on “Ask Richard,” a question about female composers

 If it’s Tuesday on “Operatoonity,” it’s “Ask Richard”: 

Dear Richard, 

How many female opera composers are there? Is the author of this blog sexist? I mean, I haven’t read about a woman composer yet in 120-some posts. 

Cranky in Kankakee 

  

Dear Cranky, 

Dr. Richard Rohrer, Hankey's self-appointed opera expert

 

First, let me say that I don’t think the author of the blog is sexist. I happen to know on good authority she’s hit the glass ceiling several times during her 15-year career in marketing/communications. And you’re wrong about what’s-her-name not featuring any female composers. Last April she wrote about Tiffany Moon, composer of a series of Harry Potter operas. I can’t give you an exact number on woman opera composers either, but yours is a good question and merits some discussion. 

At least as it relates to French opera, historian Jacqueline Letzter has cited two factors: “the relative openness of theaters to composers and librettists in general, and the accessibility and propriety of the domi operatic genres for women” in a book she coauthored called Women Writing Opera. 

Here are a few notable female composers: 

  • Francesca Caccini (1587–1630) is credited as the first female Italian opera composer, and recognized by Monteverdi.
  • Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) is perhaps most famous for her work for the suffragettes; however, she also wrote several operas of note, including The Wreckers.
  • Thea Musgrave (born 1928) is a Scottish 20th century composer, known for her dramatic abstract style, and operas including Mary, Queen of Scots, and Harriet, the Woman Called Moses.
  • Judith Weir (born 1954) began composing full-length operas in 1987 with A Night at the Chinese Opera.

But I’d like to single out one composer in particular, Philadelphia composer Margaret Garwood, born 1927, whose work, The Scarlet Letter, will be seen right here in Eastern Pennsylvania this fall, presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia–the world-premiere, in fact. Garwood’s work is an operatic retelling of the Hawthorne classic. The Scarlet Letter opens November 19, 2010 at the Merriam Theater for three performances. She has written four operas, numerous song cycles, and works for combined chorus and orchestra. Her operas have received fully staged productions in New York, Philadelphia and on the West Coast. She has written the librettos to all her own operas, with the exception of the first one. 

If you’re in the mood for further reading on the topic of women composers, just visit the Women in Music Festival site, sponsored by the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester. 

Yours in all things opera, 

Dr. Richard Rohrer 

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