public’s taste was clearly weighted toward the German, Italian, and French operatic repertoire. Ironically, Delius, the best known of English opera composers, experienced, just as Ethel Smyth did, whatever success he did have in Germany; his stage works received their greatest response in German-language productions.
The English lack of support for native opera was difficult enough, but added to that in Smyth’s case were the realities of being a Victorian woman. The often brutally restricted lifestyle of British women at that time is so well known as to be a cliché, though it is just as certain that Victorian women of a certain class resembled the ladies of Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey about as much as 21st-century American women resemble the idealized housewives of 1950s television. After all, Smyth lived in an age of repression but also the era of the suffragettes, women who risked social and physical danger for the sake of human rights. Of these Smyth was a notable member; indeed her activities along- side her friend Emmeline Pankhurst landed her in prison.
Even among the extraordinary women of the time, however, Smyth stood out in her lifestyle and achievements. Born to wealth, she lived a complicated and varied life. Her remarkable circle of friends (some of whom were also her lovers) included Elisabeth von Herzogenberg, the wife of her teacher, one of Brahms’s closest friends and pupils, and herself a musician of considerable talent. Smyth also befriended the wife of the arch- bishop of Canterbury, the wife of Queen Victoria’s private secretary, former Empress of France Eugenie, millionaire Mary Dodge, and most famously, Virginia Woolf. She was an accomplished sports enthusiast. She held her own in the company of the great English musicians with whom she was acquainted; among the admirers of her music were Sir Thomas Beecham, Arthur Nikisch, and Bruno Walter. Besides The Wreckers, Smyth’s operas included The Boatswain’s Mate and the earlier Fantasio and Der Wald, both of which received their first performances in Germany. (Der Wald was also the first and only opera composed by a woman to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.) On her 75th birthday in 1934, under Beecham’s direction, her work was celebrated in a festival, the final event of which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the Queen. Heartbreakingly, at this moment of long-overdue recognition, the composer was already completely deaf and could hear neither her own music nor the adulation of the crowds.
The greatest appeal of The Wreckers is not a Puccini-like lyrical or melodic element, but the drama as manifested in the interaction of solo voices, chorus, orchestral sound, and storyline. Its libretto, unlike that of Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet (1907), is not based on the work of a great author such as Gottfried Keller; the text itself, by Smyth’s some- time (and only male) lover Henry Brewster, possesses little in the way of redeeming poetry, especially in its somewhat awkward English-language version (it was originally written in French). As is the case with many great operas, the vacuum created by the weakness of the libretto opens up a wide field for the power of music to project the story and its compelling personal and moral dimensions. The sonic canvas that Smyth pro- duces, primarily through the use of orchestra and chorus, gives the opera its memorable character. To contemporary audiences this was, as George Bernard Shaw observed, a mat- ter of some irony. Many artists, including Elgar, called for a vigorous, muscular, masculine music indicative of the ideal of the British imperial character; these are precisely the qual- ities found in abundance throughout the corpus of Smyth’s work.
The music of The Wreckers is both distinctive and eclectic. The opera contains ballads and ensemble pieces of affecting simplicity and dramatic touches vaguely reminiscent of both German and Italian practices. At moments, the dominant German romantic stylistic frame is offset by the influence of French modernism. The entire opera is shaped by a powerful display of orchestral writing, memorable motivic recurrences, and a brilliant use of chorus; the final scenes of Acts 1 and 3 are particularly memorable. They are on a par with the finest moments in the operatic repertory. Smyth’s treatment of the recitative- like passages that advance the storyline and link the separate musical events are designed to provide opportunities for visual and dramatic theater.
Regardless of the many diverse reactions it will provoke, The Wreckers stands as a signifi- cant achievement from the European fin de siècle. It is distinguished by its casting of love and death, the perennial twin subjects of opera, into a commentary about community, social change, and the cost of inherited tradition—especially religion—that is all-too- thoughtlessly accepted. This is an opera in which Smyth, given her own political engagement, sought to speak not only to her musical colleagues but also to the wider public. She was doing more than seeking professional recognition for her abilities and achievements as a composer; she sought to offer a synthesis of art and politics. And she succeeded.
One final, curious note. If the subject matter (not the story) of The Wreckers seems vaguely familiar, perhaps it is because the topic was visited again more recently in a medium more popular than opera: film. Alfred Hitchcock chose the same subject matter (based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel) for Jamaica Inn, the last film he made in Britain. Whether Hitchcock was aware of The Wreckers is unclear, but his choice suggests that Smyth’s sub- ject is one of enduring interest, and an astonishingly fitting vehicle for what must legiti- mately be considered the masterpiece of a truly remarkable artist and individual.
