Tag Archives: Margaret Garwood

Red-letter opera gets an “A”

AVA soprano Corinne Winters as Hester Prynne/AVA photo

American composer Margaret Garwood said that she was stirred to write operas about the victimization of women. Watching her latest opera The Scarlet Letter, playing to a packed house at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia yesterday, I felt as though I touched her passion and her purpose for writing this work. While staying textbook true to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale, Garwood made a powerful statement about tolerance—artistically and socially—through the medium of opera.        

It’s a tragic story—a relentlessly black tale about Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear the scarlet “A” on her breast for committing adultery, though her husband never makes it to the New World,  believed to have been lost at sea. The townsfolk are vengeful and vigilant antagonists, relentless in their need to punish Hester for her sin. They are like the tall sturdy trees which often filled the stage to haunting effect—never bending, never swaying, each one as indistinguishable as the next. Yet, Garwood found many shades of light in the dark dismal Puritan settlement that was seventeenth-century Boston. Amidst unconscionable censure, Hester’s essential goodness, devotion to duty, and her abiding loyalty to the Reverend Dimmesdale all found expression in Garwood’s music.        

Garwood’s The Scarlet Letter was a world premiere produced by the Academy of Vocal Arts, itself a premier training company for professional opera singers. Their production evidenced solid production values, buoyed first by the singing—the soloists and the ensemble. Corinne Winters’ portrayal of Hester was both powerful and nuanced. Her pitch-perfect soprano, like Hester’s forbearance, was a beacon, soaring above the nattering townsfolk who would rather Hester live than be hanged so they could see her suffer more. Zach Borichevsky’s portrayal of Rev. Dimmesdale became stronger and more compelling the further he slipped into the profound anguish that eventually claimed his life.        

The chorus numbers were deftly written and a true highlight of this production—all of the AVA students’ fine voices combining to, at times, chilling effect. The set design was clever—almost a character in itself, commenting on the narrative. Set pieces whirled effortlessly around the stage like dervishes, churning up Hester’s sin again and again—sometimes a church, then a gallows, then a prison and finally returning to the gallows. The most evocative, magical scene in the entire work was Hester’s dream sequence, in which all of the elements—music, set, stage movement, and lighting design worked together to near-perfect effect.        

My only criticism of the production was that the orchestra, though comprised of highly skilled players, was too loud too often, forcing the singers to compete with it to be heard. In opera, the audience is there to hear the singers above all else. The audience can still appreciate fine orchestration at a volume that doesn’t overpower the singers–something I wish the conductor would have acknowledged during the Sunday performance.        

At curtain call, the audience was full of brotherly love, generous in showing their appreciation for the opera students studying their profession and, most especially, for the talented composer who lived and worked in their city. It was a thrilling experience to see the composer of an opera take a bow with the cast and the conductor, and one I won’t soon forget.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, North American Opera, opera firsts, Premieres, Reviews

meet opera composer Margaret Garwood, whose ‘Scarlet Letter’ premieres next month

Margaret Garwood’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’ premieres in Philadelphia

The City of Philadelphia welcomes the world premiere of a Nathaniel Hawthorne tale he himself once envisioned as opera. The Scarlet Letter, an opera written by American composer Margaret Garwood, adapts Hawthorne’s classic novel of the same name and will be presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts on November 19, 20, and 21, at the Merriam Theater.      

Last spring, when I first learned about AVA’s presentation of The Scarlet Letter, I was immediately interested in learning more about the opera and about Ms. Garwood. My initial research left me intrigued. One might also call it possessed–because she is a contemporary female composer writing into her eighties and because of the subject matter she’s tackled throughout her career. I had presumed that The Scarlet Letter had been a favorite read of hers as it was of mine–or that it had haunted her (as it had me) until she finally gave voice to its intrigue via writing a contemporary opera. And because Margaret Garwood’s classical career is unique.      

She did not begin to compose until her mid-thirties. In 1964, she and Miriam Gideon began a student-mentor relationship lasting until Gideon’s death in 1996. Before receiving her Master’s degree in Composition from the University of Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she had already written two operas, several song cycles, a ballet, and a few smaller works. She has been the recipient of fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, ASCAP, AMC, the National Opera Institute, and the National Federation of Music Clubs.      

One online site described her as possessing “a gift for lyrical vocal writing and a deft hand with instrumental colors and textures.”      

Through her publishing company, Hildegard Publishing, I was able to request an interview, and Ms. Garwood graciously agreed, despite the fact that proofreading orchestral parts has been consuming every spare minute of her time.      

Welcome to “Operatoonity,” Ms. Garwood!      

Tell us a little bit about your impetus for writing The Scarlet Letter. I’ve always felt an affinity with Hawthorne because of our common ancestry, i.e., the Puritans and the emotional and psychological climate that was passed down to us from them. In 1975, I got interested in Hawthorne scholarship, especially Frederick Crews book “The Sins Of The Fathers,” based on a Freudian analysis of Hawthorne’s psychological themes, especially The Scarlet Letter. As Hawthorne himself said when questioned, he didn’t think it could be done as a play, but he did think it would make a good opera.      

Since I didn’t think I had the maturity as a composer to set this, having had only written two other operas, I decided to set some of Hawthorne’s short stories. I decided on Rappaccini’s Daughter first. Ten years later. when I finished it, I began to have glimmerings of The Scarlet Letter, but had other pieces I needed to work on. Then in 1992 I wrote an approximation of the libretto. In 1997, I started writing the opera full time. In 2002, The Academy of Vocal Arts performed Act 1. From that time on, I worked on the rest of the opera and finished it in 2010. And that’s the short answer!      

The Academy of Vocal Arts describes the score as neo-Romantic. Is that how you would characterize it? It’s easier to say what it isn’t. I think that is close enough.      

Are you drawn to works that allow you to convey themes like adultery, revenge, and redemption in your writing? I prefer the victimization of women. It’s more operatic! Number one was The Trojan Women, whose theme is obvious. Number two was The Nightingale and the Rose where the soprano gives her blood to save her lover. Rappaccini’s Daughter was victimized by her father, the mad scientist!      

Of course no companies consult Verdi or Puccini when they present their work, but have you been involved in and/or consulted regarding the upcoming production? As much as I want to be!      

Is there anything more fulfilling than seeing your opera performed? Yes. Writing it.      

Anything in particular you are looking forward to regarding the world premiere? I hope the audience will respond to it.      

What’s next? I’m going to get a cat and do nothing for a very long time!      

* * *      

The Scarlet Letter will be conducted by Richard A. Raub, directed by Dorothy Danner, and features the AVA Opera Orchestra. Ms. Garwood plans to attend all performances, she explains, because “there is always something to learn.”      

For more information on the production, visit this Kimmel Center events page. In celebration of National Opera Week, the AVA is offering a preview of  The Scarlet Letter.


Filed under 21st Century Opera, Best of Operatoonity, North American Opera, opera firsts, Premieres

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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Filed under 20th Century Opera, 21st Century Opera, Classical Composers