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What's On, Culture, Theatre

The Boatswain’s Mate at The North Wall

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Opera company Spectra Ensemble announces that its acclaimed production of The Boatswain’s Mate will tour to the North Wall Arts Centre this autumn, after a successful run in London as part of Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn opera festival.

The Boatswain’s Mate was written in 1913-14 by Ethel Smyth, a pioneer of women’s music-making. Smyth was a prolific composer who took considerable pains to ensure that her works were performed. In 1903, her opera Der Wald became the first piece by a woman to grace the stage of the Met in New York. However, her work fell out of favour in the decades following her death in 1944, and it is only in recent years that Smyth has been ‘rediscovered’. Just this year her opera The Wreckers became the first opera by a woman to feature at Glyndebourne Festival.

During Smyth’s lifetime, The Boatswain’s Mate was the most popular of her operas. When it premiered in 1916, it was hailed as “one of the merriest, most tuneful, and most delightful comic operas ever put on the stage”. Its story revolves around Mrs Waters, a pub landlady troubled by a persistent suitor. Refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer, retired boatswain Mr Benn comes up with a madcap plot to win her heart and her hand. The formidable heroine outwits him, foiling his plan – but does that mean all prospect of romance is over?

Smyth wrote the opera after a period of campaigning with the Suffragettes, and included her Suffragette anthem ‘The March of the Women’ in the overture. Mrs Waters is often said to have been loosely based on Emmeline Pankhurst.

Spectra Ensemble’s production updates the action to a 1950s seaside setting. The opera is directed by Cecilia Stinton, an Oxford native whose recent work includes Carmen at Opera Holland Park. Musical direction is by John Warner, who conducts the work in his own reduced arrangement for piano trio. Warner is the Founder and Artistic Director of Orchestra for the Earth, and also conducts for Oxford Opera. The production also features set and costume design by Ellie Roser and lighting design by Catja Hamilton.

The cast is led by Josephine Goddard, who won second prize in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards and recently received the Christine Collins Award from Garsington Opera. John Upperton appears as the lovelorn boatswain Harry Benn, and Shaun Aquilina plays Ned Travers, the accomplice in his plot. Completing the cast are Devon Harrison, Naho Koizumi and Dominic Lee.

Spectra Ensemble was originally founded at Oxford University in 2015, but The Boatswain’s Mate marks its first professional production in the city. Other successful productions include Treemonisha, which in 2019 was nominated for a Broadway World Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera.

9 and 10 September 2022, 7:30pm

Tickets: £14 | £12 (concessions) | £10 (under 25s)


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