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The Mother of Us All

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Mother of Us All is an opera by Virgil Thomson to a libretto by Gertrude Stein. It chronicles the life of Susan B. Anthony, one of the major figures in the fight for women's suffrage in the United States. In fanciful style, it brings together characters, fictional and non-fictional, from different periods of American history.

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  • Unanimous - Returning, to the Mother of Us All!


The Woman Who is the Mother of Us All all humans can be traced back to a single female known as Mitochondrial Eve. This woman is thought to be the “mother” of all humans alive today. Seems like a big claim for scientists to make. So how do they know this? The simple explanation is that when an egg is fertilized by a sperm, the DNA from the father and mother join together in a process known as recombination. Certain DNA is only passed down from the mother or father. All mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) come exclusively from the mother, as an exact copy. Over time however, there will occur predictable mutations to mtDNA. Biologists can compare samples from individuals to determine how closely they are related- the fewer these predictable mutations, the closer the relationship. The predictability of these mutations also allows biologists to estimate the time at which a certain mutation (i.e. ancestor) lived. Beginning in 1987, several studies have been conducted that show all humans alive today have the same female ancestor and she lived approximately 200,000 years ago. A more detailed explanation is as follows. Mitochondria are a type of organelle found in almost all complex cells. They are known as the power plants of the cell because they supply an enzyme (more accurately a co-enzyme) known as adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This ATP is the source for the chemical energy needed by a cell to perform a wide range of functions. The DNA found within mitochondria have two benefits. They have 37 genes that rarely mutate, so they can be easily used as the model for an evolutionary clock, and these same genes have subsections that mutate in a predictable manner so biologists can use it as a reference for age. Sperm have only a few mitochondria (and thus mitochondrial DNA) in their tails. They use them to power their quest to the egg. As the sperm enters the egg, only the chromosomes found in the head of the sperm are preserved and used in the recombination process to create new cells. This is because the rest of the sperm cell is broken down by enzymes within the egg. So the mitochondrial DNA in the tail is lost and the only type to survive is supplied by the mother. As the human population grows from one generation to the next, women transfer this DNA evidence to their daughters. They, in turn, transfer it to their daughters. Should a woman have only a son, their mtDNA is lost, because it will never be passed to his children. However, there have been a few rare cases in which mitochondrial DNA was found recombined from both parents. Some skeptics of the Mitochondrial Eve theory use this to cast doubt on the hypothesis. This opposition is somewhat dubious as those few cases occur in people who are typically far too biologically deficient to have offspring. Thus, the prevailing assumption is that these unfortunate people have something seriously wrong with their DNA and the abnormal recombination of mtDNA will never get into the human population because of it. Even though biologists have shown that all people are descended from one person, this does not mean that only one female was alive at that time. It simply means only one set of genes have been passed down from a single point in history. Most researchers agree that “Eve” was not the only women alive because the fossil record shows much older specimens. From “Java man” at about 800,000 years to “Lucy”, the earliest known remains which are approximately 1-4 million years old. There are several theories about how just one set of genes could have survived. The most likely is a bottleneck of the human population that would set the stage for an evolutionary “lucky mother”. There have been several possible bottlenecks in history. One report, written in 1998, showed approximately 70,000 years ago humanity was down to around 15,000 people. It showed the reason behind the bottleneck was an ice age that lasted about a 1,000 years. Other reasons bottlenecks could have happened are: an asteroid impact or volcanic eruption causing drastic climate change; a continuous, widespread plague; or any situation that caused male offspring to have a better chance of survival, leaving relatively few women around to pass on their genes. While no definitive proof exists that these occurred, most researchers believe a combination of one or all of these factors are behind why we all have a common ancestor. There is another type of genetic test that can trace all humans alive today back through their father’s ancestors. This uses what is known as the Y chromosome and shows that all people today can trace their lineage back to a single father known as “Y Chromosome Adam”. Before you start throwing fuel on any religious fire, Y Adam lived at a completely different time then Eve. Approximately 60,000 -90,000 years ago. How can this be? Mitochondrial Eve is simply the most recent common ancestor of mtDNA. Y chromosomal Adam is the most recent common ancestor for Y DNA. They did not have to be a couple for both of their genes to be the source for all current humans.


Performance history

The opera premiered on 7 May 1947 at Columbia University’s Branders Matthews Hall with soprano Dorothy Dow as Susan B. Anthony.[1] Soprano Shirlee Emmons was awarded an Obie Award for her portrayal of Susan B. Anthony in the 1956 Off-Broadway production.[2] The Santa Fe Opera mounted the work in 1976 and released a recording of the work the following year on the New World Records label. The European premiere took place in Kensington Town Hall in London on 26 June 1979.[1] The New York City Opera staged a production in 2000 with Lauren Flanigan as Susan B. Anthony. In 2003, San Francisco Opera opened its 80th anniversary season with a new production of The Mother of Us All, Luana DeVol assuming the role of Susan B. Anthony for the first time.[3]


