Female Opera Composers: The Invisible Divas of the Opera World

met opera
art by Anne Chen

In its 2016-17 season, the Metropolitan Opera House will stage its first opera composed by a woman since 1903. This is perhaps the most surprising and enticing of the atypical choices made for the Met’s upcoming season.

Although there have been quite a few female producers, directors, and conductors involved in Met productions over the years, female composers have been woefully underrepresented by the esteemed opera house. Broadway director Susan Stroman made her Met directorial debut this past year, but the compositions of women have been completely absent from the program.

The musical theater and opera worlds are somewhat intertwined, and many opera executives have lately placed emphasis on bringing more theatrical elements to opera productions. However, on Broadway, there have been plenty of efforts made to include important storylines about women and minorities, while these narratives remain nearly unheard in the Metropolitan Opera House. Female playwrights, although a minority, are still a significant presence on Broadway, so why can’t the same be said for the New York City opera scene?

Opera has a reputation of attracting a socially conservative audience, lagging behind other art forms in terms of social progression. However, there is no established rule that complicated music telling a story through unamplified singing and extravagant sets and costumes can only appeal to such audiences.

While the opera world may have that stigma, it can—and does, to an extent—appeal to a more diverse audience. Thankfully, the Met appears to be making changes to try to cater to a wider audience.

From the operas selected for its 2016-17 season, it is clear that the Met plans on moving in an innovative direction. This year, only 11 out of 26 operas are in Italian—seven fewer than in the 2015-16 season. Instead, there are more operas in French, German, and Czech than the year before. Most of the classic operas that the Met stages frequently are in Italian, so it is evident that there are efforts being made to stage more operas that are not staged as often at the Met.

Fortunately, the fact that an opera composed by a woman was chosen for the upcoming season is not just a coincidence.

“We’re always trying to find ways to satisfy confirmed opera lovers, as well as excite new ones,” said Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb, in an interview with The New York Times. Choosing this opera was a tactical move made to attract a younger, more socially progressive audience to the Met.

The distinction Gelb made between “confirmed opera lovers” and “new” ones is one that has been observed by many in the opera world. According to Gelb, the opera world has lately been attracting a new, younger audience, but this audience’s appreciation for the art form differs from that of opera’s older fans.

While most older fans typically enjoy sitting through various productions of the same classic, timeless masterpieces, a younger audience is immersed in newer compositions with contemporary music and storylines. Operas that have been written in recent years tend to reflect more current issues, ideas, and beliefs, which are far more progressive than they were even 25 years ago.

In the past few years, the Met has selected its operas with regard to the discrepancy in taste between younger and more old-fashioned opera fans. A female composer’s work will be performed for a large audience, and in the future, it may be a gateway of opportunity for other talented female composers to have their work performed in one of the world’s most renowned opera houses.

For a Met debut that is so significant for women in opera, French opera “L’Amour de Loin” is a splendid choice. The opera, composed by Paris-based Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, was adapted from a love poem and follows the story of a starry-eyed young poet who writes to his lover who lives in Lebanon. After the opera was first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, it got rave reviews from “The New York Times,” which described it as “haunting” and “resonant.” In 2003, it won the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

Although Saariaho is the first woman to make her Met debut composing, she is merely one of many exceptionally talented female composers throughout history. Some well-received operas written by women date back to the 17th century, like Francesca Caccini’s “La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina.” A large number of these operas have been written in the past century by notable contemporary composers like Judith Weir, Unsuk Chin, and Thea Musgrave, to name a few.

These contemporary masterpieces are a mere few of the many that have been written and staged in the past century. In the late 20th and 21st centuries, women comprised a higher percentage of composers than ever before, and there are thus more women telling stories that are written for the opera stage.

Telling these stories in performance on one of the world’s most famous stages may accomplish Gelb’s goal of satisfying confirmed opera lovers while exciting new ones. Making room for more female-oriented narratives in opera is a noteworthy decision that will hopefully result in groundbreaking success.

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