Shira Haas, Sarah Paulson to Star In Movie About Jewish Conductor Ethel Stark – Kveller
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Shira Haas, Sarah Paulson to Star In Movie About Jewish Conductor Ethel Stark

"Ethel" will tell the story of the history-making conductor who led Canada’s first women’s orchestra.


via Getty Images

In September of 2022, I was thrilled to discover that Shira Haas would be starring as Canadian Jewish conductor Ethel Stark in a biopic about the woman who led the first all-female orchestra in Montreal.

This week, I was excited to discover that not only is the movie, pithily titled “Ethel,” still happening, but that another incredible actress, Sarah Paulson, will be joining the cast as Ethel’s benefactor, Madge Bowen. The movie is currently in pre-production, and will be directed by Aisling Welsh.

Here is the movie’s official synopsis: “Ethel is a fierce talent; a musical prodigy determined to realise her talent and fulfill her dream. As with many trailblazers, she’s ahead of her time, and must break through the social boundaries of the 1940s – a world which doesn’t recognise her talent, because she’s ‘only a woman’. With her fiancée now at war in Europe, Ethel feels alone and must go into battle by herself. But she is not alone: women just like her, from every walk of life, are struggling to be heard while they chase their own dreams.

“Madge Bowen is a corseted socialite who desires more than tea parties and country clubs. Violet Grant is a young black musician, confined by ‘race’ as much as by gender, and is finding it impossible to make her way. Each has music inside them, ready to burst out. And when guided by Ethel, they organise an informal troupe of all-female musicians, they become united in hope. Through friendship, performance and entertainment, this talented group of women step from the shadows into the light and are heard by the world – and we celebrate their triumph.”

As I wrote back in 2022, Stark was just 29 years old when she made history as the founder and the conductor of Canada’s first women’s orchestra, Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra, also known as MWSO. She co-founded the group with the help of wealthy Canadian socialite Madge Bowen in 1940, a time when women were believed to be not only mentally but physically incapable of playing instruments in an orchestra.

“I remember that review that women’s lips could serve a better purpose than playing wind instruments,” one of the members of MWSO recalled in a 2012 CBC radio documentary about the orchestra produced by David Gutnick.

It took Stark and Bowen 10 days to get the orchestra together, recruiting women who played instruments and asking them to bring along any other girl they knew who played a musical instrument, or even had an affinity for music, so they could be assigned an instrument. The group included lots of housewives, stenographers, maids, teachers — women of every class, religion and race, according to Maria Noriega Rachwal, a musicologist who wrote a book about Stark and MWSO. And it was no ragtag band of amateurs; Stark “was demanding. She knew what she wanted; she got the utmost out of the group of women.” In the first years of the MWSO, hundreds of women wrote to Stark congratulating her and wishing to join the orchestra.

“Ethel didn’t realize it, and neither did we, but she was beginning a movement of feminism among women musicians,” said Pearl Rosmarin, one of the cellists of MWSO.

“She was a pioneer for women’s rights and advancements in the arts,” said Montreal archivist Jessica Zimmerman in a 2020 Jewish Public Library podcast episode. 

Stark’s orchestra went on to make history as the first Canadian orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1947. The reviews were glowing, and it was a boon for Canada, according to Noriega Rachwal.

There’s still no release date for “Ethel,” but Haas has plenty to keep her busy. This year, the Emmy-nominated actress, who most recently starred in Netflix’s “Bodies,” will play Nancy in the new West End musical “Opening Night,” based on the John Cassavettes film of the same name, with music by the one and only Rufus Wainwright.

Haas’ character is a Jewish teen who gets killed early in the show after running after her favorite actress (in the film a shiva is held for her). She then returns to haunt said actress. Haas really knows how to pick her musical projects, from “Unorthodox” to “Opening Night” to this super thrilling upcoming biopic.

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