Opera + Classical Music Features

The Boatswain’s Mate by Ethel Smyth

The thought of a long-forgotten opera playing in a pub theatre in Earl’s Court may send you screaming for the hills, or it may intrigue you enough to make it worth taking a look. I incline towards the latter viewpoint.

Ethel Smyth is an opera composer you might have heard of, even have heard, but you’d be in a small minority if you have actually seen one of her works performed. The opera that springs to my mind on mention of her name is The Wreckers but I couldn’t tell you anything about it or say what it sounds like. I’d take a guess that it was a musical version of a Daphne du Maurier story set on the cliffs of Cornwall (it’s not apparently well, yes, the Cornish bit but it pre-dates Ms du Maurier by a couple of decades).

Smyth is an interesting character. She was a suffragette, born in 1858, met and fell in love with Emmeline Pankhurst among others and campaigned both for women’s rights in general and women composers and performers in particular. She was made a Dame in 1922.

The Boatswain’s Mate may sound like the sub-title of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta but it is Smyth’s fourth and most obviously feminist opera, with a libretto by the composer and not seen in London for over 50 years. Written in 1914, it features a feisty heroine, perhaps based on Ms Pankhurst, who outwits a number of men with an eye on her fortune.

Described as a comic opera, it is being presented at the Finborough Theatre, SW10 by Primavera in association with Neil McPherson at the venue. It will be directed by Tom Littler, currently assistant directing on a number of West End plays and conducted by Timothy Carey, who has worked recently with The Opera Group, is resident conductor at English National Ballet and is currently assisting on several productions with The Royal Ballet.

Quite what Mr Carey will be conducting (in a room not much bigger than my bedroom) just adds to the intrigue. The management promise us a great cast but no names are available at the moment.

What with English National Opera going to the Young Vic for a couple of small-scale productions next season, maybe we are entering an era of quality pocket opera. If you’re feeling adventurous in June, put away the Covent Garden finery for once and head for Earl’s Court (turn left out of the tube, walk for 10 minutes towards the river and at a fork in the road, you’ll find nestling a friendly saloon bar with theatre room above it that’s The Finborough).

The Boatswain’s Mate plays at the Finborough Theatre from 17 June 2 July, evenings at 8.00pm. Box Office 0870 4000 838 or online booking at www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

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