Forgotten Central New York Suffragist Celebrated Through Opera

With the centennial anniversary of a woman’s right to vote in New York State just passed in 2017, and as the national centennial approaches in 2020, there has never been a more appropriate time than now for the community to reflect upon the courageous, uncelebrated individuals who played a part in this significant moment in history.

While suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony have been forever memorialized, their peer, Matilda Joselyn Gage, has been largely forgotten in the public sphere. Her memory has often been confined to college courses in women and gender studies and the walls of the Gage home in Fayetteville, New York.  But now, the Society for New Music is bringing attention to Matilda’s contributions through the production of a triumphant, original opera entitled, Pushed Aside: Reclaiming Gage.

Gage’s story is one of being sidelined from the very movement she helped ignite. It was Gage’s insistent belief that the liberty of one was tied to the liberty of all. She saw African Americans and Native Americans as equals and fought for their inclusion in the suffrage movement. This, however, was too radical a premise for the other activists at the time. They preferred to align themselves with the temperance movement, which was a decision Gage opposed. Thus, the Fayetteville native was snubbed and left behind.

Gage’s story has now come to life for the education and enjoyment of current residents through the power of opera.

“Art is an excellent medium to educate people because you’re involving them emotionally in the story,” said Neva Pilgrim, executive director of the Society for New Music. “An opera, in particular, has the ability to bring history to life before our very eyes.”

Historical accuracy was fundamental to Gabrielle Vehar, the opera’s librettist, and Victoria King, the stage director. Extensive research went into the making of Reclaiming Gage at every level.  Each member of the cast poured themselves into researching the history of their characters. While the opera was intended to be a learning experience for the audience, this was also true for all of the people involved in making the opera possible.

The Society for New Music partnered with the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) to bring scenes from the opera into the high school classrooms. By performing for the students of all four SCSD schools, the Society For New Music was able to include young people in important conversations surrounding history, the fight for equal rights for all, and Central New York’s significance in that struggle, which may  be unknown to many people.

“The high school performances were crucial,” said Pilgrim. “They helped the cast truly understand the impact they were having. We were also impressed by how well prepared the students were for the question & answer sessions following the scenes.”

Just as a great number of resources were required to produce the opera, the same was true for the performances in the high schools.  While finding historically correct costumes and scheduling rehearsals with an extremely busy group of talented musicians could be difficult, securing sufficient funding was the biggest obstacle for Pilgrim.  After initial funding was provided by the NYS Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC), the Central New York Community Foundation further supported the project through grant funding.

“The Community Foundation made the orchestra premiere and the high school performances possible,” said Pilgrim. “The Society for New Music and all of those who are dedicated to Gage’s legacy will always be thankful.”

The legacy of Matilda Joslyn Gage is inextricably bound to that of Central New York. During the women’s suffrage movement, the region was an epicenter of activism. While the Society for New Music always provides regional talent opportunities for performing, this commitment resonated even stronger with Reclaiming Gage due to the profound regional importance of the story.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that we don’t need to fly people in to have talent,” said Pilgrim. “Central New York has a strong cultural foundation, and we want to show it off.”

Which is exactly what Pushed Aside: Reclaiming Gage accomplishes. The opera is a celebration of social justice and the arts, two forces that have enriched Central New York in its past and continue to do so as the region looks to the future.

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