The Wreckers is arguably the greatest of Smyth’s operas, and certainly her most ambitious. It was her only three-act stage work and required significantly larger musical resources than any of the others. Composed in 1902–4, the opera was inspired by Smyth’s walking holiday of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles some years previously, during which she explored smugglers’ caves such as Piper’s Hole on the island of Tresco.
This brought her into contact with apocryphal tales of the locals luring ships onto rocks in order to pillage their loot, to which she added a subplot of two lovers attempting to thwart this nefarious practice by lighting warning beacons. The monumental opera that resulted was later described by the composer herself as “The work by which I stand or fall”. One of its highlights, often performed in its own right as a concert piece, is the evocative prelude to Act II, “On the Cliffs of Cornwall”.
Written with a French libretto by Smyth’s collaborator Henry Brewster as Les Naufrageurs, the opera was translated into both German (as Strandrecht) and English when attempts to secure a production in the original language proved fruitless. It was premiered at the Neues Theater, Leipzig in November 1906, prompting many curtain calls. Yet the composer, disgruntled at the extensive cuts made to the final act without her consent, withdrew her music from the orchestra pit following the opening night and, in a move she believed to be “unique in the annals of Operatic History”, took it to Prague to be played there instead (it turned out to be a woefully inadequate production). She was to wait three more years for the first stage performance in her home country, at His Majesty’s Theatre, London in June 1909; the six-night production was conducted by Thomas Beecham, who was to become one of Smyth’s strongest allies in the music profession, and it was attended by King Edward VII himself.