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Opera eyes turn to Anchorage for premiere of 'Mrs. President'

Mike Dunham
Victoria Woodhull and other woman suffrage activists at the House Judiciary Committee, January 11, 1871. Image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper Feb. 4 1871.
Courtesy Library of Congress
Victoria Woodhull by Mathew Brady, about 1860
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

No doubt the Anchorage Concert Association's presentation of "Shrek" will get a lot of love from Alaskans. But the production for which I'm receiving the greatest number of professional queries -- like from publications in Cincinnati and London -- is the one that opens in the Discovery Theatre on Friday night, "Mrs. President," a new opera by Victoria Bond.

Bond juggles a successful career as a composer with ongoing conducting assignments and has also worked professionally as a soprano, a job missing in the resumes of most conductors. She was already famous -- as in having an article in People magazine -- the first time she came to Anchorage in 1980 to lead the Anchorage Symphony in Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. At that time she was the symphony's first guest conductor since Maurice Bonney had taken over the orchestra in the late 1960s. One of her pieces was originally scheduled to be performed on that trip, but had to be canceled when a singer couldn't make it.

Another Victoria, Victoria Woodhull, the subject of "Mrs. President," looms large in American history. The Wall Street tycoon and progressive publisher was the first woman to run for president of the United States -- well before the Constitution allowed women to vote.

Bond said her mother, concert pianist Jane Courtland, originally suggested Woodhull's story for an opera. "That was many years ago," Bond said. "I was busy with other things. But then came three or four wonderful biographies of Woodhull. I became totally intrigued with her."

Woodhull had a huge impact on public opinion in the last half of the 19th century, a procession of charitable munificence and scandal, amorous adventures, fortunes earned and lost, thunderous advocacy for issues like abolition (Frederick Douglass was her running mate) and what was then called "free love."

Bond pointed out that, 150 years ago, "free love" did not refer to wantonness but to the rights of women under divorce law. Nonetheless, to many of her social contemporaries it was an incendiary concept.

It's actually too much for an opera, or any piece of theater, Bond said, drawing on her experience directing the standard repertoire (Verdi, Puccini, Mozart) and a number of operatic rarities.

"Opera has to have a narrow focus," she said. "It needs to be about one thing."

Librettist Hilary Bell boiled down the saga to a single pivotal year, 1872, the year Woodhull announced that she was a candidate for president. The plot revolves around her relationship with preacher Henry Ward Beecher -- the most famous voice for progressive social causes at the time.

"He was very liberal," said Bond, "a supporter of women's rights. And he had the richest, most powerful congregation in the country. (Woodhull) wanted his imprimatur for her candidacy."

In the first act, Bond said, Woodhull informs Beecher that she knows about his illicit love affairs and urges him to acknowledge that he agrees with her with regard to women's emancipation. The two passionate personalities forge an alliance based on attractions that go beyond sharing political sympathies.

"In an actual staging, they'd get undressed by the end of the first act," Bond said. "There's no doubt but that they're heading off for a red-hot affair."

In the second act, riven by remorse and terror for his reputation, Beecher sets about destroying Woodhull.

"Mrs. President" has been presented in bits in pieces thus far. There have been selections with orchestra and a piano workshop of the full piece, with the same principal performers as will be featured in the Anchorage debut.

"But this will be the first time the whole opera is being done with a full orchestra," Bond said.

In operadom, that constitutes a world premiere, which is why colleagues far from Alaska are asking for news of it.

The production will be semi-staged, with a limited degree of acting. "It's not being done like a stand-and-sing oratorio," Bond said.

There's even a bit of set design. The Discovery Theatre will be decorated with patriotic bunting as if it were hosting an election rally.

Music lovers antipathetic to the dry tedium of last year's contemporary opera, "The Grapes of Wrath," may find more to like in Bond's score. She has a greater affinity for melody, often quoting popular tunes from an era that may connected to the material. And she has plenty of experience giving her insight into what works or doesn't in the medium.

"I love the standard repertoire," she said. "I'm here to carry things forward, not knock them down."

The opera features stand-alone arias and such stock crowd-pleasers as an overture, a quartet and even a dance sequence, "The Inauguration Polka."

Bond is spending six weeks in Alaska, taking part in rehearsals leading up to the production. Waiting in the wings are new works, one based on James Joyce's "Ulysses" and one based on pianist/composer Clara Schumann. She'll be sticking around for a week after the premiere, she said. "My husband's coming up and we're gong to do some hiking. It's my passion."

"Mrs. President" will be presented at 8 p.m. on Friday and 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7, in the Discovery Theatre. Tickets, $45-$105, are available here.

Find out more about the opera here and on twitter.

MUSIC MATINEES

Two recitals take place today, both at 4 p.m. The Anchorage Lutheran Church at 1420 N St. continues its series of community concerts with a recital by oboist Sharman Piper, violinist Hiroko Hirada and pianist Tai Wai Li. They will present Poulenc's Oboe Sonata, Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata and a movement from Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata. The church's programs are free, but donations are requested to keep the concerts coming.

At the same time, in the UAA Fine Arts Building recital hall, Mark Wolbers will present a "fun and somewhat informal" concert playing both familiar "licorice stick" clarinets and the 8-foot-long contra-bass model. The program will include the world premiere of "Inca Visions" for clarinet quartet by California composer Michael Kibbe. General admission for non-students is $18 and tickets are available here or at the UAA Fine Arts Building Box Office (786-4849).

MORE MUSIC

The musical extravaganza will continue this evening with the Anchorage Festival of Music's "Baroquetoberfest" at Alaska Music and Sound (aka Horn Doctor), 1000 Ingra St.

The program will feature music of 18th century German composers performed on historical instruments as performed by Laura Koenig, baroque flute, Dawn Lindsay, violin, Juliana Osinchuk, harpsichord and Linda Ottum, cello. What? No viola da gamba?

The recital takes place at 7:30 p.m., admission is $30, $20 for seniors and military, $10 for students.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Blog: Art Snob
By MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage Daily News
Contact Mike Dunham at or on