From The Metropolitan Opera Archives:

A Woman's Opera at the Met

Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in New York

"After an hour of ultra-modern music, strident, formless, passionate music that stirred the blood with clangor of brass, the shrieks of strings, the plaint of wood winds and disdained to woo the senses with flower-soft melodic phrase, the audience at the Metropolitan Opera House clamored for the composer and held its breath when she appeared. A fragile creature, feminine to her fingertips in rather old-fashioned gown of black silk, red roses in her dark hair and a courtesy like grandmother used to make… She was Ethel M. Smyth, a young Englishwoman, whose one-act opera, Der Wald, had just received its first American presentation…."

So ran the lead in an unsigned review in the New York World on March 12, 1903. To this day, Der Wald bears the distinction of being the only opera by a woman composer that the Met has presented.

Miss (eventually Dame) Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), the daughter of an English general, was said to move in aristocratic circles and under the patronage of royalty. She had studied composition at the Leipzig Conservatory, where she had been encouraged by Brahms, Dvorák, Tchaikovsky and Clara Schumann. Her Mass in D had its premiere at London’s Albert Hall in 1893. Too, she was literary: she wrote the libretto of Der Wald, in German because she thought it likelier to be performed in one of that country’s many opera houses (as her previous opera, Fantasio, had been, at Weimar in 1898). She was to publish "eight witty volumes of memoirs" and became, for a time, close to Virginia Woolf. According to the Grove Encyclopedia of the Opera, her fourth stage work, The Boatswain’s Mate (1916), which remained in the repertory until World War II, forms "an important if unacknowledged link between Romantic music drama and the realism of Peter Grimes."

Der Wald had its premiere in Berlin in 1902, and was presented in London and Strasbourg as well as in New York during its brief season of notoriety. (Rumors, then current in New York, of a production in Vienna under Mahler came to nothing.) In Berlin, its reception was lukewarm at best, but the opera broke attendance records at Covent Garden.

About 75 minutes long, Der Wald played at the Met on double bills, before Il Trovatore, then, at the second performance, after La Fille du Régiment. At the premiere, the society audience displayed its enthusiasm by showing up at 7:45 – the parterre boxes of the "Golden Horseshoe" tended not to fill until 9:00, after the evening meal – and they departed soon after Der Wald, for a gala dinner party given at Sherry’s restaurant by the composer’s sister, Mrs. Charles Hunter, with the British ambassador and his wife, and the entire cast, as guests of honor. The critics and the gallery remained – it was canny of impresario Maurice Grau to use a brilliantly-cast Trovatore (Lillian Nordica, Louise Homer, Emilio De Marchi, Giuseppe Campanari) as bait to lure an audience to the new work.

The Met performances of Der Wald were given much admired sets and lighting and a gala cast headed by Johanna Gadski, David Bispham and Georg Anthes, with Luise Reuss-Belce as the villainous Iolanthe, and were conducted by Alfred Hertz. Smyth told the press that the singing was better in New York than in either Berlin or London, that she valued American opinion highly, and that she hoped the work would have a popular success – "I care more for the verdict of the people in the galleries than for the opinion of any other public." Perhaps it was the curiosity aroused by so exotic a composer, but Der Wald scored something of a popular triumph. The box office for that evening was $10,390.60 – the only night of the year that the house total reached five figures. The second performance, with Marcella Sembrich in La Fille du Régiment, earned a more than respectable $7,316.40, at least two thousand dollars more than La Fille had drawn at any of its six previous representations that year, when it had been paired with Pagliacci.

The press was attentive. Just before the premiere, an article published in the World on March 8 stated: "Miss Smyth … has attended all the rehearsals, has given to the singers minute directions, has advised with conductor Hertz on the proper reading of the score, has given orders to the scene painter, the ballet-master and the costumer, and has periodically managed the stage. She prescribed the setting of the scene – a glade in a primeval forest with a tangled mass of cypress trees; the costumes – of an indefinite period in the middle ages; the personal appearance of the personages – Iolanthe, "terrible and beautiful, her garb suggesting her adventurous demoniacal character"; the dance, "rough and rustic."

The World added, "The tone of the work has suggestions of modern symbolism and ancient pantheism." This put Der Wald in the thick of post-Wagnerian opera.

Smyth told the Evening Sun that she had crossed the Channel overnight to catch the Metropolitan’s manager, Maurice Grau, in Paris. She reached Paris at 7 in the morning, phoned Grau’s hotel at 8, pleading that she had to catch the boat-train home at 11. Catch it she did, signed contract in hand. "I told him it was one act long and could fit on any sort of bill, in any kind of house." She brought clippings and box office statements from the record-setting London premiere with her. "You are certainly a businesslike woman," Grau said.

To the World, the businesslike woman said, "I have always thought if I did anything worth while I should like to see it presented in America. From what I have heard, I hold in regard American treatment and receptivity and shall await American judgment eagerly."

Smyth knew she was good copy and what good copy was worth. She made herself available and quotable to the press of New York, and they responded with sufficient gallantry to ensure widespread curiosity and full houses. Her rumored royal connections and the popularity of her sister, drew high society. Everything a composer could wish for at a premiere was done, and the ovation at the end would have done credit to a new work by Verdi.

