Mrs. President, an opera by Victoria Bond and Hilary Bell
Guild Hall, August 29
One doesn’t usually think of Guild Hall as a venue for a world premiere of an opera. Nevertheless, last Thursday evening, August 29, at Guild Hall we heard the world premiere of Mrs. President, an opera about Victoria Woodhull by Victoria Bond, with a libretto by Hilary Bell. It was a feature of the “Festival of Women’s Voices” series at Guild Hall.
Victoria Woodhull is certainly one of the most extraordinary women to emerge from the American experience. She was the first woman to run for the office of President (in 1872, at a time when women could not vote), the first woman stockbroker, the first woman to publish a newspaper in New York. It was her weekly which first published Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in the United States. She was also a spiritualist, who conversed with the dead. She was consulted by Cornelius Vanderbilt when he made financial decisions, and was set up by him in business as a broker, at which she was wildly successful. And she attempted to coerce the very influential Reverend Henry Ward Beecher to support her presidential candidacy, threatening to reveal his extramarital shenanigans if he didn’t. If the story is 130 years old, its significance is as fresh as the print of today’s newspaper.
This was a concert version of the opera, portions of which have been heard previously at the City Opera of New York. The performance was conducted by the composer, Victoria Bond. In lieu of an orchestra, accompaniment was provided by David Mayfield at the piano. The composer, Victoria Bond, is also an extraordinary woman, the first woman to receive a Ph. D. in conducting from Juilliard.
Mrs. President focuses on Woodhull’s presidential candidacy and her relationship with Beecher. The title stems from a contemporary political cartoon by Thomas Nast, which described her as “Mrs. Satan.” This is a story that was ripe for opera, and seeing and hearing this performance renews one’s hope in the possibilities of that art form. It is music that overflows with lyricism and passion and is set to an intensely poetic and dramatic libretto. Its unabashed songfulness can capture the ear of even the most hesitant, and the drama inherent in the attraction and repulsion of Woodhull and Beecher is as gripping as any dramatic event I’ve seen. There is no mistaking Ms. Bond for anything other than a 21st century American composer, but Puccini would have been thrilled to write some of these arias.
The opera begins with a scene at a carnival, with the child Victoria, promoted by her mother, telling fortunes. The adult Victoria, looking on the scene, says, “I was eight and hated the world.” And again, “All I knew was that I had been chosen. And I had work to do.” The work she felt she ultimately had to do was to free women from the subjugation of men.
There follows a scene at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, in which Beecher reveals his eloquence as a preacher and then auctions off the freedom of a slave girl to the congregation. (Slaveholders at this time still regarded their slaves as property, even though they had been technically freed.)
We next see a séance which Victoria interrupts to announce the publication of “Woodhull’s Weekly” which will denounce corruption and promote a vision of a world where a woman is “free to love her husband as an equal, no longer as a slave.”
And then the central moment of the opera, Beecher and Woodhull meet. It is brilliantly written and intensely dramatic. Beecher immediately tries to bully Woodhull into submission, but Woodhull will have none of this. She knows a thing or two and he not only submits, for a moment he feels that it is possible for him to be open with his relationships. He admits that he belongs in “a world where love is free.” Woodhull and Beecher are attracted to each other and give in to their attraction.
However after Joseph Treat, the spurned former lover of Woodhull, writes a letter to the NY Times describing Woodhull as a pernicious influence in society, the tortured Beecher realizes that support of Woodhull would be his undoing. On the day of her announcing her candidacy he withdraws his support and leads the heckling with Treat, describing her as “Mrs. Satan.” True to her word, Woodhull publishes the story of Beecher’s affairs in her newspaper.
She is thrown in jail for sending obscene material through the mail, her “libelous” account of Beecher’s activities. And the opera ends with Victoria Woodhull in her jail cell on election night, beaten, but with a vision of a future in which others will carry on what she has begun.
This was, in all respects, a stunning performance. Not only is the opera is significant for what it says about the nature of men and women and their equality, something that we continue to strive for. But it is revelatory of what new music—music that adheres to tonality and celebrates the lyric capabilities of the human voice—can be.
Beecher’s sermon is almost heartbreaking in its beauty, a beauty of both words and music. “What is a dewdrop?” he says. “It is a tear of joy / Wept by God / At the beauty of his Creation. / It is a window into a tiny world / Through which we find a whole universe. / It is a mirror where we catch ourselves. / Quivering, short-lived thing. / It is a paragon of breathtaking splendor / That dissolves in a moment.”
The part of Victoria Woodhull was wonderful sung by Deborah Mayer, though she seemed slightly ill at ease in the role. Though one longed for greater clarity of diction in her upper register, there were certainly moments of tonal splendor. Adam Klein was electrifying as Beecher, inhabiting the role. Vocally gleaming, he embodied the tormented Beecher, moving from liberal goodness to moral severity to domination to supplication to self-loathing. Heather Sarris was dewy-voiced and immensely convincing as the innocent and hero-worshipping Isabella Beecher. Joy Hermalyn displayed her usual skill, singing her lines with the subtlety of a lieder singer, making Roxie Claflin come alive. Tami Swartz was appealing as Elizabeth Tilton, pregnant with Beecher’s child. Andrew Childs did a superb job as the fictional Treat, the former lover of Woodhull. His aria during the séance, “Speak to me,” was extraordinarily moving. And the sturdy Robert Osborne was also excellent as the poor James Blood, the man with a “heart like a walnut,” who didn’t realize what he was getting into by marrying Woodhull.
The excellent chorus of the Camerata Singers was prepared and joined by Timothy Mount, head of the choral music department of Stony Brook University, and sometime conductor of the Choral Society of the Hamptons.
One cannot slight the accompanist David Mayfield, who was extraordinarily sensitive to singer’s phrasing and had an unerring sense of musical drama.
And on the podium, the composer Victoria Bond with fluid movements of her baton revealed herself to be as superb a conductor as she is a composer, never drawing attention to herself, but shaping phrases with a sculptor’s sense of the plastic, with a nod of the head, a flick of the wrist, a look, weaving the work together on the stage. It was lovely to see as it was to hear. This listener felt it a privilege to be present.