R.B. Schlather is an opera director known for questioning production methods and form. November 11-19, 2017, he directs a cast of both professional and nonprofessional Hudson Valley locals in Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s rarely performed opera The Mother of Us All (1947) at Hudson Hall in Hudson, New York. In addition to the ticketed performances, free programming including an experimental reading room, snacks from local entrepreneurs, and salon-style discussions organized around themes of Stein’s work invite people to experience the opera as a two-week civic and social exhibition. Here R.B. talks about the unusual process and what he hopes the community receives.
So, let’s start with your first experience of this opera at Glimmerglass in 1998. What inspired you then, and what are your points of departure?
What I was inspired by was the boldly colorful, pageant-style presentation of 19th century America on stage. The fashion, the decor, the choreography of bodies. It was so fun to look at, and the performers gave these really vivid, visceral performances of their relationships to each other. I went back like six times that summer to see it over and over again–I was a junkie for the total experience of visual, poetry, and music. I loved the opera, I got the CD recording (of the 1977 Santa Fe Opera performance), and I would listen to it obsessively. The simple melodies. The catchy tunes. The profound and very funny statements. Even at our first group music rehearsal, I was so moved by the directness of some of the writing. It reminds me of the chorus my parents used to sing in when I was a kid. I feel it in my gut, this Americana music. Music that is totally Virgil Thompson, but he manages with this opera to land on a melodic landscape that triggers memories of a nostalgic, American sound. Everyone in the room gets triggered by this music, has memories from their past.
So, now, making this piece for this site in Hudson, NY (where the *real* Susan B. Anthony spoke twice in the 19th century about abolitionism and slavery), I’m more interested in what this performance is in dialogue with when it is performed in this site, rather than theatrically representing 19th century imagery. I’m interested in something listened to, internally experienced, and fluid. There are so many complex narratives I’m experiencing when I sit in that room. I’m thinking of course about my own biography–my own history with this piece, my coming to Hudson, my discovering this historic site, being commissioned to make this performance, questioning systems of production, and questioning visual representation with my collaborators. I’m thinking about the history of this building, how it functioned as the center of social/political/entertainment life in the city of Hudson in the 19th century, how much of the programming then was traveling lecturers (like Anthony) of “a high moral character,” as well as musical entertainment.
I’m thinking about how the music director Tony Kieraldo told me on our first meeting that the score reminded him of the bandstand he used to play in as a kid in Wisconsin. I’m thinking about what our dramaturge Joan Retallack said about Stein’s preoccupations across all her writing with history, grammar, and gender. I’m thinking about how that trio of themes breaks into so many sub categories: our American now, changing communication systems, politicizing bodies; history of opera, systems of production, performance of gender, etc. I’m thinking about the scene in the opera where there’s an unnamed “Negro man” and “Negro woman,” and I’m wondering why Stein didn’t give them names, and if that is her being provocative in saying something about our racism in this country?
I’m thinking about how this whole opera is really more about Stein and what Stein wants to say about misogyny and patriarchy and voice, and about how when you listen to Susan B’s character expressed in the combination of poetry and musical phrase, you are listening to the voice of a queer person because the poetry and music come from queer creators (both Stein and Thompson were gay). Historians differ about whether Anthony was gay, but there’s no question she was a fierce feminist and her intimates were women. And I am gay, so when you see the staging, it is a queer staging, so what are you–in the audience–experiencing?
I want you to experience a social gathering space where you deeply listen to this poetry and are activated by a musical nostalgia, and it all adds up to a chaotic, overwhelming, cathartic experience that you bring yourself to. Because that’s what opera is to me–it’s like this total expressive explosion, and the more you bring yourself to it and are open to letting it wash over you, the more you are going to get out of it. But, I want to stress that whatever a visitor experiences is valuable and real, you don’t have to experience what I am experiencing. That’s not the value of going to the opera, or of looking at art. I think there’s a stigma of feeling like art is really highbrow and you have to be “in the know” to get it, and I try to empower people that whatever reaction you have is all there is to get, don’t be afraid, actively participate and own what you feel.
When did Joan Retallack, Stein scholar, join the project? How did she evolve the piece?
When I first visited the opera house and found out that Anthony spoke there twice, I blurted out that they must produce this opera in their Hall someday. When Tambra Dillon, the executive director of the Hudson Opera House, sat down to commission this performance of The Mother of Us All after their massive renovation, she told me that the only other person besides me to have made the connection to this opera was Joan Retallack. We met. I really liked spending time with her, and I liked what she knew about Stein that I didn’t know. She’s helped me to leave behind a lot of the images from Glimmerglass that are so rich and present in my mind and nostalgic for me, and to start experiencing the text in a fresh way.
You cast over 30 Hudson Valley locals, both professional and non-professional musicians. How has the community responded?
I don’t know if the community knows, to be honest! I feel separated because I’m just coming back from doing gigs July to October 10th, so I’m just returning and hitting the ground running with rehearsals and urging the cast to get the word out into the open. This opera is rarely performed, I’d say because people are intimidated by the language and characters and history it presents, and also because it’s a huge cast of named characters. The only reason we are able to pull it off here, now, is because of the diversity of musicians and performers who have ties to this region and turned out for our open call. You don’t need an operatic technique to perform it, so it lends itself to a diversity of vocal styles and interpreters.
What resources have you discovered staging the opera in your Hudson, N.Y. hometown?
The resources are all people. My work is interested in stripping away a lot of the perceived signifiers of opera production to focus in on performers and musicians and what they can do with their bodies. I’m totally thrilled and turned on by the people who have come together for this–both those in the cast and my collaborators (Joan Retallack, also Tony Kieraldo our music director, Marsha Ginsberg our designer, and JAX Messenger our lighting designer), for their talent and charisma, but also for the conversations about living up here –why we’ve ended up here? Why we got hooked on music? Why this work feels important and valuable to be doing right now as a response to the misogyny, racism, and suppression of rights that is coming from the top of our country daily? Who has a plumber they really like? How to dispose of our leaves right now?
The creative team developed not only the ticketed opera but a two-week exhibition of free programming that includes local entrepreneurs, artist readings, and educational outreach. What does it mean to direct this experience?
When we had a residency this spring to develop the project and cast the opera, the conversations brought up by the complex narratives of “American history” and “historic site” and “what is opera in 2017” seemed equally as valuable–and integral–to performing the opera. I’ve been pursuing work since 2014 that is located in fine art space, working from questions about the viewing of classical music when you as a visitor are viewing work in a gallery, not in a theater. I think of these performances as exhibitions of an opera, where there is a larger conversation at play than “the play” itself!
So here, at this historic site, I want people to experience this opera through the installation of social gathering spaces within the building over the two weeks of performances–space for you to come, have a snack, hang out, and have interpersonal experiences…whether that happens in the Pop Up canteen by Lil’ Deb’s Oasis (a tropical comfort food restaurant), or in a post performance series of “Not-Talk-Backs” (focused around themes of queer narratives, opera systems, the history of suffrage and abolitionism in Hudson, Steins impact on language and art, and a Town Ball), or in the five performances themselves, where I want you to experience the people in the show as the people you might run into at the local Shop Rite; not as people on a pedestal pretending to be something they are not.
I think there’s this great potential here for interpersonal, intimate exchanges that can lead to a real cathartic healing as we all try to move forward in our contemporary now. And maybe this sounds confusing and disorienting, but I think that great art is confusing and disorienting, and maybe gets more at expressing what it’s like to live in the world today because of it, because a lot of life seems frustratingly obscure and un-knowable these days.