We have a summary of the plot in Smyth’s own words, for the New York World: "It is a short and tragic story of paradox framed in the tranquility and unendingness of nature, represented by the forest and its spirits. As the curtain rises, these spirits or elemental forces, under the aspect of nymphs and hamadryads, are seen engaged in ritual observations round an altar in the wood. Unshackled by time, they sing their own eternity and the brevity of things human. They fade away, the altar disappears, and the play begins.

"A peasant girl, Röschen [Gadski], is engaged to a young woodcutter, Heinrich [Anthes]. The … wedding is fixed for the following day. A peddler sells his wares. There is general jollity and the peasants dance. In the distance the horn of Iolanthe sounds. The merriment ceases; terror-stricken, the peasants fly….

"Iolanthe [Reuss-Belce] is a woman of cruel instincts and unbridled passions, supposed to be a witch, and dreaded with superstitious fear. She has complete sway over Count Rudolf [Bispham], the liege lord of the country. Struck by Heinrich’s good looks, she tries to make him enter into her service at the castle….

"Her fascinations fail, however, to prevail over Heinrich’s love for Röschen. She seeks the revenge of the scorned woman. The peddlar denounces Heinrich as the slayer of a deer…, and this gives to Iolanthe a chance to compel the young woodcutter to obey or to punish him for his indifference. Heinrich … prefers life which is deathless and mighty to life which is weak and brief…. Iolanthe gives the word and Heinrich is slain.

"The scene changes back to its first appearance, and the Spirits of the Wood take up their ritual where it was interrupted by the incursion of things transient."

Two things make this fable unusual – the moral stated by the forest beings and, second, that it is a woman, not a man, who says, "Love me – or else." This is rather rarer in opera than the reverse situation. The plot suggests a combination of Norma with Tannhäuser. By seeking such subtle emotional resonance and cutting herself down to 75 minutes, Smyth was setting herself a hurdle that, perhaps, could hardly have been surmounted by anyone.

The New York Press remarked: "It means symbolism, but the Metropolitan audience last night discovered nothing except the death of a plain poacher."

In any case, few New York critics liked the opera, but many were impressed by Smyth’s technical skill. Whether the music evidenced "femininity" was a matter of no little disagreement.

The Telegraph: "This little woman writes music with a masculine hand and has a sound and logical brain, such as is supposed to be the especial gift of the rougher sex. There is not a weak or effeminate note in Der Wald, nor an unstable sentiment."

The World: "Her work is utterly unfeminine. It lacks sweetness and grace of phrase. Wagner was never so ruthless in his treatment of the human voice."

The Daily Mail dissented: "The charm and quaintness of it will appeal more than its attempt to mirror intense human emotion and to this extent it is feminine, according to all tradition."

The Commercial Advertiser thought Der Wald fell between stools: "It has been often and truly said that whenever a woman composer strives to take the sex element out of her work if she succeeds she surpasses in masculinity anything that a man might do. Miss Smyth seems to have worked chiefly with this end in view, but, while she has eliminated the feminine element from her music, the gentleness and sentimentality which one would expect to find in the work of a woman, her substitute is far from having the real masculine flavor. Her moments of passion become moments of blatant noise…."

Since no recording of any part of Der Wald is available, we must depend on written description to tell us what it sounded like.  

The most enthusiastic account comes from the Telegraph: "The cause of woman took an immense stride forward last night… [I]f the composer has more like it, in manuscript or in contemplation, it is to be hoped that she will turn them over to Heinrich Conried [the Met’s incoming impresario], and so brighten his first year of tenancy at the Metropolitan….

"Der WaldThe Forest – although of but a single act, is one of the most ambitious compositions of the last decade. Its loftiness of purpose and seriousness of design are supplemented by a wealth of musical ideas, and a skill of construction which result in a strongly rounded whole… Since Richard Wagner gave individuality to German opera, this one comes nearest embodying the spirit of the school.

"Miss Smyth‘s … harmonic scheme is elaborate, masterly and convincing. She has an excellent sense of tone color, and a deft and confident way of applying it. She is not afraid to use the brass and heavy strings, her climaxes are strongly developed, and her fortissimo passages are of great quality and body….

"Mme. Gadski surprised all by her capering... The matronly prima donna grew positively skittish. Mr. Anthes was an exuberant but too strutty tree-cutter. While Mme. Reuss-Belce could not look the enchanting and wicked siren Iolanthe, she acted with greater dramatic force than she ever before had displayed here."

