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 Williams’ Hugh 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.