After many years of absence, Susan B. Anthony returned to Cambridge, not to make an inflammatory speech about women's suffrage, but as the heroine of the opera The Mother of Us All. Her arrival is a welcome event, for the work, with a book by Gertrude Stein and music by Virgil Thomson, is a thoroughly pleasant show. Fortunately, too, the Adams House Music Society production supports the best aspects of the opera.
Actually, the name "opera" is a somewhat inaccurate label, since The Mother of Us All is really a musical pageant of America in the nineteenth century. Gertrude Stein did not try to build a drama around the life of the suffragette but presents her fight through a series of conversations with many of the eminent and some of the obscure people of her era. If such a treatment lacks the tension of a plot, it still gave the writer an opportunity to display her talent for humor, and permitted stage director Roger Graef to fill the huge Sanders Theatre platform with crowds of colorful people.
Virgil Thomson's music strives to recreate the atmosphere of the period by the use of simple melodies and simpler harmony. The motifs are often built on a single chord, suggesting bugle calls, and this lack of pretension adds charm to the score. Taken seriously, the music becomes tiring in its succession of tonic and dominant chords. The lack of variety, however, is atoned for by the music's good humor, clear orchestration, and subservience to the text.
The level of singing was pleasantly high throughout the many roles. Some of the singers, unfortunately, had enunciation problems, and several times during the evening the words were completely lost. Victor Yellin, whose enthusiasm made the production possible, did a fine job coordinating, directing, and conducting the music. He kept the singers in balance with the Bach Society Orchestra, while keeping the orchestral tone both subdued and clear.
Sara-Jane Smith brought an unfailingly lyrical voice to the long and taxing role of Susan B. Anthony. Her acting convincingly projected the courage and warmth of the suffragette. She received solid support from Malcolm Ticknor as Jo the Loiterer. The possessor of a considerable comic talent, Ticknor also displayed a strong tenor voice. The biggest voice in the cast, however, belonged to Herbert Gibson, who played Daniel Webster with a wonderful mock dignity. In smaller parts, John Morabito gave an amusing portrayal of the love-sick but proper John Adams, while Sylvia Skolnick enlivened the role of a militant feminist, Jenny Reefer. The cause of suffrage received lusty support from Judy Moore as Lillian Russell.
The technical standards of the production were on the whole as high as those set by the cast. The costumes, by Anne Hollander, were especially handsome and entirely appropriate to the characters represented. Peter Salisbury's lighting was imaginative, but suffered from uncertain handling. The faults of the production, however, were all minor, and although The Mother of Us All is not the great American opera, it is an unusual and pleasant evenings' entertainment.