Bard’s SummerScape is the caviar in the smorgasbord of Upstate New York’s summer events. Now in its 13th season, SummerScape presents eight weeks of stellar events in music, theater, dance, film, cabaret, and opera, the latter a particular summer benchmark for opera mavens and opera newbies. Every summer the opera is a spectacle that somehow manages to outdo the previous year’s production in masterly direction, ingenuity of stage and costume design, sublime orchestral accompaniment to the best voices available from around the globe, and all in Frank Gehry’s architectural masterpiece on Bard’s beautiful campus. This year’s offering, The Wreckers by composer Dame Ethel Smyth, is one that will be particularly accessible to newcomers to the art form as, unlike most operas, it is written and sung in English and has a highly dramatic story arc.
The Wreckers will run for five performances (July 24, 26, 29, & 31; Aug 2) at the Sosnoff Theater in the Fisher Center.
The Wreckers is a tale of piracy and religious fanaticism with all the ingredients that make for great opera: treachery, a pair of star-crossed young lovers, a jealous rival, and an older cuckolded husband. The opera is set in a remote coastal area of Cornwall in the south of England in the 18th century, a craggy coastline that forms the corner where the English Channel meets the Irish Sea. It is an important shipping route but, due to treacherous rock outcrops, hazardous. In the case of a shipwreck, according to maritime law of the 1700s, if any crew survived, the shipping company retained ownership of the salvage with the salvers being entitled to compensation. But if none survived, then whatever was rescued or washed ashore belonged to the salvers. At that time, in the absence of sufficient arable land or industry, Cornwall was home to smugglers, pirates and ship-wreckers. The Cornish cliff-faces are riddled with caves and subterranean passageways ideal for stashing contraband. Some caves are submerged at high tide so useful for even more dastardly purposes, as we will discover. It is in this landscape that Ethel Smyth conjured her village of impoverished but pious inhabitants, who are also “wreckers.”
Led by their priest, Pastor Pascoe, they lure ships to their demise on the rocks by extinguishing the warning beacons in order to plunder the cargo and, to ensure their right to the salvage, butcher any survivors. This murder and mayhem the villagers justify through a belief that they are God’s chosen people and that the ships are brought by Him for their sustenance. Under Pascoe’s guidance, they pursue their occupation as an act of religious faith until, mysteriously, the ships manage to steer clear of the rocks. The opera opens with Pascoe lamenting the dearth of shipwrecks upon which the village’s population depends.
The mystery is solved when a congregant, Lawrence, and his daughter Avis report to the crowd that someone has been lighting a beacon to warn the ships away from the rocks. Such a traitorous act would carry the worst of punishments: death by drowning in one of the lower caves in the rock face as the tide comes in. Who would sabotage their livelihood thus? Could the culprit be Thirza, Pascoe’s young and beautiful wife, who is known to be against the practice of wrecking? Or the handsome young Mark, former lover of Avis but now in thrall to Thirza, and possibly out to impress her? Or even Pastor Pascoe himself, at his wife’s behest? And so the adventure begins.
The Wreckers — Act I, Scene 1: “God be thanked!”
The idea for the opera came to the composer during a walking tour in Cornwall in 1887 where she learned of the area’s piratical history from tales told her by the local Cornish elders passed down to them by their forebears: tales that, Smyth wrote in her autobiography The Memoirs of Ethel Smyth, “may or may not have been gospel, but fitted well into the picture [of her idea for the opera].” She didn’t remember whether the story the opera tells was one relayed to her by those old folk or if the idea came about through her exploration of the old pirate caves in the cliffs and rocks of that seaboard, some of which go below the high water line. But it would not be until 1902, fifteen years later, that she began to compose the music for the opera – this “palette,” as she called it, she entrusted to her friend, Henry Bennet Brewster, to write the libretto.
The Wreckers — Act II, Scene 2: “When wilt though give me peace from vain desire?”
Smyth was an anomaly for her time in many aspects of her life. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the only options open to women musicians were to be music teachers or parlor music-composers; Smyth was a composer of full-scale works that include operas produced in England and Europe. She was also an early-day feminist and political activist in the cause for women’s suffrage. Furthermore, as a lesbian, she seems to have been quite open about her sexual orientation, and wrote candidly about her relationships in her memoirs.
