Denton — There were plenty of moments in Friday’s performance of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera The Mother of Us All, directed by David Ward, when it was easy to forget we were hearing a student performance. The University of North Texas is home to the second-largest College of Music in the United States. (The largest is at Indiana University.) So listeners have been spoiled to expect fine performances. Listeners were reminded of the musicians’ youth, however, only through tells such as an unlined face emerging from under a gray-streaked wig. Their musicianship was almost invariably mature and engaging.
The opera tells the story of suffragist Susan B. Anthony, and her fight to earn American women the right to vote. The large cast of the opera, however, makes it clear that it was not only Anthony’s fight: there were many other participants, male and female, black and white, in the struggle to obtain universal suffrage.
The opera premiered in 1947, a year after Stein’s death, which is a pity. I feel sure she would be delighted by the consternation her words still create. As the audience exited UNT’s intimate Lyric Theater, there were murmurings about the “confusing” and “puzzling” text. Like her poetry, this libretto features sense in nonsense, the occasional reference to artichokes or seeming non sequiturs such as “Quilts are not crazy/They are kind.” But like the aforementioned crazy quilt, the parts make up a mostly coherent whole, although one with loose threads sticking out here and there.
The orchestra, under the direction of Stephen Dubberly, performed admirably after a few initial bobbles in the brass during the overture’s opening fanfare. The players could easily have been mistaken for much older professional musicians. Strings and winds sounded polished, while percussion and brass took on the formidable challenges of their parts with élan. The musical style of this piece is interesting: lots of small-town Americana (think brass band playing under a gazebo in the Midwest) mixed with Thomson’s modernist harmonies and rhythms.
The Friday evening cast (most major roles are doubled, so singers will be different on Sundays) was uniformly fine. Youna Jang excelled in the role of Susan B. Anthony—she has a big voice, large range, and well-developed vibrato, although diction was occasionally less crisp than it might have been.
A particular standout was John Adams, sung by Martin Clark, Jr. His clear, resonant voice will be one to listen for on local stages (and perhaps farther afield as well) in coming years.
Sets and costumes were sophisticated and interesting—the simple sets used lighting projections (lighting by Chad R. Jung) to tremendous effect. Susan B. Anthony’s final aria, standing on the pedestal of her own statue, was dramatically underscored by projections (by Chase York) of famous American women office-holders. (I would have preferred to see more who were important in their own right, nixing First Ladies and similar, but it is a minor quibble.) Costumes (by Michael Robinson) included a mix of turn of the century garb, representing Anthony’s own era, with some representing women from later periods: a Rosie the Riveter and a woman in a caftan sporting a pro-ERA badge (Betty Friedan, perhaps?). These costumes effectively demonstrated Anthony’s influence in ages other than her own.
This production is well worth a trip to Denton. Couple it with a pre- or post-performance visit to the Denton Courthouse Square.