Lyric Opera Celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment with ‘. . . When there are nine’

“Working Out Her Destiny” by Louis Bonhajo for League of Women Voters, Erie, Pennsylvania, 1920 (Library of Virginia)

The Explorations Series Production Features a Conversation in Song Between Women’s Suffrage Leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment became law, stating, “The right of citizens in the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”

Looking toward the 100th anniversary of that event, Lyric Opera of Kansas City created a new production called “. . . When there are nine” for its Explorations Series, performed Jan. 18 at the Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building.

“Explorations Series allows us to do things that we don’t do on the Kauffman stage,” said Deborah Sandler, general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera, “and also creates the ability to have a very intimate conversation . . . to engage with the community, to connect what we do on stage, what we choose to talk about, and how it relates to our lives today.”

The title evokes the words of opera fan and United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “People ask me sometimes, when do you think it will be enough? When will there be enough women on the [Supreme Court]? And my answer is when there are nine.”

By selecting that quote, Sandler wanted to reflect “that we haven’t completed our journey, that there’s still so much to do.”

The production features the world premiere of “And Still We Dream,” a song cycle by composer Laura Karpman and librettist Kelley Rourke, their second collaboration.

The cycle takes the form of a conversation between women’s suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Both started their advocacy as social reformers, concerning abolition and equal pay. They met in 1851 and worked together for suffrage until their deaths. “Though they were united in a single cause, they could not have been more different,” said Rourke.

Seen above in November 2019 at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California, “Her Flag” is a nationwide art and travel project created by artist Marilyn Artus to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. It was displayed at the Mid-America Arts Alliance for December First Fridays. (courtesy of Mid-America Arts Alliance)

Anthony lectured around the country, campaigning for support, while Stanton, with the responsibility of raising seven children, wrote letters and speeches and formed many of the arguments Anthony publicly espoused. “If you read the words between these two women, one of them was at the forefront and the other was dealing with the family,” said Sandler, invoking a conundrum facing activists today.

To create the story, Rourke sifted through hundreds of pages of writing, both public and private. “I was most interested in the personal. The public rhetoric is dazzling, but I was looking for ideas that would invite a variety of musical-emotional responses.”

Karpman researched the style of the era, but it’s not going to be a period piece. As a versatile, award-winning composer for film (along with opera, video game music and concert work), she has “the ability to live in a billion different musical worlds,” said Rourke.

In a 2010 interview, Karpman said: “With my concert music in particular, I’m hugely interested in social issues, and I want to write music that feels significant . . . that can serve as a vehicle for social change.”

“The project feels very personal for both of us today,” Rourke said, as they developed the story of “two flesh-and-blood women engaged in a cause that was deeply emotional for both of them.”

The cycle is “a tour de force for one singer,” Rourke said. They cast mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, an artist equally at home with Handel operas as she is with contemporary work. “Daniela Mack has tremendous range, and I don’t just mean low notes to high notes,” Rourke said. “She is someone with the ability to embody two very different women through sheer vocal artistry, someone who can take us from one persona to another and back again in the blink of an eye.”

Rourke also serves as dramaturge for the production, constructing the story (the performance will have the feel of a town hall meeting) and bringing together the musical choices for the full 90-minute work, which includes performances by Lyric Opera’s Resident Artists.

She used quotations from the era and today to frame the debate, mixed with song selections that emphasize these arguments. “Much of the rhetoric surrounding this milestone had to do with the larger question of ‘a woman’s place,’ and this is a question that still comes up today.”

“One of the goals of the larger program,” said Rourke, “is to say that a feminist doesn’t look like one thing, and in fact a feminist does not even have to be a woman.”

“As I immersed myself in the rhetoric surrounding women’s rights 100 years ago, I found that some of it felt familiar. We have accomplished a lot, and yet there is a pendulum always swinging back and forth. By juxtaposing past and present in the larger program, I hope we can both celebrate our progress to date and inspire a new generation of activists to continue to work toward true equality.”

They acknowledge, too, that the movement was not perfect. Not all women gained the right to vote, since the Constitution retained barriers regarding race, denying non-whites suffrage. “As we look at some of the women who have helped shape our country, it’s important that we include voices of women of color. Sometimes the contributions of people like Sojourner Truth have been overlooked, and it’s high time we gave them their due.”

Exploring the Issues

Along with the performance, Lyric Opera also hosts a panel discussion about these topics Jan. 13. Sandler said, “We want to have a conversation that says, ‘Great! It’s been a hundred years … where are we now, what have we achieved? What more is there for us to do? What does it look like?’”

Panelists Catherine Clinton and Nancy Levit, along with moderator Lisa Krigsten, will discuss these issues from the Civil War up to today. The panel will have a Q&A; the performance will have a talk back with the artists.

There’s also a tangentially related program Jan. 17. Lyric Opera hosts a panel with Opera America president Marc Scorca, who is visiting all the founding companies this year as part of Opera America’s 50th anniversary. The panel focuses on the role of women in music, particularly opera, considering that Sandler is one of the founding leaders in the Women’s Opera Network (WON).

Rourke and Karpman will also participate. Karpman, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is founder and president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers.

“Girls and young women must see that other women compose and that composition is a possibility for them. It’s about being open and brave and talking about these issues even if they are difficult,” said Karpman.

“Our audiences are made of men and women; our world is made up of men and women,” said Sandler, “but the people who are composing and directing and conducting were not representative of women: the diversity of women, the plurality of thought of women. We don’t all march the same way and have the same thoughts.

“But since this Women’s Opera Network started, there has been an explosion of women and women’s voices. It’s miraculous. And all this has happened because there has been an intentionality about bringing more women into the conversation.”

In this production, the work was conceived, written, composed, directed, conducted and performed by women.

Sandler knows what it’s like to juggle family and career, as one of the few women general directors who was also raising young children. Back then, no one talked about those issues. That’s changing now. “It’s illuminating where we are going, and has illuminated the multitasking that women are doing, yet we persevere and yet we thrive.”

At the end of her life, Susan B. Anthony wrote: “We little dreamed when we began this contest, optimistic with the hope and buoyancy of youth, that half a century later we would be compelled to leave the finish of the battle to another generation of women. These strong young women will take our place and complete our work. There is an army of them, where we were but a handful.”

Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents Explorations Series “. . . When there are nine” at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 18 in the Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building. For more information and tickets, www.kcopera.org

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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