On today’s date in 1947, a new opera entitled “The Mother of Us All” debuted at Columbia University in New York City.
The libretto was by the American poet Gertrude Stein, and dealt with the life and times of Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century champion of women’s rights. In Stein’s dream-like account, iconic figures from America’s past like President John Adams, orator Daniel Webster, and entertainer Lillian Russell interact even though they lived at different times in history. Two of the opera’s 27 characters, playwright Constance Fletcher and Yale librarian Donald Gallup, in fact, were contemporary friends of Stein’s.
The music was by the American composer Virgil Thomson, whose score evoked seemingly familiar 19th century hymns, sentimental ballads, circus band music, drum rolls, and fanfares. The tunes were, in fact, all original creations. The mix of Thomson’s music and Stein’s text results in a rambunctious opera about American life and politics, at turns both amusing and strangely touching. It became an unlikely success.
Thomson wrote two other operas: “Four Saints in Three Acts,” from 1933, was an earlier collaboration with Gertrude Stein, and “Lord Byron,” from 1972, sets a witty libretto by Jack Larson, an actor famous for his portrayal of Daily Planet cub reporter Jimmy Olson on the old “Superman” TV series. “Lord Byron” was intended for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but never made it there, and performances these days are rare.
Music Played in Today's Program
Virgil Thomson (1896 - 1989)The Mother of Us AllSanta Fe Opera; Raymond Leppard, cond.New World 288