Bard reviving Ethel Smyth's forgotten opera

NEW YORK (AP) — Every summer, a small college campus 100 miles north of New York City is transformed into a unique kind of archaeological site. Here the work is not digging up relics from the ground but unearthing nearly forgotten operas from decades of neglect.

This year the novelty is heightened by the fact that the piece, "The Wreckers," was written by a woman — Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), who has the distinction of being the only female composer ever to have a work performed at the Metropolitan Opera.

As part of Bard's annual SummerScape festival, Leon Botstein will conduct the American Symphony Orchestra and a cast of singers in five performances of "The Wreckers" beginning July 24. Botstein, who is president of Bard as well as founder of the festival, said it will be the first U.S. stage production ever of the opera, which had its premiere in Germany in 1906.

Smyth wrote several operas, including "Der Wald" ("The Forest"), a one-act work that received a single performance at the Met in 1903, oddly enough as a curtain raiser to Verdi's "Il Trovatore." (In the 2016-17 season, more than 100 years later, the Met will finally present another opera by a female composer, "L'amour de Loin" by Kaija Saariaho.)

"The Wreckers" is generally regarded as Smyth's strongest work. Set to a rich and tumultuous orchestral score heavily influenced by Wagner, it tells a grim story of Cornish villagers who use religion to justify plundering ships after they have lured them to the rocky shore by extinguishing guiding beacons. When two young lovers try to warn the ships, the community turns on them and kills them.

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month, Botstein talked about the opera and his crusade to revive all-but-forgotten works.


Botstein had read about the opera in histories of the period, but it had fallen into obscurity. Many critics argued there had been no great English operas written in hundreds of years until Benjamin Britten burst on the scene with "Peter Grimes" in 1945.

"People looking back after the success of 'Grimes,' which also has a seafaring theme, felt Britten must have known of 'The Wreckers,'" Botstein said. "And two very prominent conductors, Sir Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, expressed tremendous admiration for it."

Intrigued by studying the musical score, Botstein led the ASO in a concert performance in 2007. "You could tell right away the piece is fantastically well constructed," he said. "It grabs the audience, it has a great story."


Botstein dismisses the idea that the opera's subject matter is outdated. "As times have changed it's only become more relevant," he said. "The story is about religious fanaticism. The chorus sees themselves as God's chosen people, which allows them to commit sins which are then washed white by God's grace. It's no different from any bomber of an abortion clinic, or ISIS."

He believes Smyth was attracted to the topic "because it is about the ultimate condemnation of the outsider. The two protagonists ARE Dame Ethel Smyth."

And Smyth was something of an outsider in English society, even though she was granted the female equivalent of knighthood by King George V in 1922 and had close friendships with literary giants like George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf. "She got arrested for demonstrating on behalf of women's right to vote," Botstein said. "She was a lesbian, and she suffered ostracism for being a composer, which was considered an inappropriate female profession."


"My crusade is to rectify the injustices of the way we represent music history to the listening public," Botstein said. "The operatic repertoire is richer than anybody could imagine. And I'm proud of the extent to which I've been able to put unknown repertory on its feet."

Botstein laments what he sees as a double standard in the financing of opera. "There is money available and supporters for new opera; there is no money at all for bringing back pieces that were once new that never got a chance."

Some previous revivals he takes special pride in include Marc Blitzstein's "Regina" in 2005, Robert Schumann's "Genoveva" in 2004, Sergei Taneev's "The Oresteia" in 2013 and Carl Maria von Weber's "Euryanthe" last summer.


Botstein was born in 1946 in Switzerland, the son of Polish-Russian Jews, many of whose relatives and friends had been murdered by the Nazis. "As a child listening to my parents, all I could do was imagine a world that had been wiped out," he said. "Children, adults, grandparents. Who were these people? What were their lives? So you had a fantasy life as a child imagining a world.

"Now if I look at something like 'The Wreckers' or other pieces that are forgotten ... that's at the center of who I am, trying to reclaim a past, the obliteration of memory."