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Celebrating Women’s Rights, ‘That Most American of Operas’

When Thomson first proposed an opera about 19th-century America to Stein, his longtime collaborator, she immersed herself in the era’s literature and political speeches, and remarked in a letter that “if it comes off it will be a most erudite opera.” Still, she hoped to write a work that “would be as popular as ‘Carmen,’” an opera “anybody would like including the farm hands and the elite.”

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Susan B. Anthony, whose work for women’s suffrage is the subject of “The Mother of Us All.”

An opera about American history was a natural fit for this pair. Although Stein moved permanently to Paris in 1903, she regularly returned to the theme of American identity in her writings. Thomson, rejecting the hyper-complexity of European styles like serialism that dominated post-World War II composition, frequently drew on the sounds of his Missouri childhood for inspiration.

Both were fascinated by American English. Stein’s experiments with grammar and syntax proved transformative for Thomson, who had struggled with how to put English to music. His 1926 song setting of a Stein poem represented a compositional breakthrough, and initiated a friendship that led to their first opera, “Four Saints in Three Acts,” in 1934.

Despite — or perhaps because of — its nonsensical libretto, nonexistent story, eccentric staging and unabashedly accessible music, “Four Saints” caused a sensation. It cemented Stein’s celebrity and transformed Thomson’s fledgling career as a composer and music critic. The opera’s success led Columbia University to commission a new work in 1945.

But shortly after finishing the libretto of “The Mother of Us All” in spring 1946, Stein died, leaving Thomson and Maurice Grosser, who wrote the scenarios for both operas, to complete it before its premiere the following year. The posthumous revisions to Stein’s text, the musicologist Monica Hershberger has written, offer “a model for men to support a feminist authorial voice and agenda.”

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R. B. Schlather gives direction during a rehearsal of “The Mother of Us All.”

Credit
Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Ms. Hershberger argues that the opera deliberately confronted a postwar climate in which women who had joined the wartime work force were expected to resume traditional domestic roles. “Stein is setting the stage for women to re-engage with a lot of the same questions they’d considered previously and thought they had addressed,” she said in an interview.

Thomson’s score is almost entirely original, but it sounds deceptively familiar. Music reminiscent of the folk song “The Water Is Wide” underscores discussions of marriage; snare drum rolls and vibrant march tunes propel the public debate scenes. The composer described the music as “a memory book, a souvenir of all those sounds and kinds of tunes that were once the music of rural America and that are still the basic idiom of our country.”

The Hudson production has a communal ethos that complements Thomson’s musical “lingua americana.” Those behind it, including Mr. Schlather; Tambra Dillon, the director of Hudson Hall; Caroline Crumpacker, from the nearby Millay Colony for the Arts, a co-producer of the opera; and Joan Retallack, a Stein scholar and poet who taught at Bard College, view the performances as an opportunity to strengthen social and civic bonds. To that end, the staging, which stars the mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens as Anthony, will feature an ensemble of Hudson Valley residents.

Structured as an exhibition, spaces on the ground floor beneath the performance hall will house a pop-up canteen, experimental reading room and conversation series. “We want to use this form of opera to allow people a gathering space,” Mr. Schlather said, “where you come together at this cultural hub for two weeks to collectively experience this fabulous opera, to experience each other and meet new people.”

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Alice Paul, second from left, founder of the National Woman’s Party, and officers of the organization in front of their Washington headquarters in 1920 with a banner bearing Susan B. Anthony’s words.

Hudson Hall, whose recently completed, two-decade renovation is part of the continuing revitalization of Hudson, inspired this approach. It’s an apt setting for the work: After its construction in 1855, the building anchored its city’s civic life for over a century. Anthony spoke in the auditorium at least twice, to advocate for abolishing slavery and to champion women’s suffrage.

“All of the scenes in the opera depict things that would have happened in the building at some point in the past,” Mr. Schlather said. “It’s almost like a séance.”

But the opera’s characters do not speak quite like their historical counterparts. Stein’s text is playful, marked by repetition and reversals. Non sequiturs abound. Apropos of nothing, one character proclaims, “Daniel Webster needs an artichoke.”

“You have an array of characters who do not behave the way they’re supposed to behave as in a conventional narrative opera,” Ms. Retallack said in an interview. “You never really get what their character is.”

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Robert Osborne plays the role of Daniel Webster.

Credit
Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

“But,” she added, “the text shouldn’t be challenging for very long. The spirit of it is driven by the music.”

One yet-to-be-resolved challenge, however, is racial. The opera includes the roles of Negro Man and Negro Woman, who, unlike the 27 other characters, have no identity beyond the color of their skin — not even names.

This problem stems in part from Anthony’s own history with race. Despite years as an abolitionist, Anthony campaigned against the 15th Amendment, which affirmed that all male citizens, regardless of race, had the right to vote. She and her fellow suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton split the women’s movement, arguing that African-Americans and women should be enfranchised together. When, in the opera, Anthony asks, above a bed of plaintive strings, “Would you vote if only you can and not she?” the Negro Man replies: “You bet.”

“This is the kind of problem that is a wonderful opportunity,” Ms. Retallack said. “We need to do something that forms a conversational relationship between our consciousness now and then, but that can be both playful and involve gravitas.”

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Dominic Armstrong as Jo the Loiterer.

Credit
Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

In keeping with the opera’s other historical characters, Ms. Retallack proposed that the two black roles “channel” Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston, using language from their writings. The Stein and Thomson estates, however, refused permission to interpolate these new texts into the work. The Hudson production still plans to address the opera’s problematic treatment of race in numerous ways, including a new spoken piece by Ms. Retallack, “Gertrude Stein, Susan B., & History Interrupt One Another,” after the Nov. 15 performance.

An addition of this kind is in keeping with Stein and Thomson’s conception of the opera, which was designed to suggest civil rights battles yet to come. The final scene takes place in 1921, after Anthony’s death and the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. The opera’s characters gather for the unveiling of the marble Portrait Monument, a commemoration of the founding suffragists that was eventually moved to the Capitol rotunda in Washington.

In the closing aria, “My Long Life,” the marmoreal Anthony sings from beyond the grave, suggesting that her work remains incomplete. Thomson’s score concludes with a hushed, benedictory plagal cadence, the equivalent of an orchestral “amen.”

This final musical gesture “offers the possibility of an afterlife,” Ms. Hershberger writes, “of something yet to come, reflecting compellingly on Susan B.’s unfinished struggle.”

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