A New Production of “The Mother of Us All”
Dazzlingly abstruse and brimming over with surreal touches, “The Mother of Us All,” an opera with music by Virgil Thomson and a libretto by Gertrude Stein, is an idiosyncratic choice for an experiment in community building in Hudson, New York. The work tells the story of Susan B. Anthony, or something like it. At one point Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson themselves show up within the opera to narrate a scene between Susan B. Anthony and her companion Anne; the libretto is full of Stein’s iconic twistings and turnings of phrase. “I do and I do not declare that roses and wreathes, wreathes and roses around and around” is a typical line. Often, longer exchanges move more by pun relationships and rhymes than conversational or narrative logic: a non sequitur about a character’s wife (Chris: “Well have you got one?” Jo: “No, not one.”) transitions to a discussion of hiding valuables by way of the words “poor,” “money,” “funny,” and “floor.”
R.B. Schlather, a young director already gaining a reputation for unconventional stagings, is directing a new production of “The Mother of Us All” in Hudson, opening on November 11. Schlather sees this production not as an exercise in niche markets and esoterica, but as an opportunity to bring the community of the town together. “I think a lot of people are scared of opera,” he wrote me in an email, “but I love it because I experience it as an intimate, and valuable, interpersonal exchange. I want people to experience opera, not watch it.” In addition to my phone and email conversations with Schlather, I recently went up to Hudson to speak with other members of the cast and production team and observe the rehearsal process.
This staging attempts to dismantle the physical distinction between the place where the performance happens and the place where the audience watches it. Marsha Ginsberg, the set and costume designer, has made erasing this distinction a key part of her work on the show. “R.B. is very interested in the interaction between the audience and the space, and not having the cold, proscenium-style separation,” she said. Early on in the process, the creative team held a workshop retreat in Hudson. “We would have our production meetings on the stage [of Hudson Hall] looking out into the space and seeing it in the changing light; the power of the space was really cuing us that what would traditionally be the audience area would actually be the performance area.” Ginsberg is covering the floor of the hall with carpet, in part because she anticipates people sitting there during the performances and wants them to be comfortable. “The audience is going to have a very fluid relationship with the space,” she said.
Ginsberg is also helping curate several talkback-style events that invite members of the community to bring their voices, not merely their physical presences, into the space—but the vision of community engagement runs deeper than guided conversations and alternative seating arrangements. Schlather expanded on this vision over a post-rehearsal dinner. “The non-opera parts aren’t add-ons; we’re doing an exhibition. For two weeks, we’re occupying this space, and the experience of this project lasts that entire duration,” he said. “It’s not the sort of thing where you go to see an opera and maybe stroll through a gallery on your way out; we want to make a social gathering place where people come and hang out, and also there’s this opera happening as an extension of that.” Only the performances are ticketed; all the other offerings are free and open to the public. Ginsberg added, “We don’t want people to leave after they see the show. We want them to eat something, drink something, and maybe have a conversation with someone that they never met before.”
The approach of de-centering the opera from its own production has led to friction with the staff of Hudson Hall. “Tambra [Dillon, the Executive Director of Hudson Hall] is definitely still in the mindset that it’s a traditional show at heart,” Schlather said. “She’s definitely enthused about the project, but we’ve had to completely rewrite a lot of press releases, and that’s frustrating for everyone.” Earlier in the day, Dillon had given me a tour of Hudson, and her enthusiasm had seemed genuine. “This is the perfect project for this place in this moment,” she said, “and we wouldn’t be able to do it without R.B.” If she had a different vision for the performance, she kept it to herself.
If the production is trying to open the performances to the community as much as possible, it’s trying to open the production process as well. “The Mother of Us All” has a massive cast—there are around 30 named characters—and rather than bring in an entire opera troupe, Schlather and his team worked to cast Hudson locals to fill the opera’s many roles. “The audition process was so cool,” Schlather said. “There was such diversity in the people who came: a diversity of ages, a diversity of styles—we had more people than we needed, so we decided to create a little chorus to include more people because I was so touched by the enthusiasm of people who love to sing.”
