Dear Marie Stopes: ‘birth-control opera’ returns as a powerful melodic reminder

‘Please help me!’ This heart-breaking refrain from Alex Mills’ chamber opera Dear Marie Stopes is drawn from the thousands of letters which Stopes received after her sex manual Married Love was published in 1918.

Opera cast.

Dear Marie Stopes – rehearsal photograph with Liam Byrne (viola da gamba), Jess Dandy, Feargal Mostyn-Williams and Alexa Mason. (Photo Claire Shovelton)

The opera had its stunning premier last year at the Wellcome Collection (reviewed in FN, Sept 2018), and was completely sold out. This September it’s being revived at Kings Place in King’s Cross and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing it a second time.

Dear Marie Stopes has two links with Fitzrovia. In 1925 Stopes set up a family planning clinic — her second — at 108 Whitfield Street; this is still providing valuable services to women today. And the composer Alex Mills also lived in Fitzrovia for four years, and loved it here.

The September production will bring together the original team with new staging designed especially for Kings Place. Marie Stopes herself is excitingly played by countertenor Feargal Mostyn-Williams. Soprano Alexa Mason and contralto Jess Dandy take the parts of the two archivists, and then transform themselves into the desperate women who are writing to Stopes. They’re accompanied by a viola da gamba (Liam Byrne), cello (Clare O’Connell), percussion (Calum Huggan), and electronics.

Alex Mills is convinced that the issues raised by the opera are especially vital at the moment. The US state of Alabama, where all the elected representatives are white males, has recently made abortion a class A felony, which means life imprisonment for any doctor who performs one. Other states are following suit. In the UK we’re a bit better off, but in the recent campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party, the unsuccessful candidate Jeremy Hunt said that he’d be in favour of halving the legal time limit for abortions from 24 to 12 weeks. So, we do have plenty of reasons to be frightened. Dear Marie Stopes provides us with a powerful melodic reminder of the devastating impact which measures to seize control of women’s bodies can have.

Dear Marie Stopes will be performed at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1 9AG on 21 September 2019 at 4pm and 7.30 pm. Go to https://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on/classical/dear-marie-stopes-21-sep/  More information about Alex Mills: www.alexmills.info

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