Victoria Bond: The Making of the Opera “Mrs. President”

A Personal Recollection and Reflection on Victoria Woodhull by Victoria Bond

Victoria Woodhull’s name was introduced to me by my mother over 20 years ago. She was intrigued with this bold and fearless woman, because she represented the same philosophy of fierce independence that my mother adhered to and which she passed on to me. It is inspiring to study Woodhull’s struggles and to feel the encouragement to never give up the good fight no matter what the obstacles. I personally need to be in contact with such individuals, living or historical, and working to bring her character and her story to life is a passionate commitment.

The challenge was to find her musical “voice” as well as the musical expression for Henry Ward Beecher, her nemeses, Col. James Blood, her husband and Isabella Hooker, her closest friend.  These people’s lives intersect with tragic consequences and each goes through a significant metamorphosis during the course of the opera. In addition to these individual threads, there is the broad sweep of history, first catapulting Woodhull into the spotlight and then withdrawing support and imprisoning her. How she reacted to the complete rotation of her fortune demonstrated what she was made of.  Her most triumphant scene is not on the stage of Steinway Hall, where flushed with excitement, she announces her candidacy for President, but rather in her jail cell at the end of the opera. Disgraced, abandoned by all her supporters and penniless, she realizes that she never will achieve her dreams, and yet she continues to believe in them and in the certainty that someone will come along in a future generation and will carry her work forward. In the midst of despair, she is filled with hope. It is precisely this kind of story that I believe we need to hear today. I, personally, need to hear it, which is why I am writing it, and I firmly believe that it can be of help to others as well.

Victoria Woodhull was born in 1838 in Homer, Ohio to a poor family, and, gifted with clairvoyant visions, she was exploited from an early age by her parents who carted her from town to town reading fortunes, telling the future and performing as a child medium in a carnival-type atmosphere.  She married early to a doctor, Canning Woodhull, who promised to rescue her from her desperate circumstances. However he proved to be an alcoholic and a womanizer.  Feeling trapped in a miserable relationship, she returned to her work as a spiritualist, providing help and advice to women who, like herself, seemed doomed to the slavery of unhappy marriages. Because of these experiences, she determined to make her goal women’s emancipation.

Her spirit voices advised her to go to New York City where, together with her younger sister Tennessee Claflin, she met Cornelius Vanderbilt who frequently consulted spiritualists on personal as well as financial matters.  Vanderbilt was enchanted with the “bewitching sisters” and set them up as the first female stock-brokers on Wall Street.  Although this was originally meant as a publicity stunt, the women were wildly successful and amassed a fortune.  Because of this, Victoria was able to pursue her real passion, women’s freedom.  She surrounded herself with the brightest minds of her time, including Col James Blood, who was to become her second husband.  Because Dr. Woodhull was the father of her two children and because he was incapable of looking after himself, she allowed him to live with her entire family in their palatial home in New York City. This, together with other unusual aspects of her family life, were to cause her no end of grief and to become lightning rods for every sort of criticism leveled at her and her unorthodox theories.

As Victoria rose in prominence, so did the controversy surrounding her.  At first she was embraced by the suffrage movement because she was able to gain access to the powerful men in Washington.  She pleaded forcefully for a woman’s right to vote, arguing that as a citizen, the Constitution already gave her that right. However, the conservative Congress denied suffrage, making it a state by state decision.  Her vision, however, went far beyond a woman’s right to vote, her goal being nothing less than the complete equality of the sexes. This was too controversial a position for most women, including the suffragists, and they abandoned her as too radical for their purposes.

In 1872, she announced herself as a candidate for President of the United States on the Equal Rights Party ticket with Frederick Douglass as her Vice-Presidential running-mate.  She sought out the influential preacher, Henry Ward Beecher to endorse her campaign, both because he had many powerful men in his congregation, and because she knew about some embarrassing details concerning his private life.

Victoria endorsed free love, a term even more inflammatory in her day than it is today.  However, by this she meant things that we would take for granted.  In her day, once a woman was married, she gave up her most basic rights, including the freedom to own property, to keep her children if she divorced her husband, and to keep her dignity and her place in society as a divorcee or a single woman. In this light, Victoria considered marriage as nothing more than legalized prostitution.  She believed in love and she did believe in loving relationships, but she also believed that when love was no longer a part of the relationship, no legal document could sanction it.

Henry Ward Beecher preached a conventional doctrine of holy matrimony; however he practiced a very different kind of free love, conducting numerous affairs with his married female parishioner.  Victoria knew this and threatened to expose him if he did not endorse her bid for the Presidency. At first he wavered, but then confronted with the scandal that this would unleash, he withdrew his endorsement. True to her word, Victoria ran a detailed article about Beecher in her newspaper, “Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly”. The storm that erupted as a result became the scandal of the century, on the front pages of every newspaper for months and the most celebrated trial of its time.  As a result, Victoria was jailed.  Her political hopes were dashed as was her financial empire.  In the end, Beecher was exonerated and Victoria was vilified as “Mrs. Satan.”

