Welsh opera teaches women's suffrage

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Poster for "Rhondda Rips It Up!" opera show in Crowder Hall from Nov. 8 - Nov. 10.  Courtesy of Fred Fox School of Music.

Almost 100 years ago, the Constitution’s 19th Amendment was passed — America's first step towards voter equality. Today, women at the University of Arizona and are voting, creating, teaching and breaking glass ceilings every day by being active citizens of their community.

Here at the UA, the American premiere of the Welsh opera “Rhondda Rips It Up!” came to the Fred Fox School of Music last weekend. This production was brought to life in 2018 by composer Elena Langer and librettist Emma Jenkins, and consists of an all-female cast and a female director.

The opera was commissioned to “mark the centenary of the women’s partial Suffrage Bill of 1918,” according to the PRS Foundation Website.

The opera follows the story of Margaret Haig Thomas, better known as Lady Rhondda, in her efforts to fight for the women’s suffrage movement as part of the "militant members of The Women’s Social and Political Union, more commonly known as Suffragettes,” according to the School of Music website.

As the U.S. nears its own centennial anniversary of women's voting rights, dedication to the women who began the campaign for voting rights around the world has become important to women like Cynthia Stokes, assistant professor of music at the UA.

“This idea that there’s an imbalance of power in whatever way that presents itself is really getting called out now,” Stokes said. “I think it’s really important that we do work that celebrates the fight for equality.”

According to Stokes, who is directing the production, this is the first opera written by a woman to be premiered at the UA opera theater.

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The lead actress that is playing the part of Rhondda, Diana Peralta, spoke to how much she relates to the character and her story.

“I love the part of expressing the struggle that we had and that we are still having,” Peralta said. “I am so excited to do this. I am so excited for the role because it's like a dream role for every woman who is fighting for the rights. We don’t have the justice we deserve yet.”

Being from Mexico, Peralta has seen first-hand what it’s like for women in other countries who don’t have certain rights and freedoms.

Peralta discussed some of the difficulties of playing a woman from a time when they didn’t have all the rights that women in the U.S. have today.

“It's hard to think [that] I can’t be free like that, I can’t express this emotion as I would do it because she wasn’t allowed, they weren’t allowed,” Peralta said.

According to Stokes, the show is especially relevant for college students and young people because of the show’s emphasis on the right to vote.

“We have to remember that we can’t take that right [to vote] for granted,” Stokes said. “It's keenly important that we use our agency.”

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The opera is a reminder of the importance of women being involved in the community and celebrating the fact that there have been 100 years with the right to vote, and it is not something to be taken advantage of.

Given the content of the opera, "Rhondda Rips It Up!" attracted the attention of the Arizona League of Women Voters of Greater Tucson (LWVGT).

Before the show on opening night, the LWVGT held a discussion about getting involved in the community. The president, Vivian Harte, is dedicated to getting people all around Tucson to vote and get involved in the community.

According to Harte, the National League of Women Voters of Greater Tucson was founded almost 100 years ago, on Valentine’s Day in 1920. They will be celebrating the anniversary next year. According to Harte, the League has three main missions.

“Our three parts are encouraging voting, educating the public and advocating for the positions we think are best,” Harte said.

According to Harte, Arizona doesn’t have as much voter suppression on a state level because of the Redistricting Commission. While other states across the country are trying to suppress voters, Arizona is actively trying to fight that.

Harte also commented on why it’s so important for young people to get in the habit of voting and why it’s so critical for the community. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 36% of people 18-29 voted in 2018. 

“We have important issues that the League has taken positions on that are of great importance to young people,” Harte said. “For example, climate change. What’s going to be happening with climate change? How is our country going to deal with climate change?”

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Tuition debt is particularly important to younger people, Harte said. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the country’s total student loan debt is more than $1.5 trillion as of 2018.

Whether it is through opera productions or speaking with potential voters, women of Tucson are making things happen.

According to Stokes, the important take-away from “Rhondda Rips It Up!” is not only seeing how far women have come, but recognizing that there is still so much to be done:

“We forget that these were rights that a lot of women fought and died for.”



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