Odaline de la Martinez has conducted the debut recording of Ethel Smyth’s Fête Galante with Retrospect Opera. She tells CM about the process of reviving this work

Having received recognition as the first woman to conduct a complete BBC Prom concert in 1984, I was asked by the 1990 Chard Festival of Women in Music to put together an all-woman orchestra to perform a program of women composers. It was then that I realised that, as a woman composer and conductor, I had been programming a disproportionate number of male-composed works and neglecting so many good works by women.

Being involved in the festival opened my world to some very fine women composers and to how much of their music had disappeared. The first major find was Dame Ethel Smyth, a trailblazer and pioneer, who had been a suffragette, and who had received much recognition during her lifetime despite her reputation as an eccentric and yet had been accepted by the establishment. She is one of the most important opera composers in the first half of the 20th century. Her operas received performances in Leipzig, Covent Garden, and until very recently, the only woman to have her opera performed at the New York Met. Her music, however, had been almost forgotten since her death in 1944.

Smyth’s Serenade in D had been recommended to me for the Chard Festival and upon looking at the score it was a very fine work. I obtained a photocopy of the manuscript and the festival provided the money to create a set of parts, which were not available. The unavailability of scores and parts has been the fate of so many women composers in history. It was this awareness that set me on a path to the discovery and performance of many women composers and to record their works on my own record label Lorelt as well as many others.

I find myself in the unique position of having recorded Smyth’s third, fourth, and fifth operas – the first two being withdrawn by the composer herself.

Smyth’s third opera The Wreckers (1902-1904) received its first modern professional performance under my direction at the BBC Promenade Concerts in 1994. John Drummond, in charge of the Proms at the time, was generous in providing an editor to edit the orchestral score and from the score to create the orchestral parts. He knew that the score and parts were in terrible and neglected conditions. I remember picking up a trumpet part that almost disappeared in my hands.

The Wreckers was the opera Smyth felt was her greatest work. It is a large and highly dramatic work – grand opera at its best – with sizeable orchestral, vocal and choral forces and two major themes: that of the outsider and man the sea. It is dramatic, moving and for the first time, an opera where the heroine was not a victim, but a strong female who chooses her fate.

By the time Smyth wrote her fourth opera, The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-1914), her world had changed. Her ‘soulmate’ Henry Brewster, librettist of her first three operas, had died after a protracted illness. Smyth had met Emmeline Pankhurst and spent two years as a suffragette, and she had become disappointed with the British opera establishment. She also felt at the time that the English temperament was more suited to comedy.

The score quoted English folk melodies, alluded to nursery rhymes and at one time even used the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth. I suspect Smyth used them to make her audience feel included as well as amused. The overture didn’t quote any of the melodies in the opera itself. It did, however generously quote The March of the Women, a song written by her for a great meeting of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union – led by Emmeline Pankhurst) at the Royal Albert Hall in 1911 and sung by the women as they entered the hall.

It shows a fluidity and freedom that brings out the depth and multiple levels of emotion found in the work

Smyth’s fifth opera Fête Galante (1921-1922) was yet another change in her sound world and her narrative. The work represented a difficult period when Smyth had begun to lose her hearing.

The story is based on her long-time friend Maurice Baring’s 1909 collection Orpheus in Mayfair in a poetic version by Edward Shanks. I see the narrative as a story within a story: the king and queen give a party where the guests are dressed in period costumes, wearing masks and dominos. A group of actors (who move and dress like puppets) are invited to entertain the guests. The king suspects the queen of having a lover; among the actors Columbine feels ignored by Pierrot, her lover and assumes he is betraying her; Pierrot believes the queen has been betrayed and will do anything to save her; a vocal group, called Four Puppets in the score, allude to what is about to happen, like a Greek chorus. As the story unfolds, beautiful music begins.

Fête Galante was premiered at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1923 by Sir Thomas Beecham and his newly founded British National Opera Company with further performances by the same company in Covent Garden. The opera was very well received, which encouraged Smyth to arrange it as an orchestral suite and later as a ballet. Fête Galante, in my opinion, is Smyth’s best opera. It shows a fluidity and freedom that brings out the depth and multiple levels of emotion found in the work.

Recordings of Smyth’s third, fourth and fifth operas are available from Retrospect Opera. Fête Galante is being released on 15 November.

The soloists are Simon Wallfisch, Mark Milhoffer, Charmian Bedford, Alessandro Fisher, Carolyn Dobbin and Felix Kemp, and the ensemble is Lontano.

Odaline de la Martinez has recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 LUKAS, the Latin UK awards.