Oppression and Liberation
Plots from the 19th Century
Operatic plots from the 19th century run the entire gammut from the most elaborate fantasy to the most gritty reflections of daily life. Composers of the late 20th century who draw upon historical events and people from the 19th century, invariably find stories of downtrodden women and enslaved or colonized peoples to set to music.
This plot is attractive dramatically for numerous reasons. It contains familiar themes and structures from classical Greek tragedy and epic: the reversal of fortune at any moment (here it happens twice); the overweening pride of the rich and powerful, the wife who is faithful until death. That this plot holds a mirror up to Amerian society of the 1950s is unsurprising; what is surprising, however, is that the plot is largely drawn from history, not from drama.
Many women of the 19th century had no such rags to riches story, no good fortune to reverse. In fact, poverty and abuse were the lot of girls from all over New England, whose parents sent them to work in the mills towns of Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island. Emeline Bachelder Gurney was such a young woman. Born in 1816 (er death date is not recorded), her story begins like so many others. She is sent from the family farm in Fayette, Maine to work in a mill, becomes pregnant at age 13 by a mill foreman, gives birth to a son, sells the baby to a middle-class couple, and returns home to Fayette. Her story diverges from the norm in that she unwittingly married her son, whom she met at ages 68 when the infant had become young man. A novel by Judith Rossner and a PBS documentary entitle "Sins of Our Mothers" brought the Gurney's story to the attention of composer Tobias Picker (see the review of the documentary in a Jan. 17, 1989 New York Times article by John J. Connors).
Once again, the elements of Greek tragedy found in the life of a 19th century woman make for excellent plot material. The theme of the woman who unknowingly marries her own son and is an object of horror to herself, to her husband, and to her community is instantly recognizable to those who know Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Unlike Jocosta of the play, however, this American woman bore up under the weight of communal scorn and had the courage to live. Tobias Picker writes, "Since this story appealed ot me on such a visceral level, I felt certain it would appeal to others, that I could make it speak to everyone, if they allowed themselves to feel the complex, primal emotions I had" (liner notes to the Santa Fe Opera's live recording in 1996).
The story of David Nation's crusading wife may not immediately bring to mind the theme of oppressed women. During her lifetime, many men might have genuinely felt that Carry Nation was oppressing them! However, she saw her marriage to her dashing first husband, physician Charles A. Gloyd, destroyed by his alcoholism, and sought later in life to make certain that no woman ever suffered the ill effects of what she called in her autobiography "the curse of rum". Dr. Gloyd died two years into their marriage, leaving her an infant daughter. Six year later, she married David Nation, whom she believed deceived her and who later divorced her. She began her career of "smashings" of "joints," the word she used to describe saloons, in Kiowa, Kansas, in 1900. She died in 1911, and her headstone was provided by the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
Douglas Moore's opera (libretto by William North Jayme) examines a small slice of Carry Nation's life, her brief marriage to her first husband Charles, from 1865 to 1867. Alcohol, religious fanaticism, and the American Civil War have a constant presence in the lives of this couple and threaten to destroy their happiness. Though plot clearly is subsidiary to characterization in this opera, it is the plot that provides what Joseph Wilkins called in his review in the Topeka Daily Capital "a rich patchwork quilt of Americana" (liner notes for the New York City Opera recording, 1968).
Lizzie Bordon and Harriet Tubman: Two women, four musical dramas
One hailed as a national hero, the other suspected of the greatest butchery of her own family, the stories of both Harriet Tubman and Lizzie Bordon have so inspired composers that each woman is the subject of two musical dramas.
An escaped slave herself, Harriet Tubman is perhaps the best-known of the conductors on the Underground Railroad that brought black slaves out of the South to freedom. Making some 19 trips and leading some 300 men and women out of slavery, Harriet Tubman's life was set twice to music by the same composer, Scottish-born Thea Musgrave.Harriet, the Woman called Moses, premiered in Norfolk, Virginia on March 1, 1985. Musgrave herself calls the story an example of "the age-old conflict between good and evil ... Harriet is every woman who dared to defy injustice and tyranny". Musgrave's second work, The Story of Harriet Tubman (1990), is a chamber version of the earlier opera and was premiered by the Mobile (AL) Opera in 1993.
The story of Lizzie Bordon, the New England woman accused and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother on Aug. 4, 1892 in Fall River, MA, is so well known that it has become a jump-rope rhyme. Lizzie and the maid Bridget Sullivan were the only members of the household at home when the crime took place, but only Lizzie was charged. No one has ever been tried and convicted of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden.
Jack Beeson writes in the liner notes to his 1965 opera Lizzie Borden that he only uses some of the facts and theories about 1892 case to create his plot. He sees this story as "a latter-day New England Elektra story, with the parents switched, the 'evil stepmother' in the place of Klytemnestra." Each desire of the opera's main character is frustrated, each outlet closed down, and the murders occur as the result of years of abuse. The plot of Christopher McGovern's 1998 musical centers on a different kind of abuse, an illlicit relationship between Andrew and his daughter which was discovered by Lizzie's love interest Robert (see the excellent comparative review of Beeson and McGovern's settings by Carl A. Rossi).
The Fight for Liberation from Slavery and Colonization
Liberation is a second strong theme of the history of 19th century America. While women and the children of former slaves and colonized people may not have yet won complete freedom from oppression, the origens of their struggles are dramatic and compelling stories for opera and musical theater.
Simón Bolívar is considered by many in Latin America to be the father of the revolutions that, region by region, wrested much of the continent from Spanish dominion. He is credited with leading the wars of independence in what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Bolivia, and Venezuela. The 1992 opera by Thea Musgrave that bears his name is driven by characterization and theme, rather than plot. It nonetheless gives us a hero with the charisma, the drive, and the spirit to make of dreams reality.
Heroic action is no less part of Anthony Davis's opera Amistad (1997,libretto by his cousin Thulani Davis). The struggle of African captives who mutinied against their Spanish captors and, landing on the shores of New York, were judged free men and women in a famous court case, is history. The plot of Davis's opera, however, combines the events of 1839 with traditional African psychological reality that is populated with deities. The Trickster God and the Goddess of Waters participate fully in the liberation of Africans who were never slaves, but rather free people.