Opera 5 brings the Suffragette to the present on the Toronto stage
It seems almost impertinent that an opera written just over a century ago would resonate so much to the present moment. This double-bill production — Opera 5’s Suffragette, now showing at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace — presents two works written by British composer and suffrage movement member Dame Ethel Smyth, to celebrate one of the (nasty) women who paved the way for a more equal and just society today.
The production features two works: Fête Galante and The Boatswain’s Mate. Vastly differing in genre, narrative, style, and tone, Fête Galante is a tragicomedy that centers around two intertwining love triangles while The Boatswain’s Mate leans more into comedy as a farcical rendering of the battle of the sexes.
It was hard to gauge at first why the two were performed in the same program as I clutched the booklet on my lap for the first half of the production –- a booklet that featured the image of a 19th century suffragette with spray-painted graffiti style font that read “Join the March,” “Votes 4 Women,” and even “#05NASTYWOMAN.” Perhaps I had half-expected an opera about women marching on the streets of England at the turn of the century, a protest, and an overture of radical and militant tenor.
There are no Victorian long skirts in this production, only bright pink dresses, leather jackets, and faded blue jeans that is reminiscent of the 1970s and the 1980s. There’s no march either, but there is an overture of Smyth’s “The March Of Women” and “pussy” hats that paraded the stage just after the intermission — a quiet, but powerful homage to today’s gender and sexual equality movement.
How, then, does a feminist opera from the 19th century look on today’s stage?
For Opera 5’s Suffragette, it’s in the intimacies of two lovers and the choice of women to love whomever she chooses in Fête Galante. It’s in the punchline of The Boatswain’s Mate about what happens to men who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It’s in bar owner Mrs. Waters’ (Alexandra Smither) pink nightgown, her hair tied up with a white kerchief, waving a baseball around as she threatens a would-be burglar (Jeremy Ludwig) in her bar. It is captured in how both Fête Galante and The Boatswain’s Mate centers on female characters in all their sorrows, grief, nastiness, and joy.
Finally, it is also in Opera 5’s decision to have a complete female-led production team made up of Jessica Derventzis (Director), Erin Gerofsky (Production Design), Jennifer Lennon (Lighting Designer), Brittney Wernicke (Stage Manager and Choreographer), and Madison Angus (Assistant Director and Assistant Stage Manager).
While I wasn’t sure how I felt about the style and design choices in adapting both operas, somewhere between the 1970s and the 1980s, it became clear to me that the stories’ adaptability is a testimony to the timeless nature of Smyth’s narrative. It also seemed fitting that the style and design choice would echo a period that was known for its cultural, social, and political shifts. Only the extravagance of the 1970s can hold and sustain the lavish makeup of a garden party hosted by rock n’ roll royalty. And only the underground punk fashion that calls to England in the early 1980s can capture the ethos of rowdy pub-crawlers and a rough-and-tough bar called “The Outlaw.”
Whether it was written over a century ago, set 50 years ago, or presented today, Suffragette continues to provoke and resonate today because of the vital relationship between art and politics in our everyday lives.
- Suffragette plays until June 25, 2017 at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson Ave.)
- Performances run Thursday, June 22 to Saturday, June 24 at 7:30PM, and Sunday, June 25, at 6PM. See schedule for more details.
- Single tickets are $25 to $50 and are available for purchase online, by telephone at 416-504-7529, or in person at the Theatre Passe Muraille Box Office.
- Content Warnings: This show features alcohol, drinking, and death.