Born to a prominent and well connected upper-middle-class family, Rose Standish Nichols (1872–1960) could do as she pleased: design and write about gardens, and agitate for peace and work for women’s suffrage. She inveigled Woodrow Wilson on such subjects as neutrality in WWI and the League of Nations afterwards. She thrived in discussion groups. At her death she left the public her house at the top of Mt. Vernon Street. Still thriving as a museum, the Nichols House is an important Beacon Hill destination on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
That her mild diary pages could one day become the stuff of opera would probably have astonished Rose. But it so happened that the prolific composer Beth Wieman found something compelling enough about Rose’s life and words to inspire her to write I Give You a Home, a monodrama for soprano, saxophone, percussion and prerecorded sound on behalf of Guerilla Opera and Nichols House Museum which premiered this weekend.3 Wieman explains:
Despite being hemmed in by expectations coming from living during a very specific historical period, she went after things with great passion and intent – which made writing music for her a lot of fun. She was someone that wanted to experience the whole world, while also having the chance to have her own spotlight in her home, her family, and in her weekly salons. She was a big character, with staying power.
On Sunday we saw what Guerilla’s Artistic Director and lead soprano Ariana de la Guardia1 and stage director Cara Consilvio conceived as a “site-specific” show within the rooms of Rose’s house. After having workshopped it around the area, Guerilla Opera has also produced a film of “I Give You My Home” as well as a studio album.
The monodrama (or do we call it and song tricycle?) mostly unfolded before a seated audience of 20 in a second-floor parlor, though we detoured briefly to a room across the hall where the silent Alexa Cadete impersonated Rose’s mother in a tableaux mort (until she sipped a cup of tea). De la Guardia meandered around the main space in a hostess’s white pants suit (rather than the Edwardian blouse and skirt in which she is pictured in the promotional materials), pointing out sculptures from Uncle Gus (Augustus St. Gaudens), reading letters, sitting at her desk, and at one point pinning me with an intense stare from about four feet away. Guerilla Opera deservedly takes pride in the intensity of its success in breaking through the fourth wall, but in this case, I yearned for a bit of distancing. An opera singer can be earsplitting up close. I tried not to break the stare, though.
Boston’s poet of the sax Philipp Stäudlin intoned what struck me as Greek chorus commentary in sumptuous arcs of lyric sway, while percussionist Mike Williams punctuated with drums, blocks and vibes; sound designer Jeffrey Means broadcast occasional innocuous echoes. Wieman tasked de la Guardia with fitting her flowing, text-determined vocal lines into a bitonal diatonic close mix, which at times sounded 12-tone, though it was not, Wieman explained to me afterwards. Sometimes the singer found herself only a semi-tone removed from the sax or vibe, yet she managed to keep her tonal bearings amazingly with great ears and pipes.
The libretto, hardly the stuff of literary romance or grand opera, conveyed Rose’s cossetted but independent life, touching on her successes and insecurities. Wieman found enough variety in this stuff to summon some musical drama. We heard regrets: “Mother doesn’t want me to come home.” Rose mused of the need for rigid rectangles in garden design, and complained when Woodrow Wilson couldn’t get her a seat at the Hague for a peace conference. Once she sensed that she was too old, Rose abandoned the political fray and returned to her “unimportant” house.
Certain moments stuck with me, such as the mutual music embrace of the intertwining vocal and sax lines (Here, I bet Wieman’s background as a clarinetist really told). In a section ruing the disasters of WWI, a muffled drumbeat summoned a remembered Civil War poem2.
I expect that the filmed version of I Give You My Home will succeed as a music video. The Nichols House, interesting as it was, trapped us. The movie will allow us to take in more of Rose’s life, to hear the music from a safer distance, and once again to relish de la Guardia’s uncanny ability to inhabit characters.
1Aliana de la Guardia is a multifaceted Cuban-American artist and entrepreneur. She is an ensemble member, co-founder and Artistic Director of Guerilla Opera, with which she has produced and performed in many new operas, oversees a virtual performance series, professional development programs for artists, and community outreach.
2 “Bivouac of the Dead” by Theodore O’Hara
The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On Fame’s eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.
3This world premiere opera paints a portrait of Rose, a real- life professional Bostonian woman, and highlights her efforts to affect change through activism in the Women’s Peace Movement, Women’s Suffrage, and in her professional work as a landscape architect. The opera takes place inside the home where she lived most of her life, the present-day Nichols House Museum.
Scene 1: Rose welcomes guests to her Sunday “salon,” makes a special “announcement,” and describes the house and the art in it for new guests.
Scene 2: Rose recalls her childhood education in New England and Paris and how formative those experiences were.
Scene 3: Rose reflects on her artistic journey. Inspired by her “Uncle Gus” (Augustus Saint- Gaudens), she explores the artistic outlets that lead her to garden and landscape design.
Scene 4: Rose muses on the importance of order and how designing a garden is like designing a life.
Scene 5: Rose recalls her years in peace and suffrage activism, and women’s roles in the war.
Scene 6: Rose makes her announcement to the guests: she will make her house a museum that is open to people always.