I came across the Wellcome Collection’s extensive Marie Stopes archive in 2016 after writing to Dr Lesley Hall, former senior archivist and sexology expert, seeking advice on a different project. I quickly realised I’d already come across it at the Wellcome Collection’s fascinating “Institute of Sexology” exhibition in 2014.
The archive itself is extraordinary and unique. It contains thousands of private, intimate letters written to Marie Stopes from members of the public in response to her landmark publications on sex, birth control and parenting in and around the 1920s. The first of these publications, Married Love, was a sex manual Stopes published in 1918 to educate men and women on the most intimate details of sex, sexual desire and contraception while firmly advocating sexual equality between men and women. It became a global sensation, revolutionising attitudes to sex around the world, and was controversial not only for its contents, but because it was written by a woman.
Reading the impassioned opinions and desperate situations described in the letters led me to think about what’s changed in our attitudes to sex over the last 100 years since Married Love was written. Thankfully, so much has changed. But there are still so many opinions and attitudes towards sex, sexuality, contraception and equality in the letters that are as explosive now as they were then. This fascinated me: a historical archive giving a unique snapshot of society’s sex life 100 years ago that has poignancy and relevance today. So, I decided, of course, to turn it into an opera – with the shrewd guidance of Dr Lesley Hall and librettist Jennifer Thorp.
The piece is a chamber opera for 3 singers, viola da gamba and cello, with a libretto constructed from fragments and extracts from the archive of letters. The premise of the piece is to give a voice to some of the thousands of people who wrote to Marie Stopes sharing their most intimate stories, opinions and experiences about sex and the challenges of birth control. We learn about attitudes and problems in sex lives from the past and question our own views on these issues today.