Born in London in 1858, the fourth of eight children, her early education was typical of that of an upper class Victorian girl with private tutoring at home. At the age of twelve, inspired by a governess who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire in Germany, the young Smyth decided to become a composer and determined to also study music in Leipzig. Her father, a Major General in the Royal Artillery, refused to countenance any such ideas and she was sent to boarding school at Putney where the curriculum included a class on “how to darn stockings.” Eventually, in 1877, following years of argument and a hunger strike, her parents agreed to her going to study in Leipzig. She was nineteen. Although, as a student, this brought her into the milieu of some of the most notable musicians and composers of her day, back in the highly gendered society of Victorian England Smyth faced numerous obstacles to her career, from the resistance of her father to the bias of critics who considered her works unfeminine. Undaunted, she set out to conquer the male-dominated worlds of the opera house and concert hall, and she did. In addition to operas, she composed orchestral works, a mass, and many chamber and instrumental works.
Dame Ethel Smyth: Cello Sonata No.2 1st Movement
Her composition The March of the Women (1911) became an anthem of the women’s suffrage movement…
Despite her commitment to her craft, Smyth decided, in 1910 at age 52, to take two years out of her life as a composer and join the “Women’s Social and Political Union” where she became a comrade-in-arms to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. During this time she served two months in London’s Holloway prison for breaking the window of a politician who opposed votes for women. Her composition The March of the Women (1911) became an anthem of the women’s suffrage movement which she conducted from her jail-cell window with a toothbrush as her comrades marched and sang in the yard below. Sadly from 1913 onwards, she began to lose her hearing until, eventually, deafness brought her music career to an end. However, that wasn’t the end of her life as a creative. Between 1919 and 1940, she published ten highly successful, mostly autobiographical, books. In recognition of her work as a composer and writer, Smyth was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1922. She died in 1944 at the age of 86.
Smyth’s opera, Der Wald, remains the only opera by a woman composer ever produced at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Wreckers, conducted by Richard Hagel, premiered in Leipzig on 11 November 1906, and received thirteen curtain calls. Bard’s production is the first fully staged performance of this opera in America.
“Wherever there is an overlooked potential masterpiece, Leon Botstein is not too far behind.”
Bard’s President Leon Botstein, also the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra (who will conduct the orchestra for the opera), has made it a mission of Bard’s music festival to revive operas that, though hits in their day, have fallen into obscurity over time. As Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times noted, “Wherever there is an overlooked potential masterpiece, Leon Botstein is not too far behind.” In this endeavor he has assembled a formidable team made up of an unusually strong chorus, many of whom are soloists in their own right; veteran producer Susana Meyer; prize-winning director Thaddeus Strassberger. Strassberger, in turn, assembles the cast and the design team. This year’s principals are from as near as Phoenica, NY, and as far as Britain and Switzerland. They include baritone Louis Otey as Pastor Pascoe, mezzo-soprano Katherine Goeldner as his wife Thirza, tenor Neal Cooper as Mark, and soprano Sky Ingram as Avis. Other key performers are Kendra Broom, Michael Mayes, Dennis Petersen, and Peter van Derick. The design team is: set designer Erhard Rom, lighting designer Jax Messenger, and costume designer Kay Voyce.
Thaddeus Strassberger has directed a number of recent operas in Bard including The Oresteia in 2013 and, the most memorable in this author’s opinion, Emmanuel Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui (The King in Spite of Himself) in 2012, in which he employed shipping containers to great visual effect. You knew you were in for something as soon as you entered the theater to a stage empty but for two giant cardboard boxes. These, eventually, opened to reveal the entire chorus in full costume already performing. In that production the set designs were by Kevin Knight. It will be interesting to see what is in store for us this year from Erhard Rom. It is worth bearing in mind that, as Strassberger himself put it, an opera is “…at the end of the day, only a bound set of lines, dots, and words. That’s all we have.”
Featured image: Louis Otey as Pastor Pascoe in The Wreckers. Photograph by Todd Norwood.
For tickets call (845) 758‑7900
For more about the opera and other SummerScape events, visit the website: http://fishercenter.bard.edu/
For anyone wishing to follow in Dame Ethel’s footsteps and explore the coast of Cornwall, here is a good guide from The Guardian.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: