Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us All / The Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater


Virgil Thomson was a great force behind American music in the 20th Century. Not only was he a great composer, but an outspoken and intelligent voice for music. The Mother of Us All was the second opera he composed. The first, Four Saints in Three Acts, used an all Afro-American cast. The libretto was written by his long time friend, Gertrude Stein. In 1945 Thomson received a commission from the Ditson Fund to compose an opera to be presented at Columbia University. This was The Mother of Us All and again he chose Stein to write the libretto. The opera premiered in 1947, to favorable reviews. Though the opera has hardly been performed by major companies, it has always been admired.

It is a very fine work indeed. It surrounds itself around the life of the great suffragette Susan B. Anthony. There are 26 singers in the opera, most of them being historic figures, including Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, John Adams, and Ulysses S. Grant. Other singers represent what may be termed the common folk from Indiana Elliot to Chris the Citizen. There are even two narrators who only speak to the audience called Virgil T. and Gertrude S. The work is an interesting musical fusion that well may have come out of Middle America with a crosscurrent of various European influences.

This performance was recorded live in 2013. Steven Osgood conducts with the flair that one would hope for, in a work like this. I find him more refreshing than the previous recording conducted by Raymond Leppard. The singers, most of them widely unknown, are more than up to their roles. Very impressive is Noragh Devlin , a young mezzo who is in full control of her role as Susan B. Her voice is in top form. Other singers including Scott Russell, Alexander Frankel, and Addison Hamilton give breath and life to this unique production.

The recording has been filled out with a suite of music from the opera that Thomson compiled in 1949. Overall, I find this production to be an excellent interpretation of what is an amazing work. The recording, which is on the Albany label, is alive in sound and spacious to the ear. This is a welcome addition to the catalog for American opera enthusiasts and music lovers everywhere.

Virgil Thomson: "I Do Not Know" from "The Mother of Us All" / Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater