In 1918, birth-control advocate Marie Stopes published Married Life, a book that ignited a firestorm of controversy for its daring premise that women should be able to control their own sexuality. One hundred years on, Stopes’ ideas are anything but universally accepted, as composer Alex Mills observes in programme notes for Dear Marie Stopes, receiving two performances at Kings Place.
Dear Marie Stopes is short (45 minutes) but potent, with its sometimes heartbreaking text that comes from the thousands of letters written to Stopes in the wake of her book’s publication.
Mills and librettist Jennifer Thorp have judiciously chosen extracts that highlight the ignorance and fear that drove men and women to turn to Stopes. The extracts also reveal Stopes’ less savoury side as a supporter of eugenics and her sympathetic but frank responses to letter-writers, notably her reply to one woman suffering gonorrhoea: “You should not think of marriage.”
Soprano Alexa Mason and contralto Jess Dandy are compelling as the voices of the letter writers; Mason’s wide-eyed desperation as a woman for whom a 15th childbirth might mean death is haunting. Marie Stopes’ own words are voiced by a countertenor (an impressive Feargal Mostyn-Williams), which adds vocal colour to the music while also changing the dynamics among the three performers because the voice of authority (Stopes) is masculine.
There’s solid direction from Nina Brazier, and the runway-like set and video (Lucía Sánchez Roldán) enhance the production.
Premiered in 2018 at the Wellcome Collection (where the Stopes letters are housed) as part of the Tête à Tête festival, Dear Marie Stopes is a first-rate addition to the catalogue of one-act operas.