The Boatswain’s Mate

Ethel Smyth | The Boatswain’s Mate

Smyth’s most successful opera – a laugh-out-loud piece with a farcical plot and beautiful melodies


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“exceptional….exactly how ‘revived’ operas should be presented”

John French | MusicWeb International

“a must for any self-respecting Smyth collection or collection of British music”

Kate Kennedy | Building a Library, BBC Radio 3

Somewhere in the English countryside we find the self-regarding ex-boatswain Harry Benn, determined to win the hand of the widowed landlady, Mrs Waters, at all costs. But is he wise to involve the younger, handsome Ned Travers in his scheming? And is the sturdily independent Mrs Waters ready to lay aside her shotgun and embrace romance? She is no stereotyped operatic heroine and generates comic twists and turns aplenty!

We are indeed very privileged that our conductor for the recording was Odaline de la Martinez. She is well known for her championship of Ethel Smyth’s music: her recording of Smyth’s The Wreckers, in particular, is outstanding. We recorded in September 2015 and April 2016, with Nadine Benjamin (Mrs Waters), Edward Lee (Harry Benn), Jeremy Huw Williams (Ned Travers), Simon Wilding (Policeman) and others, plus members of the Lontano Ensemble, in St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, London, UK. We released it in August and it is now available to buy online. The double CD includes some really interesting bonus tracks too.

Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth (1858 – 1944) occupies an absolutely central place in the history of British women’s music. In terms of professionalism, ambition and achievement she was in a completely different league from the female composers who preceded her, and she has gone on proving an inspiration and influence to those who came after her. In recent decades, her significance and abilities have been demonstrated by a series of recordings and rapidly increasing academic interest. There is no doubt that, with the general boom in women’s music, and the fact that her music goes out of copyright next year (2015), we will be hearing a lot more of Smyth in the future.

Although a good deal of Smyth’s music is now available on record, the genre with which she was most preoccupied and identified, opera, is very poorly represented. Of her six operas, only one has been recorded entire: the magnificent Wreckers. That recording was made twenty years ago and we believe it high time for more of Smyth’s operatic work to be available. The outstanding candidate is the immediate successor to The Wreckers, The Boatswain’s Mate (1916), Smyth’s most tuneful and humorous work. The relationship between these two very different operas has well been described as closely analogous to that between Peter Grimes and Albert Herring. The Boatswain’s Mate was completed in 1914 and first performed in January 1916 so it has particular resonance now, a century later, with interest in the culture of the First World War very high.

(c) 2014, David Chandler

The Boatswain’s Mate

The Boatswain’s Mate was far and away Ethel Smyth’s most successful opera in her lifetime, with significant extracts being released on 78 rpm record by HMV in 1917 and the work entering the repertory of the Old Vic in the 1920s. This is not surprising, for it is one of the comparatively few laugh-out-loud operas with its wonderful farcical plot. Despite the farce, it is a thought-provoking work, if anything of greater relevance today than it was in 1916, for at the centre of the story is the question of whether the widowed Mrs Waters would be happier living independently or getting remarried. It has sometimes been described as the feminist Smyth’s most feminist work. Her suffragette anthem, ‘The March of the Women’, is significantly incorporated into the overture, as are nursery rhymes, folk-melodies, and even a quotation from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony!

Musically, The Boatswain’s Mate reveals Smyth at the very height of her powers, but in a relaxed and mellow mood. If some of her music gives the impression that she was trying excessively hard – not surprisingly, as she was convinced she had a male-dominated establishment arraigned against her – that is certainly not the case here. The Wagnerian ambitions of The Wreckers are replaced with something much more in tune with the fashion for light and sparkling number operas with a certain folk-like flavour that spread across Europe in the late 1800s. There is an obvious comparison to be made with Vaughan WilliamsHugh the Drover, composed at almost exactly the same time, which its composer described as a ‘ballad opera’.

Smyth prepared two versions of her score, one for full and one for reduced orchestra, itself with two versions, small and smaller. We are using the smaller reduced version as The Boatswain’s Mate is a small-scale work, ideally suited for smaller companies and venues, and Smyth clearly wanted it to be a popular work and regarded the reduced orchestral versions as essential for its wider cultural diffusion. In this chamber version, it was staged by the Luzerner Theater in February 2014. All the performances were sold out and the audiences were extremely enthusiastic, sometimes laughing out loud at the musical jokes.

We expect The Boatswain’s Mate to appeal to people interested in British opera, British women’s music, and the musical heritage of the First World War, and also to those who in general prefer operetta and lighter forms of musical theatre.

