Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Grand Opera Brings Back the Most Epic Opera No One Has Ever Heard Of — Inside the Mystery and Wonder of The Wreckers

Dismissed In Her Time, Dame Ethel Smyth's Work Is Finally Finding the Light

BY // 10.29.22
photography Michael Bishop

When Houston Grand Opera’s Khori Dastoor and Patrick Summers revealed a bold new production of The Wreckers would open HGO’s 2022-2023 season, we wouldn’t blame the most learned opera aficionados if their first response was: The What? Dame Ethel Smyth’s 1906 The Wreckers is likely the most epic opera that opera lovers have never heard of. So much so that acclaimed director Louisa Muller herself had never listened to the score until Houston Grand Opera asked her to helm this new production. 

“I was blown away by it. I really thought: ‘How is it possible that I have not heard this opera or that it’s not being performed all the time,’ ” Muller tells PaperCity of the opera which is running through November 11th at Wortham Theater Center. “It absolutely belongs in the canon of work that we are doing.” 

The opera sings the story of an isolated, coastal village in Cornwall, England. Fearful of outsiders, the villagers pillage ships that wreck upon their rocky shores. As the local preacher Pascoe decrees they should keep the lighthouse darkened. His wife Thirza reckons with her own convictions and compassion. With strong women characters, complex themes and what Muller calls an “ambitious, grand” score, The Wreckers should have become a 20th century staple for opera houses across the world.

Yet circumstances have made it something of a forgotten masterpiece. 

Wreckers History

As a woman composer and activist for women’s suffrage, Smyth’s work was sometimes dismissed by critics of her time as either too masculine or too delicate. But The Wreckers itself had a rocky beginning. Working with Henry Brewster on the libretto, Smyth first wrote the opera in French for a production in France that didn’t happen and then Brewster translated it into German for its world premiere in Leipzig and then translated into English for a London performance.

About a decade later just when another big German production was ready to launch, World War I broke out. Since then there have only been the occasional revisits in Europe. Houston Grand Opera notes that this will be “first-ever full-scale production from a major American opera company” of The Wreckers.

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“I think it just sort of got put on the shelf,” Muller says. “And now there’s a real resurgence of interest in her music, which is exciting, as part of a broader shift of trying to diversify voices of compositions that are brought to stages.”

No stranger to HGO productions, Muller previously directed Madame Butterfly, as well as outdoor performances of Tosca and The Refuge for HGO. But her history with the company goes back even earlier to her first professional job out of grad school as a HGO stage management intern.

“They also gave me my first opportunity as an assistant director and have always been supportive and encouraging of me, so it’s amazing to come back to do a new production here, my own work here,” Muller says. “It feels like coming home.

“It sounds really cliched to say but it’s a family atmosphere.”

HGO’s The Wreckers (Photo by Michael Bishop)
Look for big choral scenes that add to the drama of The Wreckers. (Photo by Michael Bishop)

Since most audience members will likely never have seen or heard the pieces in The Wreckers, I asked Muller what we should look for and what draws her to work. She believes some of the opera’s brilliance comes from Smyth’s use of scale. 

Sweeping Drama & Intimate Stories

“The way the piece expands and contacts, so that you have these big choral scenes, and then they exit the stage and all of a sudden we have these intimate moments between two or three people,” Muller notes. “The whole piece has this expansion and contraction as we go along.”

Muller explains the choral sections in particular make for great vocal and visual drama as the HGO chorus becomes the voice of the villagers. 

“It’s an exciting piece because it’s such a feature for the chorus and the HGO chorus is so strong, committed and incredibly talented,” she says. 

Balancing that expansive world created by the chorus are the intimate stories of a marriage and individual beliefs and convictions in The Wreckers. 

“It was important to me to that we find the humanity of all the characters and we don’t have just villains and heroes,” Muller says. “That we understand on some level where everyone is coming from even when they’re making these life or death decisions.”

The uniqueness of this century old opera that very few 21st century performers have ever tackled made rehearsals all the more a time of discovery for the Muller and the artists playing those characters. 

“It’s so rare that you get in the room for anything other than a world premiere where every single person is doing the role for the first time or conducting it for the first time or direction it for the first time,” she says. “It’s a special energy and sense of purpose.”

And perhaps as a symbol of that delicate balance of epic and intimate, Muller says the setting calls for elemental opposing forces as well. 

“There will be fire. There will be water,” she says. Depicting both onstage made for some exciting problem solving collaborations with the production’s design team. 

When I asked how they solved those problems a century ago, Muller laughs. 

“I bet actually they cared less about safety, so in some ways they probably had more options,” she notes. “We’re very intent on not lighting anyone on fire.” 

Differing workplace safety philosophies aside, Muller says some of the issues and conflicts in The Wrecker are not so dissimilar from our own.

“The themes of this feel really timely, particularly the way the community becomes insular and what that does then to how they treat any perceived threat — be it from a so called outsider or from someone inside their community,” she says.

HGO’s The Wreckers (Photo by Michael Bishop)
“There will be water,” says director Louisa Muller of The Wreckers’ epic staging. (Photo by Michael Bishop)

Muller adds that this century old work has her pondering very contemporary questions “about those themes and how that group think can come about and how if we surround ourself with only like-minded people it can feel like we don’t know exactly where our moral center is.”

When I mentioned social media, Muller laughs an affirmation. 

“I think that sort of strange moment we’re in now where we have access to any information we could possibly want and yet we find ourselves more and more in silos of hearing only one thing that absolutely feels really relevant,” she notes. “In that way, in The Wreckers there’s a real hopeful story about how idealism can survive in that setting and how one person can devote themselves to making a difference even in the face of insurmountable odds.” 

Houston Grand Opera is staging its new production of The Wreckers through November 11. Performances are set for this Sunday, October 30th; next Saturday, November 5th; Wednesday, November 9th; and Friday, November 11th. Click here for more information.

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