John Cage said it best. Of Virgil Thomson’s opera “The Mother of Us All,” Cage wrote, “everything Americans feel about life and death, male and female, poverty and riches, war and peace, blacks and whites, activity and loitering, is shown to be real and true.”
Those feelings remained real and true when Cage wrote them in 1959, a dozen years after the premiere of Thomson’s opera about Susan B. Anthony, for which Gertrude Stein wrote not only one of her finest texts but also what is among the greatest librettos in the opera literature.
The feelings were still just as real and true Friday night at the Freud Playhouse, where Opera UCLA has revived “The Mother of Us All” in a compellingly supple new production running through Thursday. America’s celebrated suffragette along with numerous 19th and early 20th century historical figures (actual and fictional) might well have been speaking about what was said or promised, done or not done, in Washington, D.C., the day before.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Thomson and Stein, who had all but invented American opera in “Four Saints in Three Acts” two decades earlier, decided on a second. It took so long, Thomson explained, because it never occurred to either of them that they wouldn’t always be living. Stein died just after finishing the libretto in 1946. Thomson wrote the music very quickly, and the opera had its premiere the next year at Columbia University.
Her last completed work, the text is Stein’s summing up. She sees herself in Anthony, whom she calls Susan B. The domestic situation of Susan B. and her companion, Anne, reflects Stein’s own with Alice B. Toklas. An elaborate cast of colorful characters keeps showing up out of nowhere, just as artists, writers, boulevardiers and other colorful visitors paraded through the Stein household in Paris.
In the case of “Mother of Us All,” they are U.S. presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson and John (presumably Quincy) Adams, as well as Daniel Webster and other politicians, feminists, intellectuals, war veterans, loiterers, a poet, a painter, a postal clerk, actress Lillian Russell and a ghost. Gertrude S. and Virgil T. act as the mistress and master of ceremonies.
Stein’s text is a Stein text. You don’t think you know what’s going on but, in fact, you find you do. There is a suggestion of narrative. Susan B. struggles to convince damned-fool men to let women vote. She never lived to see it but the opera ends with an aria sung by her statue that sums up her long life and the meaning of strife, perfectly suited as Stein’s own farewell, these all but final words of hers in print.
“We cannot retrace our steps,” the statue sings, “going forward may be the same as going backwards.”
Throughout the opera, a Buddha-wise Susan B. acts as a buoy in sea of absurdity, comic and otherwise. A man marries and has an existential crisis when his wife won’t take his name. Webster blusters in debate. Adams would marry Constance Fletcher were he the marrying kind, but Adams’ don’t have knees for kneeling, he announces on his knees.
“Men want to be half-slave, half-free,” Susan B. explains. “Women want to be all slave or all free. Therefore, men govern and women know.”
To be rich is to be so rich that men don’t have to listen, and when they do listen they don’t hear, is another of her (Stein’s?) adages. To be poor is to have to listen, and when you do listen, you hear.
With his magnificently impoverished-seeming score, Thomson lets us listen, lets us hear. What might seem a non sequitur or surreal in Stein is understood as plain speech in Thomson’s deceptively straightforward setting. Every word achieves perceptibility.
Hymn tunes, patriotic tunes, waltzes and marches seem familiar but are not. Tunes stick in the ear but also remain just out of reach, thanks to the constant and unpredictable changes in meters and keys.
This is what makes “The Mother of Us All” so touching. Thomson wrote that he intended to embody in music the neighborliness, idealism, true populism and optimism of the 19th century. He does, while making them all just slightly out of touch.
Although Thomson was disappointed that “The Mother of Us All” didn’t wind up on Broadway (as had, very successfully, “Four Saints”), the opera was better designed around the resources of schools, and that has been where it has mostly resided. “The Mother of Us All” has 25 roles, and the orchestra is chamber-sized.
UCLA has a tradition with Thomson and this opera. His first trip to L.A. was in 1949, when he directed the West Coast premiere of a scene from the new work on campus. He then returned several times over the years before his death in 1989.
Opera UCLA — in collaboration with the university’s schools of music, theater, film and television — honors pretty much all of the composer’s wishes. As Thomson wanted, Michael Hackett’s production offers little in the way of sets, but the singers are all in period costume. The effect is not of historical drama but of people from the past speaking to the present.
With so many students involved for four performances, and multiple casts for some roles, the production obviously will have strengths and weaknesses. On Friday the strengths won out. Thomson insisted on every word being understood; a good many of them were.
On Friday, Michelle Drever (who returns for the Thursday performance) proved a stunningly imperious yet affectionate Susan B., exactly what Stein seemed to have had in mind (and exactly the way I pictured Stein herself). The soprano may have had more of a traditional operatic voice than Thomson professed he needed, but, in fact, over the objection of the conductor Thomson had chosen a singer (Dorothy Dow) for the premiere who was very much like Drever.
Everyone around Drever rose to occasion. Hackett made room for humor, including a little slapstick. He toyed with a waltz, peppering sentimentality with absurdity just as Thomson’s music does. But he also maintained the overall poignancy of the work without telling us how we should feel. Thomson’s job and great success was, better than anyone before or since, to reveal how Stein felt.
Andreas Mitisek, the music director of Long Beach Opera, was the stirring conductor.
In the last line of Stein’s unfinished “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb,” written a few days after she wrote the Susan B. final aria, Stein presciently said, “everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural.”
The world has, in large part, forgotten. This marvelous “The Mother of Us All” hasn’t.
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Opera UCLA ‘The Mother of Us All’
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, L.A.
When 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes