By Sharon Smullen
“The Mother of Us All”
R.B. Schlather. Photos by Tobin Del Cuore.
is not your grandma’s opera — unless she's a fan of Gertrude Stein’s words and wit, Virgil Thomson’s modernist music, and Susan B. Anthony’s civil rights and suffrage struggles. Then perhaps it is.
Director R.B. (don’t ask, he won’t tell you) Schlather is staging the 1947 work at Hudson Hall to celebrate the centennial of New York State granting women the vote and the restoration of the country’s oldest surviving theater in the historic Hudson Opera House.
He describes the rarely performed opera about Anthony by longtime collaborators Thomson and Stein (her final work) as a musical pageant that “zig-zags between humor and gravitas,” where real and imagined characters address themes of gender equality, diversity and acceptance, still unassailable anthems of today.
Known for bold staging, Schlather frequently kicks against convention and the cultural elite by hauling opera out of grand concert halls and into art museums and civic venues used by everyday people. He views Hudson Hall as a room, not a theater, one charmed with the weight of many mythic American personalities, where Anthony shared her message three times. “It’s a perfect place for listening,” he says.
Teresa Buchholz as Anne, with Michaela Martens as Susan B. Anthony.
Thomson’s nostalgic, original score evokes the bygone America of a community bandstand, and the reduced 10-piece orchestration plays more like a dance band than a symphony orchestra, says Schlather.
The staging brings to mind Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech town meeting, seen through a 21st century lens.
“You are in the middle of the speeches,” Schlather explains, “in touch with where we are today as a society, and how weird it is we’re still dealing with the same social justice themes.”
Audiences can sit, stand or move about among the diverse, gender-defying characters, real and imagined, from Jo the Loiterer to John Adams.
With globe-trotting Met mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens singing the “huge, bravura role” of Anthony, included in the 30-member cast are a few accidental opera singers like Shakespeare & Company powerhouse Ella Loudon, and Ngonda Badila, aka band singer "Lady Moon" of the exceptionally talented Badila family. Avant-garde composer Phil Kline, for example, has “a fantastic tenor voice,” says Schlather, who was drawn to enthusiastic occasional singers rather than more serious and formal professionals.
Nancy Allen Lundy as Gertrude Stein, Michaela Martens, Teresa Buchholz and Kent Smith as Virgil Thomson.
“The Mother of Us All” is less traditional opera and more about Stein’s idiosyncratic text keenly set to music by Thomson; as Schlather describes it, a vehicle for “starting conversations about the social justice issues that it depicts.”
He first saw a production in 1998 at age 12 at Glimmerglass in his native Cooperstown. “It captivated me,” he recalls, “I saw it six times that summer.”
The 70-year-old work has ripened with age, he says. Stein’s grammar now has a contemporary feel, like a disconnected scrolling Facebook feed, quite visionary by today’s standards. And, based on its creators and context, he adds, “it’s the ultimate gay opera, like a big queer narrative.”
The production marks Schlather’s artistic debut in the town he and his husband, dancer and choreographer Adam Weinert, call home. The local creative team includes designer Marsha Ginsberg, music director Tony Kieraldo and Stein scholar Joan Retallack, plus Schlather’s longtime lighting wizard JAX Messenger.
Schlather’s international career has lately taken the East Coast by storm. Last year, he came close to home with a mesmerizing peripatetic production of David Lang’s Pulitzer-winning oratorio “The Little Match Girl Passion” at The School, Jack Shainman’s Kinderhook, New York uber-gallery.
When it comes to inclusion, Schlather walks the talk, offering low-cost standing room tickets and post-show salon-style “not-talk-backs” on themes from Queer Narratives to Black Dada that are free to everyone. There’s also an experimental reading room, and a pop-up canteen by Lil’ Deb’s Oasis open 3 to 8 p.m. each performance day.
“It’s my response to the community, the history of the site and our shared culture,” he explains. “Since Nov. 8, I’m trying to be a more responsible citizen, and this project is a part of that.”
"The Mother Of Us All"
Hudson Hall, 327 Warren St., Hudson, NY
4 p.m. Saturdays & Sundays Nov. 11–19, plus Wednesday, Nov. 15.