Director Louisa Muller isn’t faking her history with Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers. Until the Houston Grand Opera invited her to direct it, “I didn’t know the play at all,” she says. “I didn’t know Ethel Smyth’s work at all, I’m ashamed to say.”
“I got a score and listened, and I was really excited about it. It’s wonderful that she’s having a resurgence.
This century-old British composer has benefited from renewed attention in recent years for female artists. HGO will contribute to the revival of Smyth by unveiling a new production of The Wreckers Friday night at the Wortham Theater Center.
Most of the HGO audience will likely arrive at the theater just as unfamiliar as Muller was with Smyth’s drama. The saga tells the story of a poor seaside village that supports itself by luring ships to run aground and then stealing their cargoes. At the center of the story, the hero and heroine of the opera fall in love as they try to stop the violence.
HGO bills its staging as The Wreckers‘ first large-scale production by a major American company. (The Bard SummerScape Festival in New York State staged the work in 2015.)
“The Wreckers is a beautiful, grand, epic gothic romance,” says HGO Artistic Director Patrick Summers, who will direct. “It touches, as a subject matter, on the common hypocrisies of people when they stop thinking for themselves, and it was certainly something Dame Ethel Smyth knew very well!
“He was a particularly brilliant person at a time when full personality was only available to men, and classical music in particular was an exclusive men’s club.”
Born in England in 1858, Smyth led a lifelong rebellion against prevailing views on the role of women in society. Forging a career as a songwriter was just the beginning: she also threw herself into the fight for women’s suffrage. Smyth composed The women’s march as the movement’s battle cry. “Life, conflicts, these two are one! You can only win by faith and daring,” he says.
She lived up to those words. After a protest that involved throwing stones at the homes of politicians who opposed women’s suffrage, Smyth and his fellow protesters landed in jail – Smyth for two months. A champion of his music, conductor Thomas Beecham, visited him.
“I arrived in the main court,” Beecham recalls in his memoirs, “to find the noble company of martyrs marching around it and vigorously singing their war song while the composer, beaming approval from a window overlooking, beat time in an almost bacchanalian frenzy with a toothbrush.
The Wreckers was born from the impressions Smyth got from a trek along the English Cornish coast, where she ventured into caves that smugglers had once used as hideouts. Back in the area as her opera took shape in her mind, she asked locals about the stories of villagers of old – the ‘wreckers’ in the work’s title – who tricked ships into scavenging. ran aground, slaughtered the crews, then fled with the cargoes.
Plus, she recalls in her memoir, they thought they were doing all this with divine permission.
“These Cornish savages had come to believe that, like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they were God’s chosen people, whose right, no, whose duty was to plunder and root out less favored peoples” , wrote Smyth.
She and librettist Henry Brewster turned this killing, looting and fanaticism into a world of The Wreckers.
At the center of the story, a couple of lovers, Mark and Thirza, rebel against violence. Thirza abandons her husband, the village’s fire-and-brimstone pastor, and Mark turns his back on his sweetheart, Avis, whose resentment turns her into a troublemaker, leading to a tragic (but very lyrical) end.
Librettist Brewster had to bribe an impresario £1,000 to persuade him to create The Wreckers in Germany in 1906, Smyth recalls in his memoirs. The conductor cut the score so severely that the outraged composer burst into the pit after opening night, grabbed the orchestral parts and carried them away.
With financial support from a wealthy friend of Smyth’s, Beecham produced and conducted six performances of The Wreckers in London in 1909. Even his advocacy could not give the work a foothold in the repertoire, although the work maintained a band of admirers over the next century, including HGO’s musical director.
“I first became acquainted with opera through my conducting teacher and mentor, Sir Charles Mackerras, and it was one of those many unsung masterpieces that he loved. particularly,” says Summers. “I’ve had it on my secret wish list for many years.”
“‘Great’ is in [HGO’s] name, and few operas are as grand as The Wreckers. It is a story told through the framework of a huge choir and orchestra. As grand as the lead roles are, and they are, this is a choral opera par excellence. They are the main character.
18th-century Cornish villagers did rob wrecked ships, but the murder Smyth alludes to may be legend rather than historical fact, notes Muller. Nevertheless, since British law forbids taking a ship’s cargo if its crew survived the crash, “it’s not too logical” to imagine that desperate villagers could cement their claim to the spoils by killing the survivors.
Either way, the opera’s premise is “full of dramatic possibility,” says Muller.
“The aspect of mob violence and groupthink – and how an island community can turn against outsiders and each other – is a really interesting theme to explore,” she continues. The hero and heroine add “a story of love and hope and trying to act on your ideals, when you’re in a community that doesn’t support that.”
Smyth’s score brings this community to life through “incredibly captivating and thrilling choruses,” Muller said. Some of them have an aura of hymns or prayers, she noted, while the villagers’ violence seethes in others, especially the “incredible chorus at the end of Act 1, where they are preparing to be shipwrecked”.
Checking off his own examples of the score’s most memorable moments, Summers began with “the big love air in the opening, which we hear throughout (of the opera) – but its first intonation is particularly beautiful.”
“The folk songs sung by Mark’s character are quite beautiful. The second act’s love duet shows what so many composers have attempted for over fifty years, which was to recreate, or at least differently create, the second act of Wagner Tristan and Iseult.”
In this Act 2 duet, Mark and Thirza have the stage almost entirely to themselves for 30 minutes.
“I think anyone who’s an actor or a performer likes that kind of challenge,” says mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who plays Thirza in the HGO production.
“You have to identify with someone in the opera, and the two characters you most identify with are Thirza and Mark. Act 2 is the heart of the play. You understand their union. You understand their purpose.
Like Summers and Muller – and the rest of the HGO cast, adds Summers – Cooke tackles The Wreckers for the first time. When HGO offered her the role of Thirza, she started by browsing through a score and listening to part of the opera online.
“I was like, ‘OK, that’s all I thought it would be—dramatic and empowering,'” Cooke says. “I like to be stretched. I tend to sing a lot of contemporary music, and it will often stretch you musically or intellectually, but not necessarily vocally or dramatically. So I was thrilled that it had heroic, almost Wagnerian vocals.
Cooke hears influences from Wagner, Debussy and Elgar in the music, while she believes the story has echoes of Smyth’s own life. “I have a hunch my character is a bit autobiographical, a bit Ethel Smyth,” Cooke says. “She also struggled with society. … She went her own way, made her own way. This is also the crux of (Thirza).
HGO will perform The Wreckers using an adaptation of the 21st century text by British author and librettist Amanda Holden. It preserves the flavor of the period while filtering out some archaic wording — you, you, while and the like — so that “we can immerse ourselves in the story,” Muller says.
The Wreckers benefits from an immediacy that will help compensate for its lack of familiarity, says Cooke. She finds it “a timely piece”.
“It’s a love story, it’s a social conflict – it’s all those things that we can relate to,” says Cooke.
“Everyone follows the pastor. They do what they are told. Then you have these two characters standing up against each other. I think it’s kind of cathartic to see them go through what they’re going through.
The Wreckers opens at the Houston Grand Opera at 7:30 p.m. Friday and runs through Nov. 11 at the Wortham Theater Center. www.houstongrandopera.org