Stein and Thomson's 'The Mother of Us All'; America's operatic snapshot album
Interlaken, Mass. — It took two American originals to create the American original now occupying an attic theater snuggled away in this little town -- a stone's throw from the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox.
In fact, one would be hard pressed to come up with a couple of Americans more stubbornly individualistic (i.e., original) than Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: she of the wise-guy, elliptical comment and he of the wise ear, always attuned to the musically genuine and ready to spot the phony.
No wonder their collaboration on an opera, "The Mother of Us All," came out blunt and sophisticated, wiitty and touching, a genuine piece of Americana. Not the patriotic flag-waving kind, mind you, but the nickel-biting, test-everything-before-you-buy-it variety.
This is a winning work, albeit a somewhat inaccessible one. Major opera companies have shied away from it over the years and it takes an adventurous little company like the Music Theater Group to assay its formidable complexities , without regard to unpromising box office prospects.
This production is currently turning customers away from the tiny 75-seat house in Interlaken. But producing director Lyn Austin can't have gone into the venture with images of a gold mine in her mind. "The Mother of Us All" is not for every one: It's pushy and brusque, a perfect type of the New York intellectual life from which it sprang. It has a heart, but it's none too quick about opening it up.
Nominally based on the life of Susan B. Anthony, "The Mother of Us All" -- running through next weekend at the Lenox, Mass., Arts Center, summer home of the Off Off Broadway Music Theater Group in New York -- is really a nostalgic appreciation, a family snapshot album for the twists and turns of our national growing up. It shows how reluctantly we part with racial and sexual prejudices. The figures of Daniel Webster, John Adams, Lillian Russell, and others (including Miss Stein and Thomson themselves, as mock stage managers) march through it out of time, but in complete sync with the meaning of the moment.
We are not talking about some kind of musical history lesson here. This opera is more a piece of polemic than anything else. It explores the things that loomed largest in the life of a person who looms large in the history of woman suffrage; and it does so through a kind of operatic cubism. Events and characters are fragmented into a frieze, a musical mural.
There are times when this approach patently does not work, when characters and events come off more like stamps in an album than the people they are supposed to represent. (This production, asking actors to pick up several roles , is somewhat at fault.) But mostly the opera brings to life the tiny confrontations with ourselves and our own absurd prejudices that force us either to grow or to wilt.
The music and the literary method take some getting used to. The effect of a libretto filled with quirkly twists ("I speak as loud as I can -- I even speak louder than I can"; "You are entirely right -- only I disagree with you"; "Quilts are not crazy -- they are kind") is at times wearing.
The music does little at such moments to soften the brittle effect. Never one to ladle on the syrup, Thomson has written a score that is often brittle itself. He borrows heavily from American musical memorabilia, but he seldom indulges in heart-tugging patriotism. Which is not to say that he doesn't occasionally was lyrical; it's only to point out that he is wisely sparing with the bel canto stuff.
But he does use it. For all the wisecracking about romance and the absurdities of the masculine ego, for instance, you can tell that Thomson is at heart an old romantic himself. The sweet sensibility of the music he writes under Stein's self-parodying word games about marriage gives him away every time.
There are moments when the musical portraiture of Susan B. Anthony stands head and shoulders over the libretto, giving us a woman of courage and motherliness and intelligence.
The fact that all of this is brought off with only a four-piece band is a tribute to Thomson's music, as well as to the musicians and the singers on hand.
Carmen Pelton stands tall in body and voice in the pivotal role of Miss Anthony. Avery J. Tracht is mellifluous and sincere as John Adams, and Linn Maxwell is durable and lovely as Anne/Indiana Elliot. Wayne Turnage brings off one of those deadly triplets of roles with a steady hand.
"The Mother of Us All" does focus on individual performances, however. It is an ensemble piece. The whole point of the thing is to make you think hard about the kaleidoscopic images and ideas that parade before you.This opera doesn't have a sentimental bone in its body. But it can move you, if for no other reason than that it is so blunt and frank, so feminine and wise.
As it moves along, the opera gathers in sweet amiableness. It is impossible not to feel some real affection for the thing. In the end it stands as rugged and uncompromising as Susan B. Anthony herself.