Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

The Opera "Wreckers" by Ethel Smith: "Immoral" Woman as Social Conscience

Dr Ruth Robertson.

This essay compares the complicated moral character of post-Victorian British composer, prolific author, and women's suffragist Dame Ethel Smyth with Thirza, one of her operatic heroines. Thirza's role in Smyth's most widely acclaimed composition, "The Wreckers," was conceived by the composer and her lover, dramatist Henry Brewster. In his Cornish drama, "Les Naufrageurs," based on the Cornish practice of preying on survivors of shipwrecks, Thirza, defies her Wesleyan husband's encouragement of the practice of falsifying shore signals in order to cause ship wrecks. Instead, she and her illicit lover send warning beacons across the waves to help ships avoid catastrophe, but at the same time preventing the shore dwellers from harvesting the riches of the wrecked ships. The lovers pay for their "pure" morality by dying, condemned by society for their "immorality" of defying local customs. Similarly, Smyth defied Victorian morality by being a suffragist (spending time in prison for this "crime"), a woman composer (in a time when women were not expected to work for pay), taking lesbian lovers, and finally, by yielding to the amorous advances of her married librettist, Brewster.

Smyth's courage and moral stamina can provide a model for those entering the twenty-first century who are brave enough to reconsider the moral guidelines of past times.


Dr Ruth Robertson  (United States)
Associate Professor of Music
Division of Humanities, Fine Arts, and Journalism
Lincoln University of Missouri

Born in California, USA. DMA in Vocal Performance, University of Kansas, 1995; Specializing in vocal music by women composers. Publications include: “Women Recipients of the American Rome Prize.” Article for Women and Music in America Since 1900: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Kristine H. Burns. Oryx Press (Spring 2002): 9-12.

  • Ethel
  • Smyth
  • British
  • Composer
  • Opera
  • Morality
Person as Subject
  • Smyth, Ethel

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)