The Mother of Us All

  • Music
  • Classical and opera
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Catherine Ashmore
Virgil Thomson

What’s the great American opera? Most of the time, I’d cite Virgil Thomson’s second masterpiece on a text by Gertrude Stein: 1947’s The Mother of Us All, a daffily inspired, deeply inspiring portrait of American civic life, drawn from real, composite and imaginary characters spanning the nation’s first 150 years. Presidents John Quincy Adams, Ulysses Grant and Andrew Johnson rub shoulders with reformers, riffraff, entertainers (the famed material girl Lillian Russell), abolitionists and Civil War tramps. Issues of class, race and representation arise; Thomson’s score grounds them in the languages of popular songs and simple hymns.

Primary among the participants—who in proper postmodern fashion include “Gertrude S.” and “Virgil T.”—stands Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), the great campaigner for women’s rights and suffrage. Her domestic partnership with companion Anne might represent the first lesbian portrayals in American opera, and her final (actually posthumous) speech is among the genre’s most glowing moments.

The Manhattan School of Music is mounting a new production under Dona D. Vaughn’s expert direction, with Steven Osgood conducting. Some of the students who created Mother in this very neighborhood in 1947, such as Dorothy Dow and William Horne, went on to substantive careers; one, Teresa Stich-Randall, became an international star. The MSM singers you’ll hear may well follow suit.—David Shengold

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