Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Men Are Poor Things" (on Gertrude Stein's opera The Mother of Us All)

men are poor things
by Douglas Messerli

Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, The Mother of Us All as performed by the Juillard Opera, with the New York Philharmonic at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, performed on television on April 3, 2020

Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s significant 1947 opera, The Mother of Us All—performed on live-television the other night from the Charles Engelhard Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—was one of the great events of 2020, and a particularly needed tonic in these difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
      Yet, Thomson’s score, buried as it was, as The New York Times critic Zachery Wolfe put it, “far-off under the Branch Bank facade, sounded less snappy than they should.” Stein’s lyrics, however, sung vitally by soprano Felica Moore, did come alive, and were the center of this work.

     Fortunately, Stein’s pastiche of language grows even stronger in this production. This is not only a work about the great ur-feminist Anthony, who helped women get the opportunity to vote, but is a story about all those, past and present, who were disenfranchised, women, blacks, the poor, and just those hadn’t the opportunity of expressing themselves in the democratic process, as well as people who helped that governance to come into being, such as Daniel Webster, John Quincy Adams, and even Lillian Russell.
     Anthony, in this work, becomes a symbol of agreeable but endless insistence on the rights of all those who cannot speak up for themselves. With violins, violas, trumpets, piano, and drums, she sings out as a lesbian (whose partner expresses much of her lover’s history, demanding that Anthony speak out more loudly than agreeably) for the causes in which she believes.
      Susan B., however, realizes that despite her constant rejections to be represented by the ballot, that “they listen to me, they always listen to me.” Or as Susan herself realizes, that despite that men “are so selfish,” that they are also “such poor things,” and that “men are gullible, they listen to me.”
      In a strange way, the power with which Susan courted her male and female audiences through her agreeable and polite behavior she knew, all the while, “she was right because she was right.”
      It’s hard to perceive the powerful Felicia Moore as a quiet person, so forceful and magnificent is her singing. But like the male figures of which she sings, she convinces us of her righteous power. And we come to believe in her abilities to convince us, particularly through Stein’s use of minor figures who pass through her life such as Jo the Loiterer (Chance Jonas-O’Toole), Chris the Citizen, and Angel More, who weave into the stewpot of Stein’s arching history a realization of how Anthony was both part of the world in which she lived and highly aware of the future in which women would endlessly have to continue to battle.

      As reviewer Kurt Gottschalk expressed it, quoting from Stein’s lyrics: “They [men] fear women. They fear each other. They fear their neighbor. They fear other countries. And then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other.” I can’t imagine a better expression of the Trump reign.
      Language is at the heart of this marvelous opera. As the noted orator Daniel Webster (William Socolof), in Stein’s and Thomson’s opera expresses the pit of identity, an issue of which Stein, who proclaimed that we simply repeat ourselves, was always interested:

                                   My father’s name

                                   The pit he dragged a pit.
                                   My name cannot be any other.

                                   He digged a pit he digged it for his brother.

      Digging a pit was what all the men in Susan’s life did, and even after, when women had gained the vote, they choose to cancel the ballots by destroying the ballot boxes. The battle rages still today not only on sexual lines, but regarding partisan politics. The mother of us all has still not yet helped to heal us alas.

     I need to add that in 2000, Felix Bernstein played a child in the New York Opera production with Lauren Flanigan of the same opera, and he would return from his rehearsals and sing out long passages from the opera so beautifully that I nearly cried. I think that during this time Felix and I truly bonded. I was terribly moved by his singing, particularly since it was by beloved Stein. His young voice more completely characterized Stein’s Anthony B. than any soprano might.

Los Angeles, April 14, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (April 2020).