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SJOG Travelers

Women as opera composers? They are now
coming along in significant numbers
By Mort Levine

A glance through the index of any comprehensive guide to operas past and present reveals that easily 99 per cent were composed by men. Its a subject rarely discussed.

Musicologists can cite woman classical composers as far back as Hildegard von Bingham, hundreds of years ago but today’s crop of women operatic composers suggest that things have only begun to change in the past five years.

Historically there have been only a few exceptions. One example was Maria Antonia Walpurgis, eldest daughter of the Elector of Bavaria in the 18th century, a patron of the arts, a singer and a poet. She also wrote music and libretti to two opera seria works mounted at courts around Europe.

Another was Pauline Viardot, member of a sort of “first family” of opera. Her dad, Manuel Garcia, was the first Count Almaviva in Rossini's Barber of Seville. Her sister was famed soprano Maria Malibran. Pauline was the lover of Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev who wrote the libretti to her several operettas performed in Baden Baden and other German cities in the 1860s.

The woman composer who may have raised the most fuss about opera composition being male dominated was Ethel Smyth, talented musician and sworn enemy of all the constraints of Victorian society. She wrote three operas in Germany after musical studies in Leipzig, one of which The Wreckers, has been performed in England in recent years. She wound up in prison for throwing a brick through the Home Secretary’s window during a London suffragette march.

On December 10, 2016 local opera fans saw on Live HD film the first female-written opera presented by the Metropolitan in 113 years. The work, L'Amour de Loin (Love from afar), is a magical work by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. This work premiered in Santa Fe several years ago and has won plaudits in several European productions.

Santa Fe Opera also premiered Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain, from a major Civil War novel. Other contemporary women who have written operas already presented or in progress include Bora Yoon (Sunken Cathedral, 2015); Olga Neuwirth, composer of four operas since 1998 (currently working on Orlando), Unsuk Chin (Alice in Wonderland, 2007), Kamala Kankaram, four operas since 2012 (Looking at You, 2016). Meredith Monk (Atlas, 1991) and Lisa Bielawa with five operas since 1996 (Vireo, 2016). Tania Leon is working on her second opera, Little Rock Nine, and Anna Clyne is currently completing her first opera Eva.Santa Fe Opera also premiered Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain, from a major Civil War novel. Other contemporary women who have written operas already presented or in progress include Bora Yoon (Sunken Cathedral, 2015); Olga Neuwirth, composer of four operas since 1998 (currently working on Orlando), Unsuk Chin (Alice in Wonderland, 2007), Kamala Kankaram, four operas since 2012 (Looking at You, 2016). Meredith Monk (Atlas, 1991) and Lisa Bielawa with five operas since 1996 (Vireo, 2016). Tania Leon is working on her second opera, Little Rock Nine, and Anna Clyne is currently completing her first opera Eva.

Premiering last September in Philadelphia was an epic work by Missy Mazzoli based on the 1996 film by Lars von Trier, Breaking Waves. The searing story came to a New York stage this month at an opera festival. The saga is of a devoted wife who follows her husband’s orders after he is paralyzed in an accident, to have sex with other men. She lives in a deeply religious small Scotland town which brings down humiliation, violence and her tragic demise. Perhaps women composers have a way of using music in a more nuanced way to tell such complex, tragic tales. We wait in anticipation.

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