The Mother of Us All

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The Mother of Us All is an opera by Virgil Thomson to a libretto by Gertrude Stein. It chronicles the life of Susan B. Anthony, one of the major figures in the fight for women's suffrage in the United States. In fanciful style, it brings together characters, fictional and non-fictional, from different periods of American history.

Performance history[edit]

The opera premiered on 7 May 1947 at Columbia University’s Branders Matthews Hall with soprano Dorothy Dow as Susan B. Anthony.[1] Soprano Shirlee Emmons was awarded an Obie Award for her portrayal of Susan B. Anthony in the 1956 Off-Broadway production.[2] The Santa Fe Opera mounted the work in 1976 and released a recording of the work the following year on the New World Records label. The European premiere took place in Kensington Town Hall in London on 26 June 1979.[1] The New York City Opera staged a production in 2000 with Lauren Flanigan as Susan B. Anthony. In 2003, San Francisco Opera opened its 80th anniversary season with a new production of The Mother of Us All, Luana DeVol assuming the role of Susan B. Anthony for the first time.[3]

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere cast[1]
7 May 1947
(Conductor: Otto Luening)
Susan B. Anthony mezzo-soprano or dramatic soprano Dorothy Dow
Anne contralto Belva Kibler
Gertrude S. soprano Hazel Gravell
Virgil T. baritone Robert Grooters
Daniel Webster bass Bertram Rowe
Andrew Johnson tenor
Thaddeus Stevens tenor Alfred Kunz
Jo the Loiterer tenor William Horne
Chris the Citizen baritone
Indiana Elliot contralto Ruth Krug
Angel More soprano Carolyn Blakeslee
Henrietta M. soprano Teresa Stich-Randall
Henry B. bass-baritone
Anthony Comstock bass
John Adams, presumably John Quincy Adams tenor Robert Sprecher
Constance Fletcher mezzo-soprano Alice Howland
Gloster Heming baritone
Isabel Wentworth mezzo-soprano
Anna Hope contralto Carlton Sunday
Lillian Russell soprano Nancy Reid
Jenny Reefer mezzo-soprano Dianna Herman
Ulysses S. Grant bass-baritone Everett Anderson
Herman Atlan high baritone
Donald Gallup baritone
A.A. and T.T., page boys or postillions
Negro Man and Negro Woman
Indiana Elliot’s Brother bass-baritone

Synopsis[edit]

Stein’s text for The Mother of Us All does not describe details of staging. Therefore, Thomson’s friend Maurice Grosser devised a scenario to facilitate staging the opera. Though Grosser stated that other scenarios were equally possible, his scenario is published in the printed score; this synopsis is based on it.

Act 1[edit]

Scene 1. Susan B. Anthony and her devoted companion Anne are shown at home. Anne is knitting; Susan B. is pasting clippings into a scrapbook. Gertrude S. and Virgil T. also appear as narrators.

Scene 2. A political meeting takes place, at which Webster, Johnson, Adams, Grant, Comstock, and Stevens are all present. Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen also appear, mocking the politicians’ solemnity. Susan B. introduces herself to the assembly, and she and Daniel Webster debate.

Scene 3. A public square in front of Susan B. Anthony’s house. Thaddeus Stevens argues with Andrew Johnson; there is a flowery love scene between John Adams and Constance Fletcher. Jenny Reefer begins waltzing with Herman Atlan, and everyone joins in the dance.

Scene 4. Susan B. Anthony meditates on the difficulties of her mission.

Scene 5. Jo the Loiterer and Indiana Elliot are to be married. As the wedding party gathers, various episodes unfold. John Adams courts Constance Fletcher, Daniel Webster (who is to perform the ceremony) addresses Angel More in sentimental language. Indiana’s brother bursts in, wishing to prevent the marriage, and Susan B. explains what marriage means to women. General Grant calls for order, and Jo teases him for his pomposity. It seems that the wedding is all but forgotten, but finally Daniel Webster blesses the couple and Susan B. foretells that all of their children, men and women, will have the vote.

Act 2[edit]

Scene 1. Susan B.’s home. Susan B. is doing housework when she learns that she will be asked to address a political meeting. Jo the Loiterer complains that Indiana Elliot refuses to take his last name. When Susan B. is invited to speak, she declines, then agrees, hesitates again, but finally goes off to the meeting.

Scene 2. The meeting has taken place and Susan B. returns home triumphantly. She has spoken so convincingly that the politicians, now afraid of the women’s suffrage movement, have written the word “male” into the Constitution in order to make it impossible for women to vote. Indiana Elliot has decided to take Jo’s last name, and he will take hers; they will become Jo Elliot and Indiana Loiterer. Everyone congratulates Susan B. for her leadership.

Scene 3 (Epilogue). Some years later, a statue of Susan B. Anthony is to be unveiled at the U. S. Capitol. The characters gather for the ceremony, with Anne as guest of honor. Susan B. enters as a ghost, though Anne does not see her. Constance Fletcher appears, now almost blind. Other characters talk about women's suffrage, or burst in tipsily. The ceremony threatens to get out of hand. Suddenly, Virgil T. unveils the statue. The women lay wreaths at the base of the pedestal. All slowly depart. Alone, Susan B. Anthony (as the statue) sings of the struggles and lessons of her long life.

Recordings[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c "Entries for The Mother of Us All in Casaglia almanacco" (in Italian). AmadeusOnline. Retrieved 10 November 2010. 
  2. ^ "Obituaries: Shirlee Emmons Baldwin". The Portage County Gazette. April 2010. 
  3. ^ "The Mother of Us All". Performance Archive. San Francisco Opera. Retrieved 3 October 2011. 

Sources[edit]

Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle. Anthony Tommasini. W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-31858-3