Opera by British suffragist composer Dame Ethel Smyth in West Coast premiere
Photo by Molly Noori

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ever since Opera Pacific, based at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, closed operations in 2008 for lack of sufficient financial backing, the county nestled between Los Angeles to the north and San Diego to the south had been without an opera company. I miss that company a lot—and was thrilled in 1996 when it programmed my guy Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina. On their future docket, before they shut their doors, was Ricky Ian Gordon’s (no relation) opera The Grapes of Wrath, to which I had already purchased tickets. I did finally catch a performance of it in St. Louis in 2017. That opera has still not been staged in Southern California, and it is long overdue, especially as it has a California theme (I’m looking at you, Los Angeles Opera).

Over the last half dozen years, Lyric Opera of Orange County has emerged with the claim of being the only opera company in the county. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing several of its productions, almost always of unusual works not to be found on every opera company’s roster. Most recently was Jack Heggie’s Holocaust opera Two Remain last November, which I am told by the company was the production’s only review! Which says something about People’s World, which has covered Dame Ethel Smyth before, or the need for improvement on the company’s press outreach, or the increasing paucity of news outlets—or all three!

I was excited to see the company’s announcement of a work I had no familiarity with, Dame Ethel Smyth’s te Galante (seen at the Chance Theater in Anaheim on March 9 in a short run of three performances). I thought I knew French well enough to understand fête galante to mean a gallant, or chivalrous festival or party, but didn’t realize it has instead a very specific meaning—a gathering of artfully dressed people, often in a forested setting, who stage an elegantly amorous play. And that’s just what te Galante turned out to be.

I actually have sung music composed by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944)—years ago when the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus included her 1911 theme song of the UK suffragist movement, “The March of the Women,” in a concert, so learning more about her now was indeed a pleasure.

Photo by Molly Noori

LOOC’s production was the West Coast premiere of the work, on the opera’s centennial—it was completed in 1922 and premiered in 1924. It featured a live 11-piece orchestra, in a reduced reorchestration by Valerie Langfield, a UK-based musicologist championing Smyth’s work.

te Galante was announced as a one-act opera, but in performance there was in fact an intermission.  Successfully interpolated into the action were three songs in Smyth’s cycle for mezzo-soprano as commentary to enhance the story. The three songs are “The Clown,” “Possession,” and “On the Road,” the latter a militant anthem very much in the vein of “The March of the Women.” These are performed by the Woman in Pants (Emily Border), a character Diana Farrell, LOOC’s artistic director and director of this production, added to the dramatic personae.

te Galante, based on Maurice Baring’s 1909 short story of the same name, is a dream-like tale of aristocrats and a commedia dell’arte troupe whose jealousy, desire, and multi-layered masquerades end in the death of one of the characters. This opera was the fifth of Smyth’s six operas. Much can be gleaned about the composer from the website dedicated to her life and work.

Aside from her substantial catalogue of compositions, Smyth’s colorful life led her to a short stint in prison with other suffrage demonstrators; she was released early due to a medical assessment that found her “mentally unstable and hysterical.” After many years of mixed reviews by audiences and critics alike, of sounding “too masculine for a woman composer,” she finally came to be celebrated after she turned 70, by which time she had completely lost her hearing.

The Woman in Pants character amidst the commedia troupe was Farrell’s idea that she serve as a sort of Greek Chorus. Historically, the Woman in Pants would typically arrive before a traveling group of players to announce the coming show, interact with the community and excite a crowd. A large theme of the show is seeing how the actors assume their archetypal characters, yet also stray from type as the real people in a drama. One thinks of Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci for a suitable comparison. Says Doris Lang Kosloff, the conductor, “This opera is the most incisive look into the commedia characters ever written!”

Cognizant of the origins of commedia dell’arte theater in the 1500s, Smyth uses baroque styles to depict the regal behavior of high society and turns to lush romantic lines when the characters are able to steal private unfiltered moments. The standard commedia characters are the flirtatious Columbine (Julia Behbudov), sad Pierrot, often the victim of pranks (Christopher Walters), and wily Harlequin (Alexis Alfaro), a trio strategically conceived to instigate imbroglios of jealousy and revenge. Jessica Mamey plays the Queen, and Adrian Melendrez plays the King. The rest of the cast, “puppets” and chorus, are Mary Frances Conover, Leeza Yorke, Hart Chen, Andy Dana, Gem Stacy, Even Johnson, Jaime Rez, and Gabriel Cazaras.

A simply rendered stage set indicates a sylvan scene, with trees, flowers and rocks indicated by hanging ropes, among them, ominously, more than one noose.

The aristocrat in classical drama often shows power, lordship, authority, and is called upon, when challenged, to show mercy. In te Galante the characters engage in lusty courtship, and occasionally the commedia and the royal entourage intersect with their social superiors and inferiors. The King is seen almost debaucherously petted by a bevy of women, and the Queen, sporting a rather sour mood, is courted by Harlequin, but without his usual diamond-checkered outfit. In fact, dressed in white, he quite resembles Pierrot.

When the King gets wind that Pierrot has been making advances to the Queen, the clown is self-effacing and honorable enough not to accuse Harlequin instead. Already seen as a melancholy character, Pierrot may choose to take advantage of this opportunity to end his life, for the King has promised forgiveness if he is at least told the truth, but Pierrot refuses to comply: “Clowning is a grim and dangerous trade,” he remarks. Thus one of the nooses is deployed into action, in a gesture underlining royal cruelty and plebeian submission to fate. Smyth may have insinuated a moral anti-royalist message into the work, perhaps in subtle reference to the ever-recurring cycles of sexual scandals and transgression in the British royal family.

One drawback in this production was an unfortunate mismatch between intention and realization: Dutifully, even in this small theater, LOOC projected the sung text in both English and Spanish, but the English did not conform to the sung words. I got the feeling the projected text was a translation back into English from Spanish, or some such glitch. It created distraction in the listener as the sung and projected words did not agree, and as we know, sung words, with a whole orchestra playing, are not always easy to discern.

Still, a most worthy effort that enjoyably revived interest in one of our radical musical forebears.

Coming up at LOOC is the Engelbert Humperdinck fairytale opera Hansel & Gretel in a 90-minute version sung in Spanglish at the Yost Theatre in downtown Santa Ana, for which free tickets are available while supplies last. There are four performances, May 11 and 12, with 3:00 and 6:30 p.m. shows. More info on LOOC’s website or by scanning the QR code below.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.