One of the people who came was Ngonda Badila, who sings the role of Isabelle Wentworth. Badila grew up in Hudson, but has spent the last seven years in New York City, studying at Hunter College and then forming a band called Lady Moon and the Eclipse, for which she sings lead vocals. “In April my mom forwarded me the email announcing auditions,” she said, “and I was like, ‘Now is the time.’ I felt that pull, and I knew I had to do it.” Badila auditioned with “Home” from “The Wiz,” as well as “Stormy Weather,” and she approached the first rehearsal with considerable trepidation. “I was very nervous the first few rehearsals, because I’ve never done opera before, but everyone was doing everything they could to make me feel at home. It was a very welcoming environment.”
This welcoming environment included extra music coachings: Badila is one of several cast members who is less fluent with Western music notation, and the music team has arranged several extra sessions to help these singers master the score. During conversations with other company members, she soon realized that she wasn’t the only one without a resume of professional opera singing. “I was like, ‘Oh! We’re all in the same boat together! We’re all people who just love to sing.’ That’s what I’m talking about; that’s community.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Michaela Martens, a professional operatic mezzo soprano tackling the role of Susan B. Anthony. “It’s a big sing,” she said, “and it’s a hard sing too, because of the way Thomson writes. The vocal lines are like trumpet parts, jumping around in triads, and it’s hard to maneuver your voice to get around a scale like that.” She added that the rehearsal process “is a bit of an adjustment for someone like me who’s used to working in a more rigid rehearsal environment.” What attracted her to the project, then, in the face of these challenges? “I really enjoy somebody who experiments and thinks, and who’s willing to risk, and who isn’t afraid of singers who don’t just park and bark. So I needed to know that that was in [Schlather’s] head.”
Act I, Scene 3 of “The Mother of Us All,” excerpted from a 2014 recording by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater.
That evening, watching him stage the town hall debate between Susan B. Anthony and Daniel Webster, that willingness to experiment was apparent. At one point, acting on impulse, Martens stepped off the podium, and Schlather caught that move and expanded it into an opportunity for Susan B. to go into the audience, transforming some of her lines from attacks on Webster to appeals to the women in the crowd. “I liked your impulse to do that, that was cool!” Schlather said. At another point, he prodded: “What’s the most awful thing that can happen here? How can we make it more upsetting?” There were several long breaks to talk about character—in one, Martens described how she had overcome stage fright as a young performer and how she thought that related to what Anthony was going through in the debate scene—and at times it seemed like nothing was being done at all, but by the end of the evening, the scene had been assembled into a powerful whole.
Towards the end of the passage, Daniel Webster turns to look at Anthony, who has sunk to the floor in despair, before turning his back on her to address the “sun in heaven.” Schlather lengthened a pause in the music to accommodate this turn, to chilling effect. Thomson’s music sounds, for the most part, “like an Americana band” (in Martens’s words). This lengthened pause broke the cheerful flow, stripping back the cheerful patriotic surface to reveal the nightmare lurking below.
The rehearsal process isn’t the only place where Martens appreciates Schlather’s flexibility. “[Schlather] totally gets the idea that we all have families. So when I say, ‘I need to go pick my two kids up from school,’ that doesn’t disrupt our process,” she told me. It’s clear from her tone that this has been a point of frustration with other directors in the past. “You have to hire babysitters and nannies because the schedule is the schedule and they’re not going to change it.” Doing a production that’s happening in the community where she lives makes all the difference. “When you’re away on a touring production for two months, you’re kind of the property of the opera house, you don’t have anything else to do. When you’re working at home, you want to blend the two parts of your life, and R.B. has been extraordinarily accommodating of that.” Schlather understands that everyday people can sing opera, but also that opera singers can be everyday people.
