Costume design for Gertrude S., The Mother of Us All, Santa Fe Opera production, 1976

Robert Indiana (born 1928)
Cut paper on board, 1976
Collection of the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio
Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin (1978.12.3)
© 2010 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS)
New York

Note: Reproduction, including downloading of Robert Indiana, work is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Stein and Virgil Thomson began their second opera, The Mother of Us All, in 1945. It was a dramatic tribute to Susan B. Anthony, a major figure in the fight for women’s suffrage in the United States. The opera presents vignettes from Anthony’s life in the manner of an old-fashioned historical pageant. The supporting cast includes figures from both American history and Stein’s biography. Thomson’s score incorporates motifs from hymns, folk songs, marches, and children’s ditties—“all those sounds and kinds of tunes that were once the music of rural America.”

Stein did not live to see the opera produced. After her death, Thomson added a character named Gertrude S. in her honor. Because Stein wrote no stage notes or directions in her libretti, Maurice Grosser devised staging for this opera, making Gertrude S. and Virgil T. commentators to pace and structure the drama.

Robert Indiana, one of many American artists attracted to Stein’s operas, created the set and costume designs for the Santa Fe Opera company’s American Bicentennial production of The Mother of Us All. Using the same flat primary color scheme he used in his pop-art paintings, the artist festooned the stage with red, white, and blue banners and issued star-spangled pickets affirming the universal right to vote. His aesthetic choices democratize the opera stage by evoking popular signage and advertising. His decorative scheme for this 1976 production built on his interpretation of 1967, when Center Opera Company produced Stein's opera at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.