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23 Sep 2019

Dear Marie Stopes: a thought-provoking chamber opera

“To remove the misery of slave motherhood and the curse of unwanted children, and to secure that every baby is loved before it is born.”

Alex Mills’ Dear Marie Stopes, at Kings Place

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Dear Marie Stopes (ensemble)

Photo credit: Robert Workman


Such was the ‘best New Year resolution’ that birth control advocate and sex-advice writer Dr Marie Carmichael Stopes (1880-1958) ever made, according to archival material from the Wellcome Collection. Stopes’ words form the closing lines of Alex Mills’ chamber opera, Dear Marie Stopes, which was presented at Kings Place this weekend, following the premiere in August 2018 in the Reading Library of the Wellcome Collection, as part of that year’s Tête à Tête festival.

In December 1929, advertisements appeared in several British journals announcing the publication of Mother England: A Contemporary History Self-Written by Those Who Have No Historians . This collection comprised almost 200 letters from working-class mothers, each one beginning, “Dear Dr Stopes”. In highlighting the desperation of the poor for “some advice how to prevent any more little ones coming”, Stopes inextricably linked the alleviation of poverty with the need for birth control, presenting her book as ‘a true history of the common people [that] has never yet been written’. [1]

H.G. Wells called it ‘a most striking and useful book’, while Arnold Bennett found it ‘rather awful - in the right sense’. Not everyone was positive: the Secretary for the Society of Authors, St John Ervine, complained: ‘Marie Stopes is a bloody nuisance. She worries the life and soul out of me about Birth Control … and seems to have nothing to do but bounce about the earth, shoving her nose into what doesn’t concern her. Too much energy and not enough sense.’ Indeed, Stopes herself said that Married Love: A New Contribution to the Solution of Sex Difficulties , the guide to sex and marriage that she had published in March 1918, had ‘crashed into English society like a bomb shell’.

The Wellcome Collection archives house thousands of the private letters that members of the public, male and female, wrote to Stopes following the publication of that landmark book, which not only sought to educate about sexual desire, health and contraception, but also espoused gender equality. Mills’ librettist, Jennifer Thorp, has selected extracts from these moving personal accounts, and from Stopes’ replies, and woven them into a sequence of vignettes which reveals the range of contrasting emotional, ethical and ideological opinions prevalent during the 1920s.

Alexa Mason.jpgAlexa Mason (soprano). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Reading and hearing these very private testimonies in the small Hall Two at Kings Place was a poignant, at times heartrending, experience, though I did wonder whether sung dramatization of these painful accounts is the most appropriate form of presentation. The words on the page speak for themselves, the simple questions and pleas imbued with an essential eloquence and truth. Mills’ musical setting is certainly sensitive to the text. At times the correspondents’ words are spoken rather than sung, and some recorded voices are interpolated (and projected), enhancing both the sense of historical authenticity and our appreciation of the impact and reach of Stopes’ work. Occasionally, the singers employ a quasi-monotonal declamation while the recitative-arioso style of the vocal melodies respects the natural syntax, with some Britten-esque gestures. The accompaniment - for cello (Clare O’Connell), viola da gamba (Liam Byrne) and percussion (Calum Huggan), with occasional electronic additions - is atmospheric but discreet, the two stringed instruments creating interesting textures, both gentle and tense, the percussion enhancing the moments of emotional intensity. The resulting score is quite cinematic in effect, showing the influence, I thought, of John Tavener.

Alexa Mason (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto) and Feargal Mostyn-Williams (countertenor) reprised their 2018 performances with considerable skill and dedication. The diction was unanimously excellent, the voices clean and clear. Mills blends the three high-register timbres effectively, as the singers assume a variety of character-roles, echoing each other’s words in a manner which builds dramatic intensity; and Dandy’s rich, earthy lower register provides satisfying contrast, creating a broader expressive palette.

The personal confessions and appeals were deeply affecting, sometimes disturbing. There is the woman who has had 14 children, 9 of whom survive, and who is desperate to avoid the further pregnancy which her doctor has told her will probably kill her. And, the man who fears his sexual dysfunction will forever prevent him showing his “girl” the depth of his love. And, the young girl who despairs that the sexual disease she has contracted will deny her the opportunity to become a mother.