A Cornish fishing village on a cliff above the sea. On their way to church, the villagers are drinking outside the tavern. Their preacher, Pascoe, chastises them for drinking on the Sabbath. He tells them that this is why the Lord has stopped sending them ships to plunder. Lawrence, the lighthouse keeper, has another explanation: he has seen beacons burning on the cliffs and is certain someone is warning ships of the danger. The villagers vow to find the traitor among them and destroy him. Mark, a young fisherman, had been courting Avis, the daughter of the lighthouse keeper. His affections have now turned toward Pascoe’s young wife, Thirza. Unaware that Avis is spying on him, he serenades his new love while the other villagers are in church, and Avis is furious to discover that Thirza returns Mark’s feelings. The villagers leave church inspired by Pascoe’s fiery sermon to commit further bloody acts of plunder. The preacher scolds his wife for not attending the service, but Thirza responds that she can no longer endure the merciless ways of the wreckers. A storm is brewing and a ship is drawn onto the rocks. The men of the village anticipate the bounty soon coming their way. Avis denounces Pascoe as the traitor who has been warning the ships of danger. The men agree to keep a close watch on the preacher as they prepare for the grim task ahead.
A desolate seashore at the base of the cliffs. Mark is collecting driftwood. He is the person responsible for the warning beacons. Just as he is about to light his fire, he hears Thirza calling. She hurries to him, warning that other vil- lagers are close by and that if he lights the fire they will see the flames and come to trap him. The lovers embrace. At first Mark is intent on lighting his beacon, but when Thirza declares her love for him he stops, realizing he is putting her in danger as well. Mark begs her to leave Pascoe and run away with him. She is reluctant at first, but gradually yields to his pleading. Triumphantly they seize the torch and ignite the bonfire together. Pascoe arrives just in time to see the lovers making their escape. He briefly sees his wife’s face in the moonlight and he collapses on the beach. He is still unconscious when Avis and the men from the village arrive. Finding Pascoe near the beacon they are certain that he is the traitor.
The interior of a huge cave. A court of villagers has been convened and Lawrence has appointed himself as prosecu- tor since he was one of the men who discovered Pascoe, apparently red-handed. Pascoe refuses to acknowledge the court and ignores their questions. Avis declares that he is the victim of witchcraft, as he is clearly still under the spell of his young wife, Thirza. The evi- dence seems clear. The crowd howls for Pascoe’s death, but at that moment Mark bursts in and confesses that he was the one who betrayed them. Thirza also steps forward to acknowledge her share of the guilt. Avis tries to save Mark by claiming he spent the night with her, but the lovers are determined to meet their fate together.
Click the link below to download the libretto for The Wreckers.
Bard SummerScape Presents
By Ethel Smyth
American Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger
Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers is based in historical fact: in small, desperately poor villages on Britain’s Cornish coast, bands of villagers formed secret cadres that at critical moments would extinguish the beacons established on the coast to guide ships, thus forcing them onto the rocks and then plundering the cargo and murdering the crews.
The story Smyth chose to set presents a tale that should be of intense interest to contemporary audiences. It concerns an isolated community in Cornwall that possesses a religiously based, fanatical self-regard that leads it to justify theft and murder as God-given rights and virtues. Led by the community’s own pastor who invokes Christianity, violence becomes the instrument of realizing God’s will. The opera depicts the consequences of mass hysteria and populist justice, framed by a powerful display of orchestral writing, memorable motivic recurrence, and a brilliant use of chorus.
Opera Talk: July 26 at noon
Evening at the Opera Package
Make an evening of it with dinner and tickets to the opera. Join us on Friday, July 24 or Friday, July 31 for a delicious three-course dinner at the Spiegeltent, and a ticket to The Wreckers (with no ticketing fees).
The Wreckers: July 24 or July 31
$80 Parterre seating (save $60); $100 Orchestra seating (save $50)
Joining us from New York City?
Out-of-Town packages are available for select performances during SummerScape. Packages include round-trip transportation from New York City to Bard in our SummerScape Coach, three-course lunch/dinner at the Spiegeltent, and your ticket to the performance (with no ticketing fee).
The Wreckers: July 24, July 26, and August 2 performances
$100 Parterre seating (save $60); $125 Orchestra seating (save $50)
Special support for this program is provided by Emily H. Fisher and John Alexander.
July 26 at 2 pm
July 29 at 2 pm
July 31 at 7:30 pm
August 2 at 2 pm
Fisher Center, Sosnoff Theater
Tickets start at $25