AUFBAU 66:7 April 6, 2000 p.14
Thomson's and Stein's The Mother of Us All
"Gertrude S." and the Suffragette
[Lauren Flanigan Heads NYCO Cast
in Multi-Leveled Parodic Polemic]
523 words by Leonard Lehrman
You can still catch the last performance Saturday night, April 8 of the current revival of The Mother of Us All by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson at New York City Opera. At the time of its Columbia University premiere (1947), Thomson was the powerful music critic of The New York Herald Tribune. Today his Foundation supports American music everywhere, and his protégé is the leading music critic of The New York Times. All this must at least partially explain why this sporadically inspired but mostly self-consciously silly work has continued to hold the stage. Ostensibly about the American women's suffrage advocate Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), the piece is set as a commentary on her by characters called, literally, "Virgil T." and "Gertrude S." In many ways it is more about them than about her.
Her posited debate with Daniel Webster (1782-1852) never took place, and indeed the text itself comments that the name Daniel was chosen to represent her adversary because that was the name of Stein's father--and not Anthony's. In the last scene of this production, Gertrude lays a copy of Picasso's portrait of her (Stein) at the foot of the living statue of Susan B. Anthony.
Times were changing rapidly in the mid-1940s: Stein, though part Jewish and openly lesbian, was living in Nazi-occupied France. French women got the vote only in 1944; she died in 1946, shortly after completing the libretto. It was her second written for Thomson (1896-1989), nearly two decades after their first collaboration: the absurdist Four Saints in Three Acts.
The Mother of Us All too contains its share of absurdity, sending up polemics, logic, chronology, love, and marriage, passionately and dispassionately: "because any cause is a cause," "I'm right because I'm right," "I'm blind, and therefore I dream"; and stating that by the time women get the vote they will be just like men so it won't make any difference.
In Christopher Alden's staging, a pair of men strip to the waist to box with each other, a trio to their underwear to cavort with a tipsy Lillian Russell (Barbara Shirvis), and the fermataed drum rolls and tattoos seem endless in their extended pantomimes. The character known as John (Quincy?) Adams, portrayed by Matthew Chellis, has the most lyrical tenor lines, presaging those in Thomson's final opera, Lord Byron, which, in cut form, is his most soaringly beautiful work.
George Manahan leads the spirited orchestra. The cast of 26 plus 5 children is headed by the redoubtable Lauren Flanigan in the title role. Ms. Flanigan, who premiered the title role in Hugo Weisgall's Esther, will star in Henze's Venus and Adonis at Santa Fe this summer, and also in NYCO's Roberto Devereaux and Die tote Stadt next season. Rumor has it they are considering reviving Blitzstein's Regina for her. We would love to see her as Emma Goldman.
Any of those vehicles would be a piece of cake for her. Though she could sing the phone book and make it worth listening to, she has her work cut out for her in The Mother of Us All.
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