While the name Dame Ethel Smyth may not ring many bells for Torontonian opera lovers, this spitfire of a Suffragette is well worth knowing. Historically remembered as the first female composer to be presented at the Metropolitan Opera (in 1903 — a feat sadly not reprised until 2016 with Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin), Smyth, an openly gay woman, was as rooted in her passions as a political activist as she was a composer.
“I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea,” Smyth wrote in 1902, expressing her rejection of the gender norms of her time.
And indeed, in this jaded age of regressive politics in the United States, spotlighting the unknown historical changemakers feels more important than ever.
But when Opera5’s Co-Founders and General and Artistic Directors Rachel Krehm and Aria Umezawa stumbled upon the works of Ethel Smyth over a year ago, they never expected her works to be so relevant in 2017.
“The first grant we wrote [to produce this piece] was around the time of the Democratic National Convention, when things were looking positive,” Rachel Krehm describes in an independent coffee shop in the Annex. “We thought this piece would be a celebration, so we decided to resurrect this interesting figure who deserves a voice.
“It’s beautiful music,” Krehm continues. “[Dame Smyth] is forgotten and other people are not. History does interesting things.”
Opera5’s Suffragette is comprised of a double bill that includes Smyth’s “The March of the Women,” a work composed in 1910 that became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. And though the premiere was over 100 years ago, director Jessica Derventzis is determined to show how relevant the piece is today.
“We’re setting the opera in the 1970s and the early 80s,” she tells. “I chose that time period off of the Sex Pistols song, ‘God Save the Queen.’ Fête galante [one of the operas Opera5 is presenting] is all about celebrity worship and keeping up appearances. [The 70’s were] another time when we really saw rebellion against the authority. The punk movement jumped into my head.”
(Notably, this isn’t the first time punk has been paired with Toronto’s Indie Opera companies. In 2015, Tapestry Opera teamed up with the Canadian punk band Fucked Up to create Tap:Ex Metallurgy)
Ethel Smyth’s music feels decidedly different from the punk music of our time, featuring qualities Krehm and Derventzis describe as “neoclassical music with a British lens” and bearing notable similarities to the English works of Britten and Stravinsky. However, Toronto audience members can prepare themselves for lots of 21st-century punk-inspired features.
“I’ve brought [the pieces] completely into 2017 Toronto,” Derventzis relates. “We’re performing during Pride Week so we feature an homage to the fact that the pieces are not only about women’s rights, but everyone who needs a lift.”
And from the sounds of it, Dame Smyth was a punk in her own way.
“She wrote the suffragette anthem, she smashed the windows of politicians,” Derventzis describes. “She was a badass woman.”
As Alex Ross wrote recently in The New Yorker, “art becomes a model for the concerted action that can only happen outside its sphere.” Opera5’s championing of this eccentric, queer and vehemently feminist Victorian composer’s work demonstrates the opportunity arts organizations have to counter the discrimination happening in our world today.
And if, as the U.S. President recently pointed out, the 19th-century writer, orator and social reformer Frederick Douglass is “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more,” why shouldn’t Dame Ethel Smyth be similarly recognized?
Come out to see Opera5’s Suffragette June 22-25 at Theatre Passe Muraille to find out why.