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I am not a Martyr Anymore: "The Mother of Us All" with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra

As a quick introduction for myself, my name is Malinda Wagstaff. I am originally from Spokane, Washington. I am a soprano in the final year of my undergraduate degree at the Eastman School of Music. I am currently working as the classical radio intern here at WXXI. This spring you can hear me in “The Mother of Us All” with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and as Beggar Woman in Eastman Opera Theatre’s production of “Sweeney Todd.”

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York State by performing an opera about Susan B. Anthony by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. This show utilizes characters from history like Susan B. Anthony, Daniel Webster and Lillian Russell. Stein and Thomson also created characters for this show like Jo the Loiterer, Indiana Elliot and my character, Angel More.

Performing this piece in New York, in a place with so much of Susan B. Anthony’s history is particularly moving. During my first year at Eastman, one of my choirs had the opportunity to attend the women’s conference in Seneca Falls and to visit the National Women’s Hall of Fame. I have been able to draw on these experiences as we perform this piece. Many of the characters hold important places in American history, and we can pull from their stories for the show. For the characters created by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein I like to think that perhaps they are women just waiting to be discovered and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

My character, Angel More is described as the “former sweetheart of Daniel Webster…part angel, part ghost and part ingénue.” As a soprano, I have played a number of birds and fairy godmothers. Never before in my costuming, though, have I had a chance to wear wings. 

My audible gasp of excitement when the director informed me that I would be wearing wings inspired chuckles from my colleagues. However, in more ways than one, I do feel a bit like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. Angel More is here to try and change the heart of one person who could have a lasting effect. Angel More is a sweet character. Angel More is almost always accompanied by celestial harp music. As a ghost, she is untouchable. The one who always seems to have a connection with her, physical or not, is Daniel Webster. Angel More, as I see her, was the “ideal” woman of her day. She did her chores as expected and was a martyr because she never had a chance to change her life. Now, I believe, she has returned as an angel/ghost to take her stand and make her contribution to women’s suffrage. I believe she uses some of her connection from her living days with Daniel Webster to try to change his heart. In their final moment together, he sings (beautifully) “When they have won and lost, when words are bitter and snow is white, Angel More, come to me and we will leave together.” Angel replies, simply but poignantly “Dear sir, not leave, stay.” In these few words, she takes her stand with Susan B. Anthony and the other suffragettes. She also invites Daniel Webster to join her.

Being a part of this rehearsal process has been exhilarating. The performance combines the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, professional opera singers from around the nation and students from the Eastman School of Music. Getting all of these groups together meant that the entire show is staged, rehearsed, and performed in one week. As one of the student performers, perhaps one of the most exciting days for me was when we finally met the hired singers and rehearsed with the RPO. Hearing beautiful voices ringing in the hall is both inspiring and incredibly helpful. After a few weeks of rehearsals without them, it was like a breath of fresh air to be able to hear each cue line and the interpretations the singers bring with them.

Director Susan Stone Li has fearlessly taken the charge in bringing these characters and this story to life. Stein’s writing in “The Mother of Us All” is whimsical and includes heaps of wordplay. This leaves much room for interpretation, and Susan Stone Li has opened the door for each singer to share his/her personal thoughts. She then combines them with her own vision to create a cohesive unit. I have never put a show together in such a short amount of time so it is exciting to see how Susan can give broad directions and still inspire specific actions. At times, one group is rehearsing on stage while another group receives their blocking notes for the next scene. Somehow, Susan seems to have eyes and ears everywhere to make the adjustments and provide the direction needed.

Working with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is an experience unlike any other. Ward Stare has such depth and clarity in his direction. Hearing the orchestral players all passionately deliver this music really brings it to life. For me, the experience is transformative. When the strings soar, the brass booms and the percussion sounds I really do feel like I am marching with Susan B. Anthony. It encourages a higher level of performance.

Putting together a show like this is stressful. Everyone has to bring their absolute best. We work hours upon hours until everyone is exhausted. The next day, we do it again. Sometimes we have to talk as a group to decipher how we want to interpret Gertrude Stein’s words and writing style. Likely, the audience will have questions of their own. Encouraging thought and dialogue is one of the important messages of this show, though. We must consider the way we talk and the way we treat people. If no one ever asked, “what if things were different?” where would we be? In a few days, I will have to hang up my angel wings. While I do not think I am ready to let Angel More go, I am happy to have been able to perform and share the story of these women who decided to “not [be] martyr(s) anymore,” but rather to live and fight for their rights.