Oct. 24, 2022

Why The Wreckers?

HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers answers your questions about this rare grand opera.

These rehearsal weeks of The Wreckers have been particularly thrilling for all of us. To shepherd the cast through an opera they’ve never done is always gratifying because there is so much discovery and no “this is the way I’ve always done it.” It has been wonderful to work with director Louisa Muller, as I so admire her rare gift for staging large choruses and theatrically clarifying an epic plot.

In addition, there was the operatic saga of our enormous scenery, beautifully designed by Christopher Oram, as it made its way by ship from Wales to Houston amidst two major hurricanes and the death of Queen Elizabeth II, all of which affected its progress to us. Not all operatic drama is on stage!

The Wreckers holds a lot of interest to opera lovers, but also a lot of questions, so I thought I’d answer a few.


Why is it called “The Wreckers”?

The characters in this opera intentionally wreck ships in order to steal what is on board for their survival.


“I’ve never heard of The Wreckers; why should I see it?

 Very few opera lovers anywhere have seen The Wreckers because it is one of those operas that has rarely had an opportunity to be heard. The Wreckers has a sweeping lyrical score, a grand romantic love triangle,

biting allegory, and theatrical thrill. A lot about it feels familiar, yet it is completely new—that is a rarity in itself. It is one of the largest productions we’ve ever done. The orchestration manifests the sea throughout this opera in very beautiful ways. 


How do you pronounce Dame Ethel Smyth’s last name?

Smyth rhymes with writhe.


Of all of the rare operas in history, why did you decide to program The Wreckers?

A fair question, because the list of rare but great operas is quite a lengthy one. Some real masterpieces that deserve productions: Martinu’s The Greek Passion, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Enescu’s Oedipe, Sorozábal’s La taberna del Puerto, and Strauss’s Daphne, to name only five that are not yet a century old. I have a long list!

HGO General Director and CEO Khori Dastoor brought up The Wreckers to me in some of our first meetings upon her appointment, so just over a year ago. We saw a rare post-pandemic possibility of a production of it this season, a very short timeline for a new production, and I was thrilled with her idea. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to conduct such a rarity that I love so much.


Did you know The Wreckers?

 Yes. I first heard about it 25 years ago through my life-long conducting mentor, Sir Charles Mackerras, who himself had a long fascination with Ethel Smyth. He was planning to record The Wreckers at various points in the 1990s and early 2000s, and he showed me many materials that he had collected relating to it. It was one of his cherished projects left undone when he died in 2010. He wasn’t quite old enough to have known Smyth, but as a young man he knew many people who knew her, and he wanted to champion her music.


How did Ethel Smyth come to write The Wreckers?

She and her partner Henry Brewster, who would eventually write the libretto of The Wreckers, heard folklore about the wrecking of ships while on a holiday in Cornwall, which is the farthest southwest you can go in England, and which has a famously rugged and remote coastline. Tales of the intentional wrecking of ships have been part of Cornish history for centuries. Brewster invented the characters and story.


How has the work been for the HGO Orchestra and Chorus?

 Revelatory in the most important ways; frustrating on one practical level. The only available musical materials of The Wreckers are poorly-printed and unbelievably riddled with printing errors. The orchestral parts are hand-written and thus difficult to read. There is misogyny at work here: copyists of Smyth’s era simply did not take her meticulous writings seriously, and they printed them sloppily. So, getting to a performable printed text in which all scores agreed was a Sisyphean task for HGO’s librarian, Joshua Luty, with not nearly enough time to achieve it.

But beyond those practical concerns, the work has been extremely gratifying, because so many colleagues are saying, “why haven’t I ever heard of this opera?” and “why isn’t this music better-known?”

It is a very satisfying opera to conduct, Wagnerian in scope, with some clear musical nods to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, while also feeling very English indeed. The score is epic and thrilling, with enormous sweep.

Isn’t it true that if an opera isn’t famous, there is usually a reason?

Of course, there is always a reason, but only rarely is it qualitative. More often, a work’s reputation is a remnant of the circumstance of an opera’s first performances, or the meta-trends of history. In the case of The Wreckers, a considerable amount of misogyny affected its initial reception, as it was an era when it was widely-thought impossible for a woman to write an opera. Remember that even Giacomo Puccini, so famous now for his operas La bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca, was considerably criticized in his lifetime for writing operas that appealed to women—so imagine what a brilliant woman like Smyth had to contend with in writing one.

Because of the fame of 19th-Century female novelists like the Brontës, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Louisa May Alcott, we forget what an anomaly they were, and what they went through to write. Indeed, perhaps the finest of them all, Mary Anne Evans, wrote her famous novels under the pen name of George Eliot in order to have her work taken seriously.


When and where did Dame Ethel Smyth live?

She was born in Southeast London, in Sidcup, on April 22, 1858, and died in Woking, in the county of Surrey, on May 8, 1944.


Why is there so little opera in English until the 20th Century?

Operatic trends are slow. Opera as we know it began as a remnant of empire, the Venetian and the Florentine, in about 1600, so its early years were almost entirely Italian, and the beginnings of an art linger. It was not until Mozart, in the late 18th Century, that German opera really took hold, and French Grand Opera reached its apogee only in the late 19th Century.

German poet Heinrich Heine, writing in 1840, expressed an opinion that was common for the time:              

 “…there is truly nothing so terrible as English musical composition, except English painting.”

