A woman aspiring to be president is certainly a timely topic for operatic treatment, though Victoria Bond composed Mrs. President in 2000. The title character, Victoria Woodhull, was in 1872, the first woman to launch a bid for the U.S. Presidency. Many parallels exist with the current situation; thus the composer organized a revival in the National Opera Center in New York City tomorrow, from whence it will also be streamed live here.
Bond invited me to preview the show during a rehearsal last night in her elegant Greenwich Village apartment. The performance will be with piano (the brilliant Daniela Candillari), but there will be some staging. Fortunately, four of the five singers were in a 2012 performance (with orchestra and partial staging) which took place at Anchorage Opera (Alaska).
In the rehearsal, the singers were fully inhabiting their roles with great dramatic energy.
I asked Bond how the idea for the opera came about.
“My mother was the instigator for that, she stayed in an old inn one night, that had a sign up that Victoria Woodhull had stayed there. She was very intrigued by her, and told me it would be a good subject for an opera.”
“Then I was looking for a librettist, and my friend the playwright Marcia Norman put me in touch with the writer Hillary Bell. It turned out Bell already knew about Woodhull, and thought it was a great idea. So that made a good partnership.” New York City Opera gave some scenes in 2001, and the 2012 performance had an orchestra and some staging, but there has never been a full performance.
Tomorrow’s performance will present key scenes, with narration (provided by Naomi Lewin of WQXR) in between, moving the story forward.
When she launched her presidential bid, Woodhull was at the peak of her power as a newspaper publisher. Yet, her publishing also was the trap that brought her down. She attempted to expose the hypocrisy of Henry Ward Beecher, the powerful minster who was Woodhull’s enemy, by writing about his adultery with his followers. Instead, she was jailed for publishing obscene material in her newspaper, and Beecher used the incident to seal his condemnation of Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan.”
Some vivid parallels to the present are apparent: Woodhull is fueled by her empathy for women who independence was limited by marriage, at the time, a controlling institution. But in seeking to challenge such shackles, Woodhull was vilified for attacking “The Family.”
The opera reveals Beecher as an insecure celebrity—a hypocrite aggressively condemning behavior in others that he himself engages in habitually.
The scene where they first meet, “Predators,” reveals the potent chemistry of the two. Beecher arrives at the request of his sister who he intends to pull away from Woodhull’s orbit: “Where is she, the she-devil who made you her slave?”
He is at first hostile to Woodhull, confronting her for the hints her paper has dropped regarding his behavior:
“I will not be seduced by you… you have slandered me …. I want nothing from you but what you took from me, my honor — Dragging me through the filth of your hideous mind!”
When she reveals that she knows the details about his philandering, and has the story ready to print, he is shocked and his hostility melts. The scene, charged with volatile feelings, is nothing less than electric. Valerie Bernhardt (soprano) as Woodhull) and Scott Ramsay (tenor) bring vocal and dramatic power to the fore as sparks fly. Bond’s musical language aptly gives the shape and sense of the words their full emotional resonance. Woodhull gets control of the situation and laughs at Beecher’s anger, and twists him to her advantage (“Just like the third debate,” Ramsay quipped). Bernhardt conveyed Woodhull’s charisma with white-hot radiance. Once he feels vulnerable, she points to their common ground as people of passion. The music here gave a lush warmth, and, pausing for some rehearsal discussion, the singers debated the practicalities of peeling off at least an item or two of clothing, before their characters dissolve in a smoldering embrace (OK, not like the third debate).
As Joseph Treat, a past Woodhull follower, Scott Joiner (Baritone) gives a fiery declaration of Woodhull’s “pernicious” danger, which he pens as a letter to the New York Times.
This leads to Woodhull’s speech to a vast audience, where she announces her candidacy. “I’m told I’m a citizen,” she begins, with a hushed indignation. “Women give so much—we pay taxes, we supply you with citizens, we give them up for war.” Fragments of the Star-Spangled Banner emerge in background as the music builds to her declaration: “Fear not, I don’t want anarchy—I want a world where all are free.” But then Treat begins to heckle her from the audience, turning her dedication to freedom into a condemnation of her perceived loose morals. Beecher also turns on her and the crowd is fired up into an angry mob with shouts of “Mrs. Satan for President!” “Lock her up!” and “Nasty Woman!”
The final scene shows Woodhull in prison on election day, despondent. Yet she rallies with the thought that her action is the start of a larger movement. “It’s not over—they may crush me—but from my ashes a hundred more will arise.” Bond builds the scene with notable power, the ascending cries of “Arise” being echoed by the chorus, repeated in a stretto-like tolling, growing into a fervent and optimistic conclusion.
Bond’s richly diatonic musical language always serves the words and emotions. Some passages are structured with chromatic motion, shaping the shifting emotional sands, other times sensual floating whole-tones are employed, but the language and larger meaning are always clearly linked to the musical content.
In a historical moment when women’s struggle for rights and equality continues to be played out, this opera directs a powerful look at an earlier chapter and its meaningful resonances.
The composer also conducts (with grace and precision), and the other singers are Katrina Thurman (soprano) as the sincere Isabella Beecher, and Jonathan Hare (baritone) as Col. James Blood, Mrs. Woodhull’s long-suffering husband. In an adept and artistically poised cast, Hare was dropped in at the last minute due to illness of the scheduled singer. But he was a remarkably quick study in rehearsal and his vocal warmth will serve well in what promises to be a memorable evening.
Tickets are $20 at the door.
National Opera Center
330 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001