The Millay Colony for the Arts

The Mother of Us All

The Millay Colony, in partnership with Hudson Hall at the Historic Hudson Opera House, will co-produce “The Mother of Us All”, Virgil Thomson’s opera on the life of Susan B. Anthony, with libretto by Gertrude Stein. Directed by R.B. Schlather with dramaturge Joan Retallack, this will premiere during Hudson Hall’s 2017 season this November. We received funding from NYSCA to produce the opera and a satellite of community events including an Arts Education program, a sleepover at the Colony of Hudson’s Perfect Ten girls, and voter registration drives.

We talked with R.B. Schlather about the project.

What inspired you to propose this project to NYSCA?

I’m originally from Cooperstown, NY, and spent my childhood riding the Amtrak past Hudson to the city, and going to operas at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown. I was taken on a school trip to see “The Mother of us All” in 1998 and fell in love with the piece, and the production was among those that inspired me to pursue a career as an opera director. When I started coming to Hudson regularly about six years ago and discovered the opera house, and that Susan B. Anthony had spoken there, I said to them, “You have to do this opera “the mother of us all” someday.” I hadn’t been the first to tell them about the piece, and they very creatively thought that the NYSCA grant for commemorations of women’s suffrage could help us make this project possible.

Why Stein? Why now?

My collaborator on this project, Joan Retallack, who is very experienced with Stein and her writings, really clued me in to Stein’s preoccupations with history, gender, and grammar, as well as her interest in contemporaneity. I feel like a lot of Americans right now are navigating our shared history, changing forms of technology and communication, and social discourses about gender. So this opera, written in 1947 and presenting characters from the 19th century, weirdly seems completely “now,” completely relatable and an exciting piece of art to encounter because it leads to great conversations about our shared contemporary now.

How will this differ from traditional opera productions?

My work in the last few years is moving more toward explorations of form and audience and access, so I’m thinking of this performance more as an installation in an historic site than a theatrical production. My collaborators and I, inspired by the conversations the piece was bringing up for us about our lives today in the Hudson Valley, decided to create an experimental salon series that takes over the bottom floor of the building with programming starting our first week of rehearsals and happening in between performances, creating experimental social gathering spaces within the building. I’m interested in stripping away a lot of the perceptions of the experience of opera and instead experimenting with using opera to create social spaces and community interactions.

What are you hoping the community will take away from this experience?

I hope people will show up, check it out, enjoy the language and humor, enjoy seeing people performing who they may recognize from going to town meetings or shop rite, and start to think deeply about their own experience of history, of how they participate in social justice issues today, how we move forward culturally and politically. We are all in this together!

R. B. Schlather on the newly renovated stage at Hudson Hall (Photo credit: Matthew Placek)