Dr. Amy Zigler is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC. She specializes in music of the 19th and 20th centuries, with a focus on the cultural study of chamber music, the social history of music in Germany and Great Britain, and the study of gender and sexuality in music. She holds a doctorate in Musicology from the University of Florida; her dissertation explored the chamber works of Dame Ethel Smyth. Dr. Zigler is an active member of American Musicological Society, College Music Society, and North American British Music Studies Association. As a pianist, Dr. Zigler performs as a soloist and collaborative artist, and has performed in Germany, Puerto Rico and across the United States.
On Sunday July 26 I had the pleasure of attending Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, presented by Bard College’s SummerScape series. Under the direction of Maestro Leon Botstein, soloists and chorus joined the American Symphony in reviving this neglected work. Not only were the title roles sung with conviction, profundity, and insight, but the chorus was powerfully and expertly performed. Their performances were lifted by the exceptional playing of the American Symphony, whose performance brought the opera to life.
The Wreckers is British composer Ethel Smyth’s third opera, composed between 1902 and 1904 and first performed in Leipzig in 1906, followed by a London performance in 1909. The work is a collaboration between Smyth and French-American philosopher Henry Brewster (1850-1908). Inspired by trips to Cornwall’s jagged coast, Smyth created the opera by sending scene and plot ideas to Brewster and receiving dramatic text in return. Unfortunately, Brewster wrote the original libretto in French, which Smyth had translated to German for the premiere and then superimposed English text over the German manuscripts for the London premiere. Consequently, the biggest fault of the work is that, at times, the melody and text seem ill-suited for each other. Luckily, these moments are rare and do not detract from the overall composition or performance.
Unlike many historical operas performed today, The Wreckers is a thought-provoking tale with moral lessons for our own time. As Maestro Botstein astutely pointed out in his program notes, it is a story that questions the laws and morality of a society that believed itself justified in its actions because it represented the will of God. The ‘betrayers’ to the community turn out to be the only ones who believe murder is wrong and are willing to die (not kill) for their beliefs.
The Wreckers is set in 18th century England on the cliffs of Cornwall, a jagged seashore with treacherous waterways. An isolated religious community is led by Pascoe (played by baritone Louis Otey), their minister and moral authority. The story implies that for many generations, this community has put out the beacons on the shore, thus causing ships to crash. The community members – men, women, and children – then proceed to pillage and plunder the wreckage in order to survive. They justify their actions because they are God’s Chosen Ones and their deeds are done in His name. While most of the community does not question Pascoe or their livelihood, a few do. Pascoe’s young wife Thirza (played by mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner) refuses to participate in either “wrecking” or worshipping and says from the beginning that she disagrees with their actions. Mark (played by tenor Neal Cooper) is a fisherman in the village who pretends to go along with the community, but he has been secretly lighting beacons and having an affair with Thirza. The true catalyst for this love triangle and the broader plot, however, is Avis (played by soprano Sky Ingram), a young woman and the jilted former lover of Mark. She single-handedly raises suspicion about a traitor in the community, exposes Mark and Thirza’s affair, and reveals them to be the true betrayers to the community. Bucking traditional operatic convention, Smyth has switched the expected moral roles of the soprano and mezzo-soprano; Avis, the soprano, is a morally corrupt and conniving character, while Thirza, the mezzo-soprano, is the morally true heroine who dies for her love and her beliefs.
The chorus in this performance is deserving of its own praise. Smyth structured the opera in such a way that the chorus as community plays a prominent role in the narrative of the story as well as the anchor for most of the recitatives and arias. The first and third acts are dominated by the chorus, and the energy, ferocity, and musical talent of this group of individuals established the chorus as a main character. Whether singing their call to arms, “Wreckers, awake!” or any number of hymn-like numbers and sea chanties, the chorus brought out the gusto in Smyth’s music and performed it with sincerity. (the Chorus Master is James Bagwell).
Like her contemporaries Debussy, Strauss, and Puccini, Smyth emphasizes the through-composed nature of the opera, with songs woven into the ongoing action and leitmotivs returning to serve as clues to the audience and providing further commentary on the story. This avoidance of literal strophic repetition propels the narrative forward in a way that is exciting even for modern audiences. Musically, she does draw upon her predecessors and contemporaries, but as Botstein noted in the pre-concert talk, Smyth “revels in that eclecticism and makes it her own.” The work contains expert English choral writing, imaginative orchestrations, and at times highly chromatic harmonies, yet it succeeds in presenting a cohesive musical work that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Performances of the work continue through August 2nd at Bard College’s Fisher Performing Arts Center. I highly encourage all readers to see this monumental work. Maestro Botstein and the American Symphony have done much to bring attention to Smyth’s music, but like all musical works it must be heard (and in this case seen) to be appreciated.