It's about time! This summer, Bard Summerscape presents its first opera by a woman. It's also the first opera in English to be staged at Bard. "The Wreckers" by Ethel Smyth opens Friday, July 24. Though composed in 1904, this is its American debut.
Traveling through Cornwall in 1886, Smyth learned about "wreckers," desperadoes who would extinguish the lights in lighthouses, causing ships to crash, then loot the stranded cargo. Her opera adds a twist to this practice: A charismatic minister named Pascoe convinces his town to wreck ships, and to consider their cargo the bounty of the Lord. But someone has been setting fires to warn away the ships (spoiler alert!): the minister's wife Thirza and her adulterous lover Mark. When they confess their affair, the town chains them in a cave, the tide surges in, and they are drowned—onstage, in the finale. (How will the director depict the drowning? No one at Bard is telling, but they hint at a visual tour de force.)
Orchestral music can effortlessly convey the movement of water—in this case, an ocean that is both benefactor and villain. The music is lush and melodic, with echoes of sea chanteys. At times, Smyth draws on the Methodist hymnal to portray Pascoe's fervent devotion.
Ethel Smyth is the only woman whose work has been produced by the Metropolitan Opera. "The Wreckers" is considered her masterpiece. Bard President Leon Botstein writes: "The final scenes of Acts I and III are particularly on a par with the finest moments in the operatic repertory." Though not a musical revolutionary, Smyth was an astute social critic. She depicts a society led by a madman, who's also a clergyman!—a radical vision in 1904. Six years after writing "The Wreckers," Smyth would join the women's suffrage movement, composing "The March of the Women," an anthem of the suffragettes. After participating in a coordinated series of window smashings in 1912, she served two months in Holloway Prison. Ten years later, Smyth was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
This is director Thaddeus Strassberger's sixth production at Bard. He suggested staging "The Wreckers" after hearing some of its music performed by the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in 2007. (The ASO, conducted by Botstein, will accompany the Bard performances.) Strassberger was attracted by the story of fundamentalism run amok. "Free from religion, people have a gut feeling as to what's right and wrong," he observes. "And this Wesleyan revivalist religion is justifying actions that people in the community instinctively feel are wrong."
Strassberger, who also works as a set designer, is known for his strongly visual staging, often with rich colors and several levels of simultaneous action.
Though it looks like an exploding airplane, the Fisher Center has excellent acoustics, designed by Yasuhisa Toyota. The yearly opera is its only full-scale production. The proscenium is raised, the orchestra pit expanded. This is one of the few halls in the United States that can accommodate a huge sound—an orchestra of over 60 pieces, a chorus of over 40 voices—in an intimate space. (Because the opera houses in New York City are "dark" in the summer, dozens of first-rate singers appear in the Bard chorus.)
I asked Strassberger why there are so few operas in English. "We have the great American musical," he replied. "'Chicago' and 'A Chorus Line' are amazing musical works of theater. There's no difference between a musical and opera, other than what people standing outside the experience call it."
"The Wreckers" will be at the Fisher Center of Bard College July 24-August 2. (845) 758-7900; Fishercenter.bard.edu.