Smyth received critical acclaim for her writings and music while alive, but has been posthumously overlooked among other figures associated with the renaissance of British music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was also a major activist in the women's suffrage movement, composing its anthem, The March of the Women, and other feminist works.
Born in 1848 to a military upper middle-class family, Smyth was educated in London and Leipzig, where her teachers included Geistinger, Reinecke and Heinrich von Herzogenberg. She also became acquainted with Brahms, Grieg, Joachim and Clara Schumann; her works around this time, mostly songs, piano pieces and chamber music, show Germanic influences and her involvement with proponents of Brahms. Many of her piano works are also centered around women with whom she was in love, such as actor Marie Geistinger and Lisl von Herzogenberg.
Having always aspired to compose opera, Smyth began Fantasio, after a play by Musset, in 1892; the work, after much difficulty, was premiered in Weimar in 1898. Her next opera, the single-act Der Wald, received its first performance in Berlin in 1902. It was performed by the Metropolitan Opera four years later, and remains the only opera composed by a woman ever performed by the Met.
Smyth's third opera, The Wreckers, was premiered in 1906 in Leipzig and is considered her best. Set around the mid-18th century in a Cornish fishing village whose residents lure ships onto the rocky coastline to steal their cargo, the story follows two lovers who disobey their community by lighting warning beacons. The work escapes stylistic classification through its elements of German Romanticism (Der fliegende Holl‹nder, Hugo Wolf and Mahler) and the use of whole-tone clusters. Also apparent are influences of Bizet and the foreshadowings of Britten's Peter Grimes (1945) through its offstage church service. The New York Times described The Wreckers in 1972 as "quite Wagnerian but not in a bad way."
Botstein, in a recent interview with Opera News Online, called the work the "greatest opera written by a woman before 1950" and "very worth producing."
The ASO's production of The Wreckers is part of a string of recent revivals spearheaded by Botstein, including Strauss's Die ‹gyptische Helena, Zemlinksky's A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf, and the U.S. premiere of Schreker's Der ferne Klang.
"Similarly, I can think of Franz Schmidt's operas, or Mona Lisa by Max von Schilling, which are probably worth looking at ... We need to do with these works what happened to the Janšcek operas _ which were completely not in the repertory thirty-five years ago," said Botstein.
The September 30 performance marks the first of nine U.S. premieres the ASO will give in its new season at Avery Fisher Hall; others to follow include works by Hiller, Langgaard, Louri_, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Panufnik, Pizzetti, Shcherbachov and Johann Strauss, Sr.