Considering that the painter J.M.W. Turner was still living and active at the time, Heine’s remark seems particularly churlish. But half a century later, in that magical first decade of the 20th Century before war consumed the planet, English music entered a brief golden age, the years in which Ethel Smyth was most active.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was the most major musical figure of the time. Elgar wrote the feeling of the Victorian and Edwardian age: his Pomp and Circumstance marches, played at countless graduations around the world, still conjure an essential Britishness, and his Enigma Variations, with its ravishingly reflective “Nimrod” movement, is the music to which orchestras turn when remembrance is required.

For example, on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death this past September, the Philadelphia Orchestra, on tour in London, canceled their Royal Albert Hall concert that evening, but did play the national anthem of Britain, the lovely “God Save the Queen” followed by Elgar’s brief Nimrod.

Joining Elgar in this early 20th Century flowering of English music was Frederick Delius, who wrote wonderful operas, including his gorgeous A Village Romeo and Juliet, also deserving of a modern renaissance! Delius wrote very sweet and well-loved music, some of which was composed during his two years in the United States, where he managed an orange plantation in Florida.

There were other famous English composers at the time who are largely forgotten now, except by musicians: Frank Bridge, George Butterworth, Henry Bishop, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Gustav Holst, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose grand symphonies, including his glorious Sea Symphony, still make brief appearances on British concert stages, if rarely elsewhere.

Standing alone in that decade was the singular figure of Dame Ethel Smyth, the composer of The Wreckers, a woman immersed in what was then solely a man’s profession.


What is Smyth’s most famous composition?

Her 1911 March of the Women was the anthem of the woman’s suffrage movement, and was sung all over the English-speaking world, so it is likely Smyth’s most famous composition. A century ago, almost everyone in the United States knew this song.


Who was in Ethel Smyth’s circle?

Besides her British circle, which was wide and inclusive of all of the names above, Smyth personally knew Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Brahms, and Clara Schumann. One of her closest friends was Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan. She was bisexual in an era when not only was that not talked about, but it also generally wasn’t thought to even exist. Two of the great loves of Smyth’s life were the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and the legendary novelist Virginia Woolf, who is herself at the center of the newest opera in the world, Kevin Puts’s operatic version of Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, shortly to open at the Metropolitan Opera.

Smyth was a major writer of words as well as music, and her memoirs are a fabulous read. She wrote ten books in all besides her six operas. The bulk of her musical repertoire was chamber music and songs with piano, because there was acceptance of a woman writing smaller-scale music, and an almost total cultural rejection at the time of a woman writing “grand” works.

The one male love of her life was the aforementioned librettist of The Wreckers, Henry Bennet Brewster, who was the more famous of the pair while they were alive. In history’s inevitable twist of fate, he is now known solely as the partner of Ethel Smyth.

Is HGO giving the U.S. premiere of The Wreckers?

The U.S. premiere of The Wreckers was at Bard College in 2015, while our new production this season at HGO is the opera’s first production by a major company.


I’m used to grand opera being in Italian, French, or German. What is grand opera like in English?

George Bernard Shaw is credited with the quip of England and America being “two nations divided by a common language,” though the sentiment is probably far older than Shaw. As an operatic singer can tell you: singing in English is incredibly difficult, and if you’ve ever heard an opera in English, you’d probably agree.

The Wreckers had a complicated road to its Leipzig premiere in 1906 in German, after being composed initially in French because English was then thought the language only of light operetta. The eccentric Smyth, often smoking a cigar, would pitch her opera to various impresarios, always hitting a wall of misogyny and complex reactions to the language of the opera: if she said it could be done in French or German, she would be told that women could not do such things. If she then said, “we can also do it in English,” she would be told that grand operas were not in English. There was no winning in her era.

We are performing The Wreckers in Amanda Holden’s recent translation. The polymath Holden, an amazing pianist, librettist, and translator, manages to capture the old English world of Cornwall without the old thee/thou/I trow mannerisms of most Victorian or Edwardian plays and operas. We wrote to Amanda for permission just over a year ago, in early September of 2021, which she happily gave us via email. The very next day we read in the paper that she had died unexpectedly at only 73, so working on this translation during this past year has also served as a nice memorial to a great professional.

The Brown Theater is a large room, and we perform unamplified, so you will not understand every word. This is a politely irritating thing that supertitles have done to opera: people now think they are supposed to understand every word, but in almost no classic opera is that the case. Many texts are repeated, and words sometimes sit on the music and are elongated—that is part of the lyrical expanse of great opera. Check in sometimes with the titles, but don’t be glued to them—nobody comes to the opera to read! Listen more than you read.


What, really, is the subject of The Wreckers?

Every great opera has many subjects, one on the surface, the plot and the “events” of the opera, and several underneath, at the level of allegory and historical legacy. The Wreckers is about a religious community in Cornwall living in terrible poverty, and they wreck ships on their coast to keep their communities alive. Two people in the community recognize the immorality of what has long been accepted as “right.”

At a more cellular level, The Wreckers is an allegory of hypocrisy and how mob mentality can make individuals do terrible things. Fire and water also play symbolic roles in the plot, connecting the work to the most elemental of earth’s forces.

The relevance of The Wreckers to an audience in 2022 is that it could still be taking place anywhere in the world, and it shows us that hypocrisy is nothing new. When we connect emotionally to characters written long before any of us were alive, there can be a deep connection to the human community, and there is always something spiritually powerful in that feeling of “we are the same.”

about the author
Patrick Summers
Patrick Summers is the Artistic and Music Director, Sarah and Ernest Butler Chair, at Houston Grand Opera.