Mother Of Us All is an opera that chronicles the life of Susan B. Anthony, an advocate of social reformer and women's rights. The opera, a unique Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein collaboration, premiered on 7 May 1947 at Columbia University’s Branders Matthews Hall with soprano Dorothy Dow as Susan B. Anthony.
Born into a Quaker family in Adams, Massachusetts in 1820, Anthony played a pivotal role in the suffrage movement and was committed to social equality until her death in 1906. At the age of 17 she started collecting anti-slavery petitions; at 36 she became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. Traveling extensively in support of women's suffrage, and working on many state campaigns, Anthony gave up to 75 to 100 speeches per year. Internationally, she played a key role in creating the International Council of Women, which is still active today.
A 2017 production of Mother of Us All was staged at one of New York State's oldest surviving theaters, Hudson Opera House, with mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens performing.
Director R.B Schlather, called “a leader among the nation’s most intriguing young opera directors” shares his vision: 'This opera is about a character called Susan B. Anthony and her relationships with politicians, proletarians, friends, her lover, her voice, her legacy. In this opera Susan B. fights for equality in a fictionalized landscape of mythic American figures, and Gertrude Stein’s invented characters based on friends and acquaintances. This is the last piece Stein wrote before she died, so to me, it’s not as much about Susan B. Anthony as it is about Gertrude Stein. Stein wrote this piece at the end of her life, putting words into a symbolic mouthpiece. She was a gay person writing in 1947, and in 2017 she becomes ‘my’ mouthpiece for what I, a gay person wants to articulate about the world I am living in'.
"I think of and call my performances exhibitions because there’s always something larger I want you to experience - something more than story, or pictorial representation".
The recent production boasted a modern, deconstructed style of ‘site-specific theatre’, reinforced by Marsha Ginsberg’s unrestrained and colorful costume and set design. The cast in Hudson wore vintage and thrift store clothes that reflected different eras than the characters being portrayed. Hair and make-up kept with the opera’s original post-war setting, yet with a fashionable edge that could have translated onto this season’s runways. Unconventional for an opera performance, the setting and atmosphere was contemporary and stark. The Hudson Opera Houses’ newly renovated main theatre was carpeted and lit with cold fluorescent lighting, with a good portion of the crowd camped out on the floor as if in a big living room. People unable to squat sat on chairs around the perimeter of the space, and others on the elevated stage.
Schlather understands that many people fear opera as an art form. His work advocates for people to “experience opera, not watch it”, in order to overcome this barrier and experience opera ‘s invitation for ‘intimate’ and valuable interpersonal exchange. I think of and call my performances exhibitions because there’s always something larger I want you to experience - something more than story, or pictorial representation".
The timing of this piece in 2017 - when gender and race inequalities are again being reexamined - is impeccable. The work asks its audience to look back in history to both recount our many strides and accomplishments, and to remember that basic human rights are a fragile construct not to be taken for granted. R.B. Schlather’s Mother of Us All brings many generations under one roof to create the powerful message that transformation and inclusivity are not only possible but critical to our well-being.
Above some of the cast in MOUA. Photographer Shannon Greer. Make up & hair by Mara Schiavetti. Make up supplied by Faerie Organics and Lemonhead. Credits for cast: from left to right: Tea Boriss, Ngonda Badila, Christopher Johnstone, Ella Loudon, Teresa Buchholz and director R.B Schlather.
Full cast: Michaela Martens, Tea Boriss, Christopher Johnstone, Ella Loudon, Teresa Buchholz, Ngonda Badila, Kent Smith, Michael O’Gara, Amanda Boyd, Margot Kirsis, Marie Mascari, Anneice Cousin, Nancy Allen Lundy, Robert Osborne, Dominic Armstrong, Dylan Widijono, Marc Molomot, Amanda Boyd, Phil Kline, Brad Lohrenz, Mathew Deming, Libby Sokolowski, Veronica Forman, Charles Perry Sprawls, Wheelock Whitney, Ryan Tracy, John Philip, Elena Batt, Parker Ship. Lighting: Jax Messenger. Music: Tony Kieraldo, David Sytkowski, Amy Kambell, Chris Watford, T.J. DuBrey, Stephanie Hollander, Michael Benedict, Nuiko Wadden, Louis Bonifati, Stuart Quimby. Production: Dan Stermer, Michael Hofmann, Sage Carter. Costume team: Marlene Marshall, Ilir Ahmetaj. Hair and make up team: Lily Scheff, Richard Gillet, Mara Schiavetti, Emi Lockhart, Katelynn Kip.
Images from MOUA and other R.B Schlather productions.