Role Voice type Premiere cast[1]
7 May 1947
(Conductor: Otto Luening)
Susan B. Anthony mezzo-soprano or dramatic soprano Dorothy Dow
Anne contralto Belva Kibler
Gertrude S. soprano Hazel Gravell
Virgil T. baritone Robert Grooters
Daniel Webster bass Bertram Rowe
Andrew Johnson tenor
Thaddeus Stevens tenor Alfred Kunz
Jo the Loiterer tenor William Horne
Chris the Citizen baritone Carlton Sunday
Indiana Elliot contralto Ruth Krug
Angel More soprano Carolyn Blakeslee
Henrietta M. soprano Teresa Stich-Randall
Henry B. bass-baritone Jacques La Rochelle
Anthony Comstock bass James Chartrand
John Adams, presumably John Quincy Adams tenor Robert Sprecher
Constance Fletcher mezzo-soprano Alice Howland
Gloster Heming baritone Michael Thberry
Isabel Wentworth mezzo-soprano Jean Handzlik
Anna Hope contralto Carlton Sunday
Lillian Russell soprano Nancy Reid
Jenny Reefer mezzo-soprano Dianna Herman
Ulysses S. Grant bass-baritone Everett Anderson
Herman Atlan high baritone
Donald Gallup baritone
A.A. and T.T., page boys or postillions
Negro Man and Negro Woman
Indiana Elliot’s Brother bass-baritone


Stein’s text for The Mother of Us All does not describe details of staging. Therefore, Thomson’s partner Maurice Grosser devised a scenario to facilitate staging the opera. Though Grosser stated that other scenarios were equally possible, his scenario is published in the printed score; this synopsis is based on it.

Act 1

Scene 1. Susan B. Anthony and her devoted companion Anne are shown at home. Anne is knitting; Susan B. is pasting clippings into a scrapbook. Gertrude S. and Virgil T. also appear as narrators.

Scene 2. A political meeting takes place, at which Webster, Johnson, Adams, Grant, Comstock, and Stevens are all present. Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen also appear, mocking the politicians’ solemnity. Susan B. introduces herself to the assembly, and she and Daniel Webster debate.

Scene 3. A public square in front of Susan B. Anthony’s house. Thaddeus Stevens argues with Andrew Johnson; there is a flowery love scene between John Adams and Constance Fletcher. Jenny Reefer begins waltzing with Herman Atlan, and everyone joins in the dance.

Scene 4. Susan B. Anthony meditates on the difficulties of her mission.

Scene 5. Jo the Loiterer and Indiana Elliot are to be married. As the wedding party gathers, various episodes unfold. John Adams courts Constance Fletcher, Daniel Webster (who is to perform the ceremony) addresses Angel More in sentimental language. Indiana’s brother bursts in, wishing to prevent the marriage, and Susan B. explains what marriage means to women. General Grant calls for order, and Jo teases him for his pomposity. It seems that the wedding is all but forgotten, but finally Daniel Webster blesses the couple and Susan B. foretells that all of their children, men and women, will have the vote.

Act 2

Scene 1. Susan B.’s home. Susan B. is doing housework when she learns that she will be asked to address a political meeting. Jo the Loiterer complains that Indiana Elliot refuses to take his last name. When Susan B. is invited to speak, she declines, then agrees, hesitates again, but finally goes off to the meeting.

Scene 2. The meeting has taken place and Susan B. returns home triumphantly. She has spoken so convincingly that the politicians, now afraid of the women’s suffrage movement, have written the word “male” into the Constitution in order to make it impossible for women to vote. Indiana Elliot has decided to take Jo’s last name, and he will take hers; they will become Jo Elliot and Indiana Loiterer. Everyone congratulates Susan B. for her leadership.

Scene 3 (Epilogue). Some years later, a statue of Susan B. Anthony is to be unveiled at the U. S. Capitol. The characters gather for the ceremony, with Anne as guest of honor. Susan B. enters as a ghost, though Anne does not see her. Constance Fletcher appears, now almost blind. Other characters talk about women's suffrage, or burst in tipsily. The ceremony threatens to get out of hand. Suddenly, Virgil T. unveils the statue. The women lay wreaths at the base of the pedestal. All slowly depart. Alone, Susan B. Anthony (as the statue) sings of the struggles and lessons of her long life.


  • Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us AllMignon Dunn, Philip Booth, Karen Beck, Sondra Stowe, Jimmie Lu Null, William Lewis, Steven Loewengart, Thomas Parker, Marla McDaniels, D'Artagnan Petty, Stephen Bryant, Ashley Putnam, et al.; Conductor: Raymond Leppard; Santa Fe Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Recorded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1976—recorded digitally (the first-ever digital recording session) but released from the superior analog master made at the same time. Label: New World Records
  • Virgil Thomson: The Mother of Us All – Noragh Devlin (as Susan B. Anthony), Scott Russell (Daniel Webster), Alexander Frankel (Jo the Loiterer), Addison Hamilton (Constance Fletcher), Carlton Moe (John Adams), et al.; Conductor: Steven Osgood; Manhattan Opera Orchestra. Recorded in New York City, 2013;[4] released 2014. Label: Albany Records.[5]


  1. ^ a b c Casaglia, Gherardo (2005). "The Mother of Us All". Almanacco Amadeus (in Italian). Retrieved 6 August 2014.
  2. ^ "Obituaries: Shirlee Emmons Baldwin". The Portage County Gazette. April 2010. 
  3. ^ "The Mother of Us All" (PDF). Performance Archive. San Francisco Opera. Retrieved 3 October 2011. 
  4. ^
  5. ^


Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle. Anthony Tommasini. W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-31858-3

This page was last edited on 13 March 2018, at 20:33.
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