HGO to stage Ethel Smyth’s rarely performed opera ‘The Wreckers’
Company performers in Glyndebourne’s production of The Wreckers by Ethel Smyth conducted by Melly Still and conducted by Robin Ticciati at Glyndebourne Opera House on May 16, 2022 in Glyndebourne, East Sussex.
Photo: Robbie Jack/Corbis via Getty Images
Khori Dastoor had her eye on “The Wreckers” some time before taking over as General Manager and CEO of the Houston Grand Opera in August 2021. Part of her interview process was planning for potential future seasons, so she hooked up Dame Ethel Smyth’s rarely played tragedy about hypocrisy and opportunism on the forbidden Cornish coast.
For her, the British composer’s stormy opera was a perfect fit for a company whose very first production was Richard Strauss’ controversial ‘Salome’ — which, by the way, will also close HGO’s current season next April and May.
“Obviously, from the start of the business, there’s this challenge to the status quo and this desire for something really challenging and interesting,” says Dastoor. “It became the envy of the country, I think, as people pointed to HGO’s legacy of new works as a model for what other opera companies and other communities might strive for. ‘be.”
“The Wreckers” certainly has a checkered history to match the turbulent life of its composer, whose outspokenness impressed even Virginia Woolf. Arguably best known for ‘The March of the Women’, the official anthem of Britain’s women’s suffrage movement, the bisexual Smyth has previously served time in prison for throwing bricks at ministers’ homes. She was equally passionate about her work: at the opera’s premiere in Leipzig in 1906, Smyth stormed the orchestra pit and fled with the score after the conductor refused to restore the cuts he had made in the third act.
When: 28 Oct-Nov 11
Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
Details: $20 to $210; 713-228-6737; www.houstongrandopera.org
“The Wreckers” is set in a remote fishing village that really survives by salvaging the remains of passing ships that crash into the rocks. Most people in the community are happy with this, with the exception of Thirza, the pastor’s outspoken wife, who risks further ostracism (or worse) by seeing a young fisherman by her side. In the role, HGO’s Thirza finds more than a few parallels to Smyth’s own situation.
“I think my character is a bit autobiographical, that (Smyth) put a lot of his own struggle into my character,” says Houston mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. “So my character expressing herself, her struggle, and her love affair — it all sort of references Ethel’s story.”
Although the overture and a few other excerpts from the opera are familiar to British audiences, “The Wreckers” never entered the standard repertoire after a 1909-10 performance at Her Majesty’s Theater and Covent Garden in London. HGO’s version is the very first production by a professional American opera company. The cast used a video of a 2015 staging at Bard College in New York as a guide, but Cooke thinks the absence of preconceptions about the opera will work in HGO’s favor.
“It felt like we were doing a first,” she says. “For example, if a tempo didn’t feel quite right to us, we could do it our own way because there was no performance practice or expectation that ‘Oh, it has to go that way. “”
Plus, one of the main reasons Dastoor chose “The Wreckers” was Smyth’s “electrifying” choral writing, she says. The choir is on stage all the time, and although their numbers aren’t as large as they could be – 60, compared to 80 for “Turandot” last spring – they rank among the most essential elements of the ‘opera.
“They’re such an important part of the plot and they drive things forward every moment, from the opening scene to the trial at the end,” Dastoor said. “Their music is really the engine of the whole night, because it is this shift between the big and the small, the individual and the collective, the forces of society and lovers. They are a bit like the main character on stage.
Directed by Louisa Muller, who previously directed “Madame Butterfly” and “Tosca” for HGO, “The Wreckers” is inspired by the work of Franco Zeffirelli, the late Italian opera and film director renowned for his lavish productions. For all its choral power, anti-groupthink relevance, and passages reminiscent of Strauss and Debussy, mounting an opera of such size and grandeur – Dastoor compares it to ‘Tristan and Isolde’ and ‘The Flying Dutchman from Wagner, or to “Peter Grimes” – and especially one of such obscurity, means going quite far on a limb.
Dastoor is happy to take the risk, however, noting that scouts from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and LA Opera come to see HGO’s original production, led by artistic and musical director Patrick Summers. But, of course, there are no guarantees.
“I think for something of this magnitude you usually spend many years fundraising and trying to identify other partners, (but) I wanted to make a statement from the start,” says Dastoor. “I wanted to clarify the strengths of HGO and get people back to work and getting them to do what they are capable of; and be ambitious and be brave and be bold and take risks, and that’s certainly it.
Either way, no matter what, she’s confident “The Wreckers” will provide a memorable experience.
“I expect people who come in out of curiosity to come out saying, ‘Wow, I really can’t believe I’ve never heard this piece before,'” she says. “That would make us all very happy.”
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer.