What if I were young again, careless and gay,
What if I were young again, just for to-day?
The hot sun in glory setting,
With gold thread the vine leaves fretting...
Ah well I know, if my heart were still young,
Where my thoughts would be now!
The Boatswain's Mate, Part 1, Scene VI, Mrs. Waters
British composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) wrote her fourth opera The Boatswain's Mate as a comic piece that is focused on the serious subject of age versus youth. Sir Thomas Beecham premiered The Boatswain's Mate with his newly formed opera company at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on January 28, 1916. Retrospect Opera, a group of highly accomplished musicologists and performers dedicated to recording and promoting British operas of the past that are known only in discussion but not in performance, has made available In its centenary year a carefully researched and pleasingly performed CD set (there are two CDs).
Upon hearing the lively overture to this one-act opera in two parts, the Dresser thought hoedown, even Aaron Copland's "Hoe-Down" from his 1943 ballet Rodeo. Smyth effects folk tunes in The Boatswain's Mate. Unusually for an overture of her day, it is a composition (drawn from her "The March of the Women" and "1910") that does not quote from the opera it introduces. Rather the overture is a mood piece, setting the stage for a strong woman (Mrs. Waters), a widow who is being pursued by a man (Harry Benn) in whom she has no interest.
Here the Dresser will pause to say that Smyth spent two years working with Emmeline Pankhurst in the "Votes for Women" campaign. Smyth hid Suffragette Pankhurst from British authorities and taught her how to throw stones, preceding the March 1912 window-smashing episode that landed them both in jail. The Dresser notes that Cicely Hamilton's lyrics to "The March of the Women" feature some of the same idealistic words and ideas used by Smyth in Mrs. Waters' aria "What if I were young again" such as glory, dream and varying ways of presenting natural light.
Briefly the libretto of Smyth's opera is based on work by W. W. Jacobs. The story sees Benn (tenor Edward Lee) devising a scheme with his friend Ned Travers (baritone Jeremy Huw Williams) to burglarize Mrs. Waters' residence above her inn The Beehive. The plan is for Benn to come to Mrs. Waters' rescue and thereby claim her hand in marriage. However, Mrs. Waters (soprano Nadine Benjamin) knows how to handle such situations--she has a gun and the plan backfires. She pulls Travers into her plan to teach Benn a lesson by declaring she has killed Travers. Additionally, because Benn is so upset, he complicates things further by confessing to a policeman (bass baritone Simon Wilding) that it is his fault that Travers has died. And then Mrs. Waters awakened by all this excitement seems to have taken interest in Travers as a potential mate. And by the way, Travers is the boatswain's mate. From the male point of view, the irony is that Benn who was a petty officer (boatswain) has money and Travers who was a Khaki hero (soldier) has none.
The Dresser will say upfront that this is not a feminist story and none of the characters are bad people. It's a question of chemistry and for whom the heart throbs.
There are several songs that stand out. Top of the list is the haunting and emotionally loaded "What if I were young again," which Nadine Benjamin as Mrs. Waters sings with passion that immediately transfers to the listener. The album also includes a 1916 recording of Rosina Buckman singing this song. Buckman's singing style which includes a hint of vibrato points up how operatic voices have evolved over time. Benjamin's interpretation and execution of the music for Mrs. Waters is outstanding in every way. Next is Benn's sailor aria that becomes an earworm the more you listen to it. Here are two stanzas from "When rocked on the billow":
When rocked on the billows, that roughest of pillows,
Fed up with the joys of a wandering life,
By dreams I was haunted, by visions enchanted
Of piling up dollars and choosing a wife.
As one who has paid his respects to the ladies
I thought to have carried it through with dispatch.
She knows I have money - then isn't it funny
That nothing will make her come up to the scratch?
Particularly captivating is the ensemble "It must have been the drink or love." To the Dresser's ear, this has a Renaissance playfulness with a counterpoint that supports an impressive acappella arrangement. Move over this composition is in Part 2 Scene VI which begins with a quotation from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and ends with a quote from "What if I were young again."
The entire opera relative to the theme of age and youth is well threaded including the opening scene which is between Benn and Mrs. Waters' helper Mary Ann (singing actress Rebecca Louise Dale). In this scene Mary Ann is leaving to visit her mom. Benn remarks that "the old lady'll be glad to see you." Mary Ann said her mother isn't old and is probably the same age as he is. Furthermore, she says if her mom were a man that would never come up because "men never gets old of course."
In Jacqueline Jules' poem "The Old Woman in the Grocery Store," a young woman talks about her fear of old age not because of what it does to the body but because risking to love involves the possibility of losing that loved one to death. In The Boatswain's Mate, it takes Mrs. Waters toying with death (her pretended murder of Travers) to bring her sexual sensibilities to life.
THE OLD WOMAN IN THE GROCERY STORE
At 38 years, I fear old age
not wrinkles or white hair,
not even senility.
It's the odds I object to.
Additional years multiply chances
of standing at a grave site
shoveling dirt on a life I love.
Growing old means outlasting others,
a most unappealing idea
after the summer afternoon
pool plans were suddenly scrapped
for a meeting with the undertaker.
Do you have a picture we can run with the obit?
Should the service be indoors or out?
Life is to brittle; too much like old bones
that snap in the slightest fall.
I hold my breath
at the sight of someone
who has survived the years.
She is standing by the meat counter,
thin, white-haired, with blue-veined fingers
stubbornly grasping a grocery cart.
I can't help but stare--as if watching
a movie star choose ground beef.
by Jacqueline Jules
from Stronger Than Cleopatra
"The Old Woman in the Grocery Store" copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Jules