Still, I wondered about the choice of “The Mother of Us All” for this community presentation, with its lyrical and musical difficulties. “Originally, we were going to do ‘Don Giovanni,’ ” Dillon said as she showed me around town. Hudson Hall (formerly the Hudson Opera House) had just undergone a major renovation, and she was looking for works to bring to the new venue. “But then 2017 marks the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in New York State, and there were grants available for art dealing with the suffrage movement. It turns out that Susan B. Anthony actually spoke twice at the Hudson Opera House, once on abolition and once on suffrage, so [“The Mother of Us All”] is actually very appropriate to do here.” At the time, the Opera House was the center of civic life, housing not only City Hall but also the police and fire departments as well as the town bank. Pointing out the campaign signs that dotted the streets, Dillon continued, “Up until last year, Hudson was the only city in America to have a weighted voting system where different parts of the city were treated vastly differently in the Aldermanic Council, and this is the first election we’re having where that isn’t the case, so an opera about granting equal access to the vote is very pertinent to our lives.”
This thread of history resonating in the present moment cropped up again and again in conversations I had with people involved in this piece. “Asking for fairness—not for extraordinary rights, but fairness—is what we’re dealing with today,” Martens said. “In terms of gender equality, marriage, health care, gun control—everything is the same in some bizarre way. You think we’ve come so far, we’ve done so much, and then you read Stein’s words and you’re like, ‘My God! It’s the same.’ ” From her childhood, Badila felt like living in Hudson was like “going back in time. I could feel the history here.” Even the bodies of the actors seem prone to slipping into the past: as part of her costume designs, Ginsberg is having the men grow out all of their hair. “It was amazingly powerful,” she said. “You walk into a room of a dozen men with shaggy hair, shaggy sideburns, and beards, and they suddenly look like historic figures, without much intervention at all.”
A different piece might not have this resonance, and it’s this resonance that makes people so excited about the work. The most impassioned statements people gave me were spurred not by talking about the power of Thomson’s music or the beauty of Stein’s words, but by the urgent connection people feel this piece has with their lives.
I feel really proud of what I’m doing here,” Badila said of her involvement with this project. “I want to make my community proud, too. I’m a rare, rare, being: there aren’t a lot of African-American women singing opera, especially in smaller cities, so I feel like I have to represent Hudson and the culture we have here. And I feel like this is pushing me to go out and do something I’ve never done before.” (“The Mother of Us All” includes two unnamed “Negro” parts. Schlather asked permission to “interpolate” new texts in the libretto, but his request was denied by the Stein and Thomson estates.) Badila said that when she last lived in Hudson, she was too young to effect the change she envisioned. Seven years after she moved away, she feels mature enough to make another attempt, and has taken her role in the opera as the impetus for her to leave Brooklyn and return permanently to her childhood home.
Still, the success of the project and its ultimate impact on the community are far from assured. At one point during the post-rehearsal dinner, which I attended along with Schlather, his husband, and several members of the rehearsal team, Schlather asked the group, “Is this actually going to work? I mean, is it going to come together, or is it just going to be a giant mess?” It had the tenor of a joke, but there was a long, strained silence before anyone ventured to answer. (The final consensus: “It will work because we’ll make it work.”)
When I asked Ginsberg, the stage designer, whether she thought her work to provide community-building events outside of the five performances would have any lingering effects after “The Mother of Us All” ends its two-week residency, she sighed. “Ultimately, it’s not up to us, you know? We’re interested in making this space a catalyst for discussion, but even already we’ve had to scale back some of our plans.” In particular, Ginsberg had wanted to put together a reading room “with tables and chairs and sofas and reading material, both about the show specifically but also expanding outwards to ideas and broader themes, possibly also including archival sound recordings.” The idea was modeled on the practice of some art museums, but it wound up being beyond the budget the show could afford. “It’s more of a reading cart, now.” There was a wistful quality to her voice as she described what might have been. “I think it would be really exciting to have a permanent space in Hudson Hall where the community could come and hang out without the formality of a gallery show or performance piece, but it’s out of our hands.” After a moment’s thought, she added, “Most of these initiatives are probably not going to stay.” ¶