The first challenge in making Woodhull’s life into an opera was condensing the enormous scope of her activities and focusing them into a single, significant event.  As opera is first and foremost theater, a good story must have clarity, a sense of direction, and a plot that can be easily grasped on first viewing. Hilary Bell, librettist, had the challenge of combining a large number of individuals who played an important part in this drama into the seven principal characters in the cast.  The chorus members participate as individuals as well as being part of a large group. She skillfully wove Victoria’s sister Tennessee Claflin into the role of her closest friend and supporter Isabella Hooker, and she created a fictitious character, Joseph Treat, who combines the qualities of many of Woodhull’s adversaries and spurned lovers.  We both agreed that the action should take place during the election year, 1872, and that the drama should center on the relationship between Woodhull and Beecher. This gave the plot a universal context: it was not only about a woman’s struggle for equality, not only about a woman’s battle against the conservative establishment, but it was also about a woman’s personal ambiguity towards a seductive and powerful man who tries to control her.  This is a story as alive and meaningful today as it was over a hundred years ago.  The vote has not brought with it the goal of women’s dreams, and there are still many battles to be fought.  The headlines are full of the continuing abuse of women throughout the world as well as in our own country.  Victoria Woodhull represents a potent example of the fierce determination of one individual who refused to be bullied.  They are other examples of such fierce and fearless women in opera, and surely the one that springs most readily to mind is Carmen.

I began my own operatic career as a seven year old in the children’s chorus of the New York City Opera, and the very first opera in which I sang was Carmen. As a child, I watched and listened during each performance from the ideal vantage point of the stage of the City Opera, as Carmen cajoled, flirted with and captured the passion of every man on that stage.  She was the most fascinating woman I had ever seen!  She was able to love without ever being a slave to love like most other operatic heroines, and her creed was absolute freedom.  She was not a saint and everyone could see that she was not the respectable woman we had all been taught to become. But she had another quality that most mothers and teachers never mentioned – she was her own boss! She didn’t take orders from anyone, not even her husband or her lovers! That was something quite new. I had been taught to be good and obedient and to respect authority. Women were praised for their supportive roles, for their caring and nurturing qualities. But here was a rebel, full of fire and independence, who would sacrifice everything for her freedom.  I immediately fell in love with this character, and determined to adopt some of her qualities to my own life.  Her wildness, untamed and undiluted was heady, and although the selfish and careless part of her nature became her downfall in the end, her life was exciting and colorful and she lived it more fully than those pale, respectable and timid women who served as contrast to her.

Here, then, in Victoria Woodhull, was a character that resonated with all those same qualities.  She haunted me until I could resist no longer.  Her music needed a wild and primal passion, which I longed to be able to represent. Henry Ward Beecher also represented a fascinating portrait of one whose nature embraced those same qualities of passion and wildness, but who had been brought up to lead and to preach a life of bourgeois respectability.  His married life was without love or passion, so he sought both in the many illicit affairs he conducted with his female parishioners.  Although he was tortured by the knowledge that his life was a lie, he was too weak to do anything about it.  When confronted with the possibility of “coming out of the closet” and embracing his true nature, he was at first drunk with the intoxication of revealing himself at last.  However, on sober reflection, he realized that the life he had built for himself, with its prestige, power and respect, would collapse if he told the truth about himself.  He could not face the condemnation of society.  In the end, a coward, he turned on Woodhull and unleashed the forces that would bring about her doom.

Isabella Hooker was a character caught in the middle of a life-and-death tug-of war. Her older brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was her idol, and she believed him to be the saint that society said he was.  She knew nothing of his secret affairs.  She saw how adored he was and she took his teachings and his guidance to heart. However, when she met Victoria Woodhull, she saw a woman who was unlike her family.  She was captivated by Woodhull’s charisma and drawn to her as a life- affirming alternative to the pious and constricting laws that governed her own family. This put her squarely in the middle of the opposing forces of her brother and her friend. After meeting Woodhull, she wanted to devote herself to women’s freedom, but her brother, infuriated at her activities, successfully intimidated her by insinuating that her passion for Victoria had homosexual overtones.  Horrified by his accusations and by the implied disgrace that such a liaison would mean to her entire family, she backed down and abandoned Woodhull and her cause, returning, reluctantly to the fold of her all-powerful family. Victoria’s husband, James Blood, married her with the clear understanding that theirs was to be an unconventional relationship.  He believed in open marriage, in which both husband and wife were free to explore other sexual partners. At first, this arrangement seemed to work, and he encouraged Victoria to indulge her many passionate affairs, however, he did not anticipate the emotional devastation that such  unbridled  freedom would wreck on his own emotional life. In the end, disappointed and disillusioned, he became the victim of his own unrealistic philosophy, abandoning it and his marriage vows.  Victoria was left, at the end of the opera, alone and abandoned by everyone.

This story is certainly operatic in its tragic scope.  In studying Victoria’s history, I was struck by those qualities that define the great among us.  Although she never achieved her goal, she left us with a remarkable testimony to her courage, her vision and her indomitable spirit.  I hope to illuminate those qualities in my opera “Mrs. President.”  She has been an inspiration to me all through this process.