Dandy Jess 2.jpgJess Dandy (contralto). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

For all the merits of the music and the cast, though, there were moments where I found the emotional ‘temperature’ a little uncomfortable - that the individual private experiences were not best served by musical setting and dramatic presentation. It is hard, for example, to find an appropriate way to set lines such as those uttered by a young woman who, when helping her injured fiancé to remove his clothes “couldn’t help but see … His sex organs were very large”. There were discernible chuckles in Hall Two … and when such an exclamation develops into a duet for soprano and contralto in which the traumatised cries, “Oh God”, climb higher and higher, ever more hysterically ecstatic, there’s a danger of ‘that scene’ from When Harry Met Sally coming to mind.

More seriously, the libretto presents the counterviews of those who see Stopes’ work as “not only unwholesome but harmful” and who declare that “No-one will be the better for reading it”, but such opinions, rather than simply being representative of the broader social context, often come across as morally self-righteous and censoriously bigoted. The cast were wearing Thirties’ period costume, but at times such genuine outbursts seemed less historically informative and rather reminiscent of Britten’s Lady Billows with her sanctimonious advocacy of celibacy and celebration of ‘innocence’.

Feargal Mostyn-Williams.jpgFeargal Mostyn-Williams (countertenor). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Also, I wasn’t sure about the judiciousness of assigning a countertenor to sing Stopes’ own words. Certainly, the decision lends a ‘neutrality’ that might be welcome but, while Mostyn-Williams has a rounded and focused voice, when he was asked to expound Stopes’ philosophical and political ethics - “Women’s political freedom is well worth the struggle … Without control over her own motherhood, no married woman can have bodily freedom” - the high-pitched, forte, unvarying vocal line inevitably sounded a little hooty at times.

The constituent parts have obvious and considerable potential, but it was Nina Brazier’s clear-sighted direction which brought them together into a coherent and convincing whole. The musicians were seated on the intimate Hall Two stage, from which a short walkway extended into the audience, bringing the latter close to the singers who at times circled the Hall. Assorted box files were piled on the stage and on a single desk at the end of the causeway. Three present-day archivists tentatively donned protective gloves and began to leaf through the historical documents, so troubled and affected by what they discovered that the fragile papers, with their hand-written appeals in fading ink, fell like feathers to the floor. Absorbed and overcome by the letters’ content, the archivists gave voice to the past, bringing the correspondents to life and transporting us back in time, making tangible the real and often raw human experiences. The sequence of vignettes unfolded naturally over 45 mins, as the characters’ stories interweaved with Stopes’ replies, and with aspects of her own life.

In fact, in seeking to do justice to the broader picture, Thorp’s libretto packs in rather more than it has time to explore in satisfactory depth. We learn, in one of the most affecting episodes, of Stopes’ own miscarriage. Similarly, her interest in eugenics is touched upon. Such brief glimpses of the wider context are very interesting, but only raise further questions. Stopes’ passionate promotion of birth control grew in part out of her concern with eugenics and had a specific ideological purpose. For example, in her 1923 book Contraception, she wrote that it was only when contraception was widely used by “diseased persons” could birth control become “the great preventive measure to arrest the spread of disease and degeneracy throughout the nation”; moreover, Stopes tried to translate her ideology into practical outcomes, founding in 1921 her first birth control centre, the ‘Mothers’ Clinic’ in Holloway, with the aim of protecting the health of women and controlling ‘racial purity’.

Dear Marie Stopes cannot, of course, explore all of the arguments and counter-arguments exhaustively. But, Mills’ chamber opera does reveal the complexity of human experience and relationships which, in this performance at Kings Place, Brazier’s sensitive handling of the material communicated directly.

Claire Seymour

Dear Marie Stopes : Alex Mills (composer), Jennifer Thorp (librettist)

Alexa Mason (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto), Feargal Mostyn-Williams (countertenor), Liam Byrne (viola da gamba), Clare O’Connell (cello), Calum Huggan (percussion); Nina Brazier (director), Gareth Mattey (assistant director), Lucia Sánchez Roldán (video and lighting design), Tyler Forward (video programmer), Alexa Moore (costumes), Kate Romano (producer), Dr Lesley Hall (archivist)

Hall Two, Kings Place, London; Saturday 21st September 2019.

[1] For a detailed account, see A.C. Geppert (1998), ‘Divine sex, happy marriage, regenerated nation: Marie Stopes's marital manualMarried Love and the making of a best-seller, 1918-1955’, Journal of the history of sexuality, 8(3): 389-433.

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