The Wreckers tells the story of an isolated, insular community fighting for survival and relying on a convoluted moral relativism to justify their extreme actions as God’s will. The piece explores how the combination of hardship, mob mentality, and religious fanaticism can turn a group inward and shift its moral center. Inside this larger narrative is an intimate story of passion, heartbreak, and hope. Our protagonists, Thirza and Mark, are driven by their own idealism and their love for one another to take enormous risks. To do what is right, they must betray their community. To do what is honorable, they must sacrifice themselves.
Artists have long been drawn to Cornwall because of its extraordinary light and atmosphere. Ethel Smyth’s inspiration in writing The Wreckers was a trip through Cornwall in 1886, and we have been similarly inspired by the rugged beauty and harsh realities of the place itself, which in many ways has barely changed since she was there. In Cornwall, an essentially inhospitable landscape where the weather shifts frequently and unpredictably, the balance between humans and nature seems precarious even today. Because of its isolation and lack of industry, it remains England’s poorest county, and although the county voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union, Brexit has only exacerbated the poverty there. With designers Christopher Oram and Marcus Doshi, I have set out to visually and dramatically capture both the beauty and the brutality of the story and its setting, as Smyth has done musically.
Together with librettist Henry Brewster, her long-time friend, lover, and collaborator whom she described as “the fundamental friendship of my life,” Smyth has written an innately feminist opera featuring two strong, defiant, three-dimensional female characters. Neither Thirza nor Avis falls neatly into any category, and each in her own way is reminiscent of Smyth herself, who was a larger-than-life force of nature: uncompromising, driven, unconcerned with likability, and intent on building a life on her own terms.
Smyth went to enormous lengths to have her work heard and performed. Through grit, talent, and some very powerful friends, she achieved a great deal of success, but her music was never recorded during her lifetime and never fully found its place in the canon. The mere fact of her gender (it’s difficult to find a contemporaneous review of her work that doesn’t focus on either the “femininity” or lack thereof in her music) worked against her, as did the lack of infrastructure and tradition in Britain for homegrown composers to make their mark with large-scale works, and the timing of World War I meant that she was cut off from many of her advocates in Europe just when her reach should have been expanding.
Reflecting on Smyth’s legacy in 1931, Virginia Woolf said, “She is of the race of pioneers: she is among the ice-breakers, the window-smashers, the indomitable and irresistible armoured tanks who climbed the rough ground; went first; drew the enemy’s fire.” Every one of my opportunities and privileges as a woman in my field is a direct result of the work of those window-smashers, and with this production it is my great honor to be part of the overdue resurgence of interest in Smyth’s compositions and to bring her masterpiece to this stage and this audience. ∎