One of the most judicious and interesting reviews appeared in The Herald under the heading "A Musician’s View": "Miss Smyth’s opera comes to its New York hearing with the prestige of enthusiastic English approval and with Germany’s almost unqualified censure. Neither seemed, last night, to be the measure of justice.…

"Phantoms of The Ring and of Tristan do indeed start from her pages, but they are gone directly and never take on positive substance. She is most Wagneresque in moments of interlude or at those of sudden climax; least so in her broader periods, which at times own a thoroughly English lyricism. Indeed, did it own a few more such numbers as "Heinrich’s Lied," Der Wald could look forward to some drawing room vogue. Continued rhythmical patterns and periods of free contrapuntal invention distinguish the orchestration… But the doors to the sensuous, the passionate, the really tragic are apparently closed to her…

"The composer has been happiest in her treatment of the choruses, especially of those in the peasant scenes. ... There are bits of this peasant music which Sir Arthur Sullivan might not have thought abstruse."

The Times, in contrast, was cold: "The case is one of vaulting ambitions and a general incompetency to write anything beyond the most obvious commonplaces. It is quite lacking in dramatic expressiveness in characterization, in melodic ideas, in distinction of any kind. … In the love scenes … it is entirely unconvincing, and exhibits neither passion nor tenderness… There is little that is either grateful or effective for the solo singers."

Music and Drama, on March 12, praised the "managerial wisdom" of putting the opera on a double bill: "If ‘Der Wald’ had been written by a man, it would not have been acclaimed as it was yesterday… But the best of singers could not for a long time float a work so barren of original individual melody. That is its weak, its fatal point. It has no physiognomy of its own. Any one of a thousand living musicians, women or men, might have written it…

"After this one-act opera, Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ seemed as big and as inspired a tragedy as ‘Götterdämmerung’…."

After the second performance of Der Wald on March 20, the Tribune added: "A dozen new operas are current in Germany and Paris to-day any one of which would have seriously exercised the interest of New-York’s music lovers... Instead, two nights have been wasted on ‘Der Wald’…."

History has seconded their opinions – Smyth abandoned Der Wald and the entire proto-Wagnerian genre.

There was one slight stir, by way of coda. Smyth had taken advantage of her social contacts not only in flashy New York but also in prim but feminist Boston. On March 19, the Sun reported: "In the city of Abigail Adams, Margaret Fuller, Louisa M. Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, Sarah Jewett, Mrs. Ward, Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, Mme. Szumowska and Mrs. Jack Gardner, the woman who wrote an opera was welcomed for her own sake… Boston ought to have Der Wald. If a ‘round robin’ signed by the fairest and best in Boston society can persuade Mr. Grau, Boston will get what it desires."

The Times had reported a week earlier on a petition, produced during a visit by Smyth to the upper echelons of Boston society, but Grau paid no attention. Except for a performance in Strasbourg the following February, Der Wald had run its course.

Probably the most thoughtful and detailed comment on the entire episode, came from W.J. Henderson in The Sun, at the time New York’s most magisterial critic, on March 15, by which time he’d been able to think about what he had heard on March 11 at the Met.

"Practically the entire subject matter of the story lies in the opposition of the false love to the true. … A cynical man might be tempted into reflections on the difference between Wagner’s treatment of the battle of lust with holy love for the soul of a man [in Tannhäuser] and that of an estimable lady with high art aspirations and tolerable amount of operatic technic. But woman with all her intuition cannot penetrate this corner of human experience. It is just the one thing in life she can never know, unless she ceases to be a woman.

"If Miss Smyth is laboring under the amiable delusion that a sound, healthy, perspiring young woodcutter would be in danger of losing his honor under the blandishments of a yellow-haired, riding-habited courtesan, utterly out of keeping with the forest and as inharmonious as a G sharp in the scale of F major, she is miscalculating the nature of man rather strangely... You can’t scare a man into carnal riot... The episode lacks the potency of conviction. This is a pity, for it is the climax of the opera…."

It might be useful for us to compare Der Wald with the only German work of its post-Wagnerian "legendary" school that has remained popular, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel of 1893. Whether or not a well-bred (and unmarried) English lady could comprehend the difference between sacred and profane love, the fact is that such distinctions are difficult to convey in music, and Wagner was a tough act to follow. Humperdinck succeeded because he based his opera on a children’s tale devoted to such emotions as terror and faith. Smyth, like most of the young Wagnerian disciples, could not equal or add anything to the style of the master. She chose, rightly, to move on, to more personal styles and methods.

– John Yohalem



Ethel Smyth
as she appeared in the
World in 1903

 

 

Maurice Grau,
who concluded his career as
impresario of the Met
with Smyth's Der Wald

 

 

 

 

 



Johanna Gadski,
a "skittish"
Röschen in Der Wald,
shown here as Senta in
Der Fliegende Holländer

 

 




Georg Anthes,
the "strutty" Heinrich of Der Wald,
shown here as Walther in
Die Meistersinger

 

 





Luise Reuss-Belce,
who played the

"beautiful and terrible" Iolanthe
in Der Wald

 

 

Alfred Hertz,
a distinguished Wagnerian,
conducted Der Wald

 




David Bispham,
a house favorite shown here as
Wolfram in
Tannhäuser,
sang Count Rudolf in Der Wald

 

 



Lillian Nordica,
"the diva from Maine" -
Did the crowds come for Der Wald or to hear Nordica in Trovatore?

 

 



Conductor Alfred Hertz
as Giuseppe Viafora saw him
in the New York Times