She’s Been Working on the Railroad: Opera Restores Women to History

Composer and Professor Lisa DeSpain (LaGuardia Community College) never expected her music to rewrite history. But that’s what happened when she teamed up with librettist Rachel J. Peters to enter Utah Opera’s call to commission works celebrating the Transcontinental Railroad’s 150th anniversary. 

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 when the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad met in Utah. Utah Opera wanted to honor those whose contributions have largely been ignored by history. When DeSpain and Peters saw a historic photograph of the crowd where the final track was laid, their first question was, “Where are the ladies?”

The premise of their comic opera, No Ladies in the Lady’s Book, stems from an article published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the premier women’s publication of the time that stated “no woman” helped build the railroad. Yet at that same time, women held over 95 patents for inventions directly related to the railroad.

The opera opens with editor-in-chief Louis Godey and an assistant writing their erroneous article. A series of women challenge them, including Catherine Gibbon, who redesigned the rails; Jane Swisshelm, who was responsible for tail lights; and Mary Jane Montgomery, who redesigned the wheel.

Video of Utah Opera’s staging of Lisa DeSpain and Rachel Peters’ opera restoring women to their rightful place in the history of the transcontinental railroad.

One section details the impressive Sarah Bagley, a master telegrapher. DeSpain used Morse code for “stop” to create the underlying ostinato pattern for the aria. DeSpain’s other influences in writing the music included hymns, folk songs, Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid, and even Gilbert & Sullivan.

The opera is a comedy and the audience can be heard responding with laughter throughout a performance caught on video. “I believe comedy is a powerful medium to convey serious topics,” DeSpain said. “When the telegraph operators sing, ‘We keep it running according to plan, earning three-quarters as much as a man,’ we laugh, but it hits home in a way that a dramatic portrayal of the same line may not.”

The opera was such a hit, they’ve been asked to expand it, which means there’s more room to keep broadening history’s narrative. “There are so many women we had to cut out because of time,” she said. “Nancy Wilkerson’s cattle car aria coming right up!”