One Feisty Victorian Woman's Opera Revived : Deceptive Cadence A skilled mountain climber who knew Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Ethel Smyth was a big personality whose politically charged opera The Wreckers gets its first fully staged production in the U.S.
NPR logo

One Feisty Victorian Woman's Opera Revived

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
One Feisty Victorian Woman's Opera Revived

One Feisty Victorian Woman's Opera Revived

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now a composer who lived large. Ethel Smyth was not your typical Victorian woman. She defied her army general farther to pursue a career in music. She played an important role in the woman's suffrage movement in Britain. She also played golf. Along the way, she composed chamber and orchestral music, an acclaimed Mass and six operas. One of them, The Wreckers, is getting its first full U.S. staging tomorrow night. NPR's Tom Huizenga has more.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Ethyl Smyth's music was as dramatic as her life.


HUIZENGA: Today, Smyth and her music are largely forgotten. Leon Botstein is doing his best to correct that. He's head of Bard College in upstate New York where he'll be conducting the wreckers.

LEON BOTSTEIN: We are really in the reclamation business of neglected masterpieces, and this is certainly one of them. It's only helped by the fact that Ethel Smyth was a truly larger than life character and a woman.

HUIZENGA: A woman, especially, at the turn of the 20th century who was not supposed to do the things that Smyth did, like hunting, mountain climbing, falling in love with Virginia Woolf and, of course, composing. Yes, says Botstein, there were women composers back then, but the male music establishment had certain expectations.

BOTSTEIN: A woman composer might've been tolerated to write dance music or light songs or ethereal kinds of music that befit some kind of stereotype of the feminine.

HUIZENGA: But Ethel Smyth's music was considered muscular and manly.


BOTSTEIN: It's fearless, and maybe that's what they thought was masculine about it.

HUIZENGA: And maybe that's why Ethel Smyth, with all her in-your-face attitude, ran afoul of the group she called the Male Machine, says scholar Elizabeth Wood who's written extensively about the composer.

ELIZABETH WOOD: These were the men who were - ran the press, ran the royal college, the professors, the heads of institutions who really were misogynist, homophobic and enjoyed turning her into a figure of fun and ridicule.

HUIZENGA: Partly, they despised her politics. In 1910, Smyth took a detour from composing to activism.

WOOD: Ethel fell in love with Emmeline Pankhurst.

HUIZENGA: Mrs. Pankhurst, as she was always known, was the leader of the women's suffrage movement.

WOOD: And of course, in her typical fashion, she bullied her way into being very close to Mrs. Pankhurst, possibly lovers.

HUIZENGA: And when Pankhurst called on suffragettes to smash the windows of politicians opposed to voting rights for women, Smyth was there, as she told the BBC in 1937.


ETHEL SMYTH: At exactly 5:30 one memorable evening in 1912, relays of women produced hammers from their muffs and handbags and proceeded, methodically, to smash up windows in all the big London thoroughfares. Nearly 200 women were arrested that evening.

HUIZENGA: Among the women were Smyth and Pankhurst, Elizabeth Wood says.

WOOD: The two were imprisoned together, and their famous story, of course, comes from that, of Ethel conducting the prisoners in the yard below her with her toothbrush as they sang and marched to her famous song, "March Of The Women."


UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Shout. Shout - up with your song. Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking. March. March - swing you along.

HUIZENGA: This song, written by Smyth in 1911, became an anthem for the suffrage movement. Her passion for activism and politics, Leon Botstein says, also found its way into the plot of her opera "The Wreckers."

BOTSTEIN: She draws a sword on behalf of a variety of very hot political issues. So the other thing about this opera which appealed to me, especially today, is the whole question of justice, the state and religion.

HUIZENGA: The story concerns an isolated coastal community which lures passing ships to crash on the rocks so villagers can plunder the goods and murder the crew, all in the name of God. At the end, a pair of elicit lovers tries to stop the gruesome practice and is condemned to death.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

HUIZENGA: Conductor Leon Botstein is devoted to "The Wreckers," both its music and its message. He led a concert version of the opera in 2007 and says "The Wreckers" asks questions that are timely today.

BOTSTEIN: How would you behave faced with a society in which injustice was being regularly trafficked? Would you stand up for your beliefs? Would you risk your life for things that you believed were ethically right?

HUIZENGA: Ethel Smyth did all those things and more. She was made a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the arts, and after hearing began to go, she turned to writing, producing 10 books about her extraordinary life and times. Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.