Richard Owen MARY DYER The Corporal      

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Even the most devoted opera lover may not know of this well-wrought, theatrically viable 1976 three-act work by New York-born Richard Owen (that’s Federal Judge Richard Owen, by the way), which is based on the end-of-life experiences of Mary Dyer, one of the future United States’ first religious martyrs. Mistress Dyer was hanged on Boston Common on 1 June 1660 for being a Quaker. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony were Calvinists with a difference. They effectively created a theocracy, a government run by religious officials who rigidly enforced their own sect’s specific principles. Political power in the colony was vested exclusively in fellow believers, Puritans with what would now be called a strict religious “agenda.” Political position in the colony came only through membership in the church, not through land ownership as was the case in other colonies.

The Puritans held the belief that all mankind merited eternal damnation, but at the same time believed that a merciful God had graciously granted salvation to a special few, the Elect. They also believed that salvation came at a cost—God’s chosen people were bound by a covenant to see to the enforcement of God’s laws (as they perceived them) in earthly society. Moral failure would result in the sternest possible punishment. Good behavior alone would not win salvation for the Massachusetts Puritans, it would only assist them in their temporal existence to sidestep wars, famines, and other forms of divine wrath. The obsessive concern with “moral” comportment produced a concurrent fascination on the part of each Puritan with the activities of his neighbors. Those who identified as other than Puritan, such as members of the group of progressive Christians that later came to be known as the Society of Friends (Quakers) were not of the Elect, and the first Quakers to arrive in Boston (summer 1656) were brutally treated, imprisoned, and expelled on order of the Massachusetts General Court. The Court subsequently imposed penalties on Quakers entering the colony (20 May 1656), then banned all Quaker meetings (29 May 1658), and finally imposed the death penalty upon Quakers who returned in defiance of the edict of expulsion (October 1658). Mistress Dyer refused to deny her beliefs or to cease to bear witness for them. Though she wasn’t the first Quaker hanged on the Common as a blasphemer, she was the first woman to die for practicing her “impure” form of Christianity. (That, in fact, is a modern reading of the situation—the Puritans did not recognize any Quaker as a Christian at all.)

This is the historical background behind the action in Mary Dyer, which the bold New York Lyric Opera presented in its first staged production in February 1979 at New York University. Richard (also his own librettist), who studied composition with Vittorio Giannini, always wrote accessible music. He has said, “If I can’t sing it and if I don’t think a singer can sing it easily, I don’t write it.” This concern for the comfort of both performer and public tended to provoke a lukewarm (at best) critical response to his work. In the 1970s there was still the tendency to regard any new entry into the operatic lists that was both approachable to the singers and listenable to the average rather than sophisticated music lover as retrogressive, a throwback to a way of composing that was passé and no longer viable. Richard’s opera falls into a category about halfway between the level of historical/literary American musical accomplishment that includes such works as Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount and Deems Taylor’s Peter Ibbetson and the intensely theatrical but still musically conservative works of Gian-Carlo Menotti. The ultimate Owen product may not be quite as grand as the first two mentioned (both were designed for the size of forces and amount of space associated with the Metropolitan Opera, where each was produced) or brim with quite as many coups de théâtre as Menotti’s stage works, but the lineage is there: with regard to structure, fidelity to an ideal, portrayal of actual events and intelligent invention of ancillary ones, variety of stage pictures, confrontations of characters, and musical forms (solos, ensembles, choruses with and without soloists, orchestral commentary), the comparison is not forced.

The composer was fortunate in his prima donna, the American soprano Lynn Owen, who just happened to be his wife. Lynn owned one of those sturdy, all-purpose spinto sopranos (nothing whatever pejorative intended there) with a clear tone and a strong top, though unlike most of the breed, she had begun as a full lyric happy to display her high E-flat. She came from rural Wisconsin with the venerable Scandinavian name Rasmussen, but she was already Owen by the time Rudolf Bing engaged her for the Metropolitan Opera in 1964. Mr. Bing wanted the potent sound she could bring to the top line of the Valkyrie octet (Helmwige) and to Sophie’s stern duenna, Marianne Leitmetzerin, in Der Rosenkavalier, during regular performances, but also needed what she had to offer in such demanding leading roles as Puccini’s Minnie and Wagner’s Senta in the weekday matinees the company put on for New York’s secondary school students. Not only did she make her debut as Marianne, she was also covering the role of the Marschallin that season (as well as Tosca, Desdemona, and Fiordiligi!). What greater set of abilities could a composer-husband ask for in an interpreter of his music? I always remember her telling of how the Rosenkavalier conductor, Thomas Schippers, was brutal to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in rehearsal, and that the great German soprano, preparing for her very belated Met debut, took it stoically, like the true professional she was, and did her best to comply with the maestro’s demands, reasonable or not. “I learned so much from her. If an artist of Schwarzkopf’s stature could take it on the chin like that, I knew I had to do it, too, if the problem ever came up, and not let my emotions overwhelm me under pressure,” Lynn said.

The circumstances under which I had the pleasure of joining the distinguished cast assembled for Mary Dyer (we were conducted by Anthony Morss and directed by Robert Brewer) harked back to earlier experiences detailed elsewhere on this website. I was engaged to accompany all the auditions (two long days of playing for many fine New York-based artists) but sang the first audition myself (one half each of a Berlioz and a Jack Beeson aria!), and was engaged for the endearing role of a young corporal who is sympathetic to Mistress Dyer’s plight, who tends to her in prison, and who at the very end of the opera rushes off, too late, to attempt to halt her execution. As can be seen in the photograph, it was decided that a seventeenth-century Puritan in his teens (though played by a thirtysomething baritone who could still “pass”) wouldn’t wear a uniform but would be garbed in the standard male dress of the time. I must say it was a joy to work on a production with a living composer. Richard sat with pen and score in hand, listening intently, and from time to time made alterations that he felt would improve a given passage. At one rehearsal, he called me over and asked if I would sing a different pitch on a certain word instead of the one in the score that I had been singing. I of course agreed (it was a very nice change), and as I walked back into the stage set heard him say, “That will sound so well in his voice.”

Possibly Mary Dyer would resonate with audiences now more than it did then. In the decades since it was new, the lamentable resurgence of religious intolerance in the nation makes the libretto into a living cautionary tale. While there seems little likelihood of a return to the kind of theocratic dictatorship that ran Massachusetts Bay Colony, it won’t be for lack of trying on the part of an incredibly vocal minority for whom legislating a certain concept of “morality” is a constant goal, and to whom complete suppression of those who disagree seems like a perfectly fine idea. The firm belief that one form of Christianity and one form only is the “divinely directed” one and somehow meant to prevail over all others (never mind over non-Christian beliefs, it goes without saying) would certainly feel familiar, meet, right, and salutary to our Puritan forefathers. The folly of our ways where religious dogma is concerned can easily be seen in countless unfortunate chapters of human history—or in the scenes of a serious opera based on one of those “chapters”!


© Bruce Burroughs 2017