Sunday 12 August 2018

Still relevant & still controversial: Alex Mills' Dear Marie Stopes at the Wellcome Collection

Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - Alexa Mason - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - Alexa Mason
Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alex Mills Dear Marie Stopes; Alexa Mason, Jess Dandy, Feargal Mostyn-Williams, Liam Byrne, Lucy Railton, Tom Oldham, dir: Nina Brazier; Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival at the Wellcome Collection Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 August 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Personal letters arising from the publication of Marie Stopes Married Love give rise to a thought-provoking and imaginative opera

The Reading Room at the Wellcome Collection is a wonderful 1930s interior, a galleried space with a striking staircase originally part of the Wellcome Trust's headquarters and now open to the public. This formed the setting for Alex Mills' opera Dear Marie Stopes with a libretto by Jennifer Thorp (with gender and sexology expert Dr Lesley Hall providing advice), based on the Marie Stopes Archive held by the Wellcome Collection. [You can read Alex Mills' article about the creation of the opera on this blog]. The opera was performed as part of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, directed by Nina Brazier the performance featured soprano Alexa Mason, contralto Jess Dandy, counter-tenor Feargal Mostyn-Williams, viola da gamba Liam Byrne, cello Lucy Railton and percussion Tom Oldam.

Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - Feargal Mostyn-Williams - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Feargal Mostyn-Williams
Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
The publication of Marie Stopes Married Love was ground-breaking, and the Marie Stopes archive contains countless letters written to Stopes as a result, some asking for advice and others thundering imprecations. Married Love was controversial because it advocated women having control of their own bodies, because it posited equality between the sexes, because it advocated birth control and because it was written by a woman. But Marie Stopes as a person is more complex, she was also in favour of using birth control to improve the quality of the human race, ideas which come perilously close to eugenics.

Jennifer Thorp's libretto managed to include all of these issues, raising some very thought-provoking questions as well as including some profoundly moving and sometimes heartbreaking testimony, from women who were desperate not to conceive/to conceive and seemed to have no idea about the function of their own bodies. And not just women, there were letters from men exclaiming over the revelations the book provided about male/female intimate relations. There was also Stopes own stillborn son, a traumatic period in her own life.

The opera had no strict narrative, though there was something of an emotional arc. Rather inventively, Nina Brazier's production took inspiration from the surroundings and we started with the three singers appearing as archivists, in stylish period 1930s dress (I loved Feargal Mostyn-Williams two-tone shoes!) carrying archive boxes. These 1930s archivists start reading the material and are moved, gradually it takes them over.

The opera is essentially an extended meditation on the subjects raised by the text, with Alex Mills providing a sequence of fascinating textures to illumine and elucidate. Using the cello and viola da gamba he created some truly evocative and inventive textures, the gamba's ability to play extended spread chords being particularly useful, whilst the percussion added necessary bite even in the quieter passages. The vocal lines followed the text and, sitting quite close to the singers, text was always audible. The music included both sung and spoken text, as well as recorded voices, thus providing a variety of textures, and Mills displayed a nice inventiveness in his use of three high voices. In his writing, you could sense a number of influences but I thought that that of Arvo Part came over strongly in many of the more thoughtful passages.

Fragments of text would be taken up by one singer and then echoed by others, so the work formed a series of sections on different subjects. The most moving was the sequence of letters from women desperate not to have another baby (one was in her late 30s and had had 12 pregnancies with nine surviving children), and the most disturbing was the letters from people who had an essential moral objection to Stopes work.

Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - Jess Dandy, Feargal Mostyn-Williams, Alexa Mason - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Alex Mills: Dear Marie Stopes - Jess Dandy, Feargal Mostyn-Williams, Alexa Mason - Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
The three singers all gave strong performances, and were seemingly unaffected by having the audience so close to them. They received superb instrumental support (partnership really) from the three instrumentlists, and the whole worked supremely well without a conductor.

This is Alex Mills' first opera, and in it he achieves a confident control of pacing, drama and texture, making what is essentially a quasi-site-specific work into something far more.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Politics, music and tonality: Keith Burstein and The Prometheus Revolution - interview
  • Small scale challenge: studio performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Fulham Opera (★★★½)  - opera review
  • Calen-O: songs from the North of Ireland from Carolyn Dobbin & Iain Burnside (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Prom 34: rare Barber & Copland in Juanjo Mena's leave-taking at the BBC Proms (★★★★) - concert review
  • Musical memoir: Tom Smail's Blue Electric at Tête à Tête  (★★★) - opera review
  • An uneasy mix: politics, spirituality and melody in Keith Burstein's new opera at Grimeborn  (★★★) - opera review
  • Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Piecing together the new opera Dear Marie Stopes  - guest post from composer Alex Mills
  • The classical saxophone: Huw Wiggin's Reflections (★★★★★) - CD review
  • New production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe Theatre - Theatre review
  • You can’t resist a splendid piece: Donizetti's Rita & Ravel's L'heure Espagnole at Grimeborn Festival - Opera review
  • Gripping psychodrama with a nod to Hitchcock: Barber's Vanessa at Glyndebourne (★★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Home

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