The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Meet Dame Ethel Smyth –- a Victorian feminist and forceful composer as well as an advocate of women’s rights and same-sex relations.

August 12, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

You probably don’t know the name Ethel Smyth (pronounced smaith, below).

The Ear certainly didn’t.

ethel smyth

But then he came across this fascinating account of her life and work.

Smythe was friends with Peter Tchaikovsky and Johannes Brahms.

An early feminist leader for same-sex equality, she fell in love with the much younger writer Virginia Woolf.

And her muscular music and politically charged operas reminded people of Richard Wagner.

Now she has been resurrected thanks to Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College who also directs the American Symphony Orchestra and the Bard Music Festival. He staged her 1904 opera “The Wreckers.” (At bottom, you can hear a YouTube performance of the Overture to “The Wreckers.”)

Leon Botstein conducting USE

Tom Huizenga, of the outstanding Deceptive Cadence blog, wrote this profile and appreciation for NPR, or National Public radio:

http://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2015/07/23/410033088/one-feisty-victorian-womans-opera-revived


Classical music: Why hasn’t anyone written an opera about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement?

January 19, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is a federal holiday in the US: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

And The Ear has just one question: Why hasn’t anyone yet composed an opera about MLK?

martin luther king 2

His larger-than-life existence has all the necessary operatic elements about it, from being a prisoner in jail and winning the Nobel Peace Prize to meeting with President Johnson in The White House and being assassinated while defending garbage workers in Memphis.

He took part in momentous events, some of them dramatic and violent, that involved huge masses of people.

Plus, he and his staff experienced major individual and personal conflicts.

And the cause he fought for forever altered the course of American history and the civil rights of other individuals and groups advocating women’s rights, Latino rights, gay rights and disabled rights among others.

Martin Luther King speech

Could it be that MLK has not been treated in an opera because the composers are white or non-American?

Who, then, could or should do it?

The contemporary American composer John Adams (below top) comes immediately to mind. He used President Richard Nixon (below bottom is a scene from “Nixon in China, as it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera); physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project in “Doctor Atomic: to create the atomic bomb; and in the still controversial opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” the question of terrorism examined through the story of Jewish tourist Leon Klinghoffer and his Palestinian murderers, to create his successful reality-based historical operas.

John Adams

nixon in china plane

So, why not Martin Luther King Jr.?

Music certainly was vital to King and his campaign.

But what hasn’t he himself been treated as the central figure of an opera?

Maybe the difficulties posed by the King estate would have something to do with it, as they did with the current movie “Selma.”

But one can’t imagine that they are insurmountable.

Anyway, tell us what you think.

Should there be an opera about Martin Luther King Jr.?

Who would be a good composer to write one?

And why do you think one hasn’t already been written? Does racism play a role?

The Ear wants to hear.

 


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