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Gertrude's high note.

The Mother of Us, All, the 1940s opera by gay cocreators Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, gets a glossy new production

In 1946, when Gertrude Stein died just months before the premiere of The Mother of Us All, composer Virgil Thomson said wistfully, "I am sorry now that I did not write an opera with her every year. It had not occurred to me that both of us would not always be living."

Thomson's comment proved more far-reaching than he knew. Since its 1947 premiere, The Mother of Us All has been largely ignored by major U.S. and European opera repertory companies--even though the work, in the words of New York Times arts editor John Rockwell, "has been widely hailed as the greatest and most enduring of American operas."

Now the New York City Opera is giving The Mother of Us All another mm in the spotlight with a new production that debuted March 19 and will play in repertory through April 8.

Why do the opera at this point? For one thing, its protagonist, suffragist and women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony, is enjoying a new burst of fame, thanks to a Ken Bums documentary that aired on PBS last November.

For another, the world is just now catching up to the ideas of its creators. Stein's astonishingly modern libretto tackles conflicts between men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor. Director Christopher Alden--who's helming Mother of Us All for the second time, having mounted a production at Glimmerglass Opera in 1998--puts it this way: "The libretto, written at the end of her life, is Stein's last will and testament."

Set in the United States, according to Stein's production notes, "in the 19th century without too much precision as to decade," Stein's story is beautifully set off by Thomson's well-knit score, which comprises, in his own words, "gospel hymns and cocky marches ... sentimental ballads, waltzes, darn-fool ditties, and intoned sermons."

Adding yet another modernist touch to the proceedings, Stein and Thomson even wrote themselves into the opera Stein (Lesley Leighton) and Thomson (Beau Palmer) play host onstage, commenting on the nonlinear story throughout. As they watch, Anthony (Lauren Flanigan) debates Daniel Webster, ponders the effects of marriage on women, and bluntly confronts a black man as to whether he will give up his newly acquired right to vote if his wife can't share it.

Although in real life Anthony never referred to herself as a lesbian, Mother of Us All gives her a steadfast female partner, Anne (Ruthann Manley), a character thought to be modeled on Alice B. Toklas. Thomson's real-life longtime companion, painter Maurice Grosser, although not represented onstage, played a major role in the opera's creation. He helped Stein structure her richly cryptic prose into a stageable scenario.

In the epilogue of the opera, Thomson unveils the statue of Anthony in the halls of Congress, only to find Anthony herself singing an unusually moving and bittersweet paean to human effort: "Where is where," she sings. "In my long life of effort and strife, dear life, life is strife." Certainly a sentiment that could be echoed by lesbian and gay activists anytime, anywhere.

Carman also writes for The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Author:Carman, Joseph
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 11, 2000
Words:535
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