(c) 2014, David Chandler

The Boatswain’s Mate

Music by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) | Libretto by Ethel Smyth, after W.W. Jacobs

Mrs Waters | Nadine Benjamin
Harry Benn | Edward Lee
Ned Travers | Jeremy Huw Williams
Policeman | Simon Wilding
The Man | Ted Schmitz
Mary Ann | Rebecca Louise Dale
Chorus | Mark Nathan and other members of the cast

Lontano Ensemble
Conductor | Odaline de la Martinez


1 | Overture, The Boatswain’s Mate
2 | When rocked on the billows
3 | As I was saying
4 | It’s a strange thing
5 | O what a cruel word
6 | Well, old cock!
7 | Interlude – The Keeper
8 | The very man I’ve been looking for
9 | A friend and I
10 | If you’ve quite done
11 | That’s the plan is it?
12 | At 2.30 sharp
13 | Well, Mr Benn
14 | Suppose you mean to do a given thing
15 | What if I were young again
16 | O Mary I try to forget you

CD 2

1 | If those cats don’t wake her
2 | A rickety stair
3 | I thought I heard a noise
4 | Murder, murder!
5 | I’d not have missed that
6 | Well, I’m sure
7 | There, that’s done / When the sun is setting
8 | A wrinkle!

The Boatswain’s Mate (recorded 1916)

Music by Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) | Libretto by Ethem Smyth, after W.W. Jacobs

National Symphony Orchestra
Conductor | Ethel Smyth

9 | Overture
10 | When rocked on the billows
11 | The Keeper
12 | A friend and I
13 | Contrariness
14 | What if I were young again
15 | Oh dear if I had known
16 | The first thing to do
17 | When the sun is setting

The Wreckers (recorded 1930)

National Symphony Orchestra
Conductor | Ethel Smyth

18 | Overture to The Wreckers

Smyth Friends | 1 anonymous donor | Ambache Charitable Trust | The Inchcape Foundation | Mariann Steegmann Foundation | RVW Trust | Woking Borough Council | Rebecca Clarke Society | John Farmer (Patron) | Jamie Findlay | David Harman | Julian Rushton | Colin Taylor | Judith Waddicor (Life Member)

Smyth Mates | 1 anonymous donor | Sarah Gavron | Piet de Jong | Roger Turner (Life Member) | Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy

Smyth Sponsors  | 1 anonymous donor | Andrew Ashbee | Diane Atkinson | Penni Blythe | Felicity Clark | Peter Dale | Tim Dowling | Peter Gilliver and Robin Darwall-Smith | Peter Graham | Remembering Aloïs Janssens | Lyndon Jones | Hiroko Kuya | Janet MacLeod Trotter | Hilary Nicholls | Sayaka Okumura | Helen Pankhurst | Corinne Langston and Desmond Scott | John Tyrrell | Christopher Wiley | Susan Wollenberg | Virginia Woolf Society of Korea

Smyth Supporters | 6 anonymous donors | Robert Anderson | Kenneth Baird | Graham Bathe | Ian Boughton | Victoria Burke | Richard Cappuccio | Alison and Hugh Chandler | Peter Christie | Alan Cope | Elizabeth Crawford | Thomas Crochunis | Claire Davison | Bill Davy | Delius Society (Philadelphia) | Federica Fortunato | Mary Froebel | Kohsuke Fukushima | Mark Fuller | Sophie Fuller | Shaun Gates | David Gregson | Richard Hall | Hiromi Harada | Paul Harvey and Harumi Takemura | Richard Haynes | Dick Hill | Simon Hopkins | George Hyde | Setsu Itoh | John and Mary Joubert | Megumi Kato | Takayuki Katsuyama | Takeshi Kawashima | Elizabeth Kertesz | Yoriko Kitagawa | Daiki Kobayashi | Stephen Lloyd | Noriko Matsunaga | Jennie McGregor-Smith | Anna Molesworth | Natasha Moore | Tetsuhito Motoyama | Lawrence Napper | Mao Nishida | Kimiyo Ogawa | Lewis Orchard | Motoko Ota | Erika Otani | Michael Pilkington | June Purvis | Tony Reavell | Hans Reinders | Ann Ridler | Patsy Rogers | Carol Anne Rosen | John Rowe | Christine Flint Sato | Susan Sawyer | S&E Regional council, TUC | Michael Sharp | Yasuko Shiojiri | Peter Shrubb | Alice Smith | Emma Sutton | Yuha Takashima | Takako Tanaka | Hilary Tann | Maureen Tarbuck | Ve-Yin Tee | Aidan Thomson | Lisa Tickner | Knud Tommerup | Masami Usui | John WardGraham and Pauline Wiley | Adrian Wright | Tae Yamamoto | Akemi Yoshida | Remembering Percy Young

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by Retrospect Opera | Work In Progress