Max Caplan realized it was quite a serious challenge, but still, he couldn't wait to get started.
It was more than two years ago now that Caplan, after playing his senior recital at Union College, was asked by the Musicians of Ma'alwyck to produce an opera about a grandiose publicity stunt during the fight for women's suffrage in 1916. The work he came up with, "Aleda or the Flight of the Suff Bird Women," will be performed by the Musicians of Ma'alwyck this Friday through next Sunday at the CLYNK, located in the Glenville Business and Technology Park on Route 5.
"That was the first time anyone had made a request like that, so it was pretty exciting," said Caplan, remembering when Musicians of Ma'alywck director and violinist Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz approached him a month following his musical performance and made the proposal. "I knew it would be a big challenge, but I've also been into opera since I was 12. My sister and I used to put on operas with stuff animals."
Before he started his work as a composer, Caplan had to take on the role of historian. The story of Leda Richberg-Hornsby flying a plane over Woodrow Wilson's Yacht on Dec. 2, 1916, and dropping leaflets that read, "Women Want Liberty Too," was pretty obscure before the recent celebration commemorating women earning the right to vote in New York in 1917. Even now, it remains a story familiar to only those who have seriously studied the women's suffrage movement.
"The first thing I did was to start doing research on the people and events, and it turned out to be harder than I thought," said Caplan, who lives in Niskayuna, graduated from Union in 2016, and just recently got his masters in music composition at the University of Hartford. "I thought I'd go to Wikipedia and it would all be there. But I found a history blog and found some articles on Leda, the pilot, who is our protagonist. I found some very interesting interviews with her that were very helpful."
After familiarizing himself with the story, Caplan had to make a few more decisions about how to present the story and how to best use the location and characters. Then, it was time to start composing.
"I tried to incorporate some period elements into the opera, like ragtime, march music and vaudeville," explained Caplan. "I also actually quoted a song about the Suffrage Movement from that time period called 'Daughters of Freedom.'"
Both Caplan's finished product and his work ethic impressed Barker Schwartz.
"We watched his senior recital two years ago and we thought the kid was incredible," remembered Barker Schwartz. "That's why we reached out to him, and he really tackled the project. He ran with it, and he did a great job of assimilating all these components into an opera. We have commissioned pieces for instruments before, but never something on this scale. Max has done a great job and we weren't surprised. He so stood out at his recital we realized he was a fabulous talent."
Siena College professor Kysta Dennis is serving as director of the production, which is being sponsored by Siena College. She too was impressed by Caplan's work, which she compared to that of Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who wrote the popular Christmas opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," and also won Pulitzers for "The Consul" and "The Saint of Bleecker Street." Menotti died in 2007 at the age of 96.
"Max is going far, and I think this opera also has the potential to go very far," said Dennis, an Albany native who has been teaching at Siena for three years. "To me his work is in the same vein as Menotti's. It's really fascinating, and it's been wonderful to see the singers really get settled into the music."
Caplan's opera begins at an airfield base in Midland Beach, Staten Island, where Richberg-Hornsby is working as an exhibition pilot. Disappointed about being rejected by the U.S. Flying Corps in France, she's thinking about heading back home to Chicago before she meets two prominent members of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association, Ida Blair and Mary Otis Wilcox. The two women had hatched a plan to "bomb" a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty where Wilson, in his yacht, was part of the program. Not a big fan of women's suffrage, Wilson had just been elected to a second term a few weeks earlier.
What they needed was a pilot and Richberg-Hornsby was just what they were looking for. She was the first woman to graduate from the Wright Flying School in Dayton, Ohio - her instructor was Orville Wright - and the eighth women in the U.S. to receive a pilot's license. Richberg-Hornsby jumped at the chance to help the women, and while the trip was successful - Wilson's yacht was bombarded with pamphlets - strong winds resulted in a crash landing. Fortunately, neither Richberg-Hornsby or Blair, who accompanied her on the flight, were badly hurt.
"I was researching suffrage events and came across this incredible story of this female pilot bombing Woodrow Wilson's yacht," said Barker Schwartz. "They took off in gale force winds but they were so determined and so committed they wouldn't think about not doing it. I thought, 'this is a great base for an opera.' It's such a great story and with such great sympathetic characters."
Making up the cast are Tess McCarthy as Leda, Jean Leonard as Ida Blair, Erica Sparrow as Staten Island suffrage leader Mary Otis Wilcox and Byron Nilsson as a reporter for the New York Sun. Siena College's Timothy Reno is the musical director, overseeing eight musicians.
Before Richberg-Hornsby and her flight takes the stage, Dennis will offer a different look at the Suffrage Movement with a short one-act play, "Burden of the Ballot," penned by the Siena College professor. Her story gives a different view of women's suffrage, focusing on the lives of Emily and and Katherine Rankin, who lived at Cherry Hill in Albany.
"I've done a lot of research on the women's vote, and not everyone thought it was a great idea," said Dennis. "The folks at Cherry Hill contacted me and asked me to write a play about the Rankin family. Well, Emily and her mother, Katherine, were both anti-suffragists, and my play is basically about a garden party that goes wrong with the ladies of Albany."
Dennis is also directing the play, while making up the cast are Kellyrose Marry, Sydney Paluch, Janet Hurley-Kimlicko and Sandra Boynton.
'Aleda or the Flight of the Suff Bird Women' and 'Burden of the Ballot'
WHERE: CLYNK, Glenville Business and Technology Park, Route 5, Scotia
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $25, $10 for students
MORE INFO: Visit www.musiciansofmaalwyck.org