New opera is based on letters about birth control pioneer Marie Stopes’ sex manual Married Love
PUBLISHED: 11:22 05 September 2019
In ‘Dear Marie Stopes’ Alex Mills sets “heartfelt, emotional” letters from grateful women to meditative music
When Marie Stopes published her trail-blazing sex manual Married Love, she invited readers to get in touch.
She was inundated with letters from doctors, clergymen and - heartbreakingly - desperate women who had struggled through years of unwanted pregnancies and infant deaths.
This remarkable archive wound up in the library of Euston-based Wellcome Collection where composer Alex Mills found it a "rich source material" for an opera.
He says 'Dear Maries Stopes' is not a biography of the academic and women's rights campaigner, who lived in Well Walk Hampstead from 1909-1916.
Rather it examines how she was a "catalyst" for changing attitudes to women's sexuality and reproduction.
"Its not Marie Stopes the opera," says Mills, who first learned of the birth control pioneer from a scene in Downton Abbey.
"When the book came out, it gave practical information about reproduction and sexual pleasure that no-one, let alone a female writer had written about so frankly about before.
"There was an outpouring of thanks from men and women from all sections of society and from all over the world.
"They were also asking more questions - she was a catalyst for a huge sexual revolution and had opened a Pandora's Box. She became an agony aunt - and needed four secretaries to respond to all these letters."
Mills' opera focuses on Stopes' correspondence with her readers in the early 1920s.
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"I'm always looking for interesting emotionally-charged texts and these letters are an amazing source," he adds.
"They are almost like streams of consciousness, long, private heartfelt, often anonymous letters which provided rich content to set to music. The most heartbreaking are from desperate often poor women who didn't have information about birth control.
"Many had children who had died and were asking how to have children safely and look after their bodies - 100 years on, there are lots of parts of the world where women are still in that position."
Working with Sexology expert and archivist Dr Lesley Hall and writer Jennifer Thorp, Mills' has set a curated selection of letters to music which he describes as "poignant, melodic and mediative."
"The opera has a sacred quality to it, it's inspired by plainchant in churches so it's quite solemn."
Published in 1918, Married Love ran to six printings in the first few weeks - even though it was banned in the United States for two years.
It was ahead of its time in championing female sexual pleasure, marriage as an equal partnersip and consensual marital sex.
Stopes would go on to write other works focusing on birth control and to set up Britain's first clinic in Holloway in 1921.
After learning more about Stopes, Mills was spurred on by the resonances with sexual inequality and female reproduction today.
"I got the idea for the opera in 2017," he says.
"Trump had come into power, there were marches about women's reproductive rights, and a clampdown on abortion rights. In the UK, our government had made a pact with the anti-abortion DUP. Female sexuality and bodily freedom were at the top of the news agenda, then I came across this incredible archive at the Wellcome Collection about this very topic that had been written 100 years ago.
"We are still having those same conversations and I saw these letters as a time capsule of attitudes to sex and sexuality from 100 years ago as a way to tap into the thoughts, opinions and views right now and make us think about what's changed since they were written, and what hasn't."
'Dear Marie Stopes is at Kings Place, Kings Cross on September 21. kingsplace.co.uk
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