Three views on women in opera, one radical

Three views on women in opera, one radical


norman lebrecht

February 28, 2016

The manufactured controversy over the Met’s late adoption of an established opera by Kaija Saariaho has bred a spate of thoughts about the state of prejudice against women opera composers.

Our pal Shawn E. Milnes reflects on the sorry history here, but he finds a rising tide of equality in smaller companies. By way of contradiction, the composer Missy Mazzoli offers disquieting evidence of a double standard:

missy mazzoli

I have a friend, a composer, who told me, ‘When a man writes something lyrical it’s seen as brave and courageous, but when a woman does it it’s seen as sentimental and indulgent.’ This was in the late ’90s and she was commenting on how sexist the new music community was. I’d like to say that times have changed, but I think this is still totally true.

More here.

In the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins argues that opera is both unfair and sadistic towards women.

You might expect that, in the modern era, women’s roles would have changed, but opera is a big and expensive artform whose repertoire is not easily refreshed. Women composers of opera on the grand scale are few and far between….Their librettists have sometimes been women.


Lulu Cigar1 met

The most daring analysis comes from the critic and publisher Martin Anderson, who bravely associates composing with a form of autism.

It strikes me that what gives a composer the tenacity to sit at a desk endlessly turning patterns over in his (or her!) mind is likely to be some form of autism – which is a spectral condition, so that you have it to varying degrees of intensity. Some composers would seem to have been full-blown Asperger sufferers and so to have had the social dysfunctionality that goes with it – think of Alkan, Beethoven, Brahms, Janáček, Langgaard, Martinů, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Weinberg and many others. My suspicion, indeed, is that the capacity to take infinite pains over something that’s often minutious means that music, mathematics and other such ‘mental’ disciplines are going to attract and reward minds that are autistic to some degree and find satisfaction in such activity.

Now, autism affects males much more than females, to an extent current estimates of which vary, but the ranges are between twice and sixteen times as much. Since the historical preponderance of male over female composers seems to have survived into our more liberal times, could it be that there are fewer composing women simply because women as a rule are more ‘normal’ than men, that fewer of them are obsessive to the degree required to be a Janáček or a Shostakovich?

Phew! Read on here.

Talk among yourselves.


  • MWnyc says:

    Maunfactured controversy ??

    There’s no controversy at all.

    At most there’s been tut-tutting – arguably justified – about the fact that one of the world’s standard-bearers for the art form took 113 years after its first production of a female composer’s work to schedule a second one.

    The only article I’ve seen that even comes close to trying to gin up a controversy is the one by Shawn Milnes in The Daily Beast that Norman is plugging here. And it’s not actually ginning up anything; it’s reporting what’s going on at regional companies and what women composers are experiencing.

  • Lauren says:

    Thought-provoking indeed. I would say the a combination of the three theories is closest to truth. I have read studies in which the metadata showed that whilst there are more male than female geniuses, there are far more criminals and essentially village idiots in the male population. The autism rates may well be at the root but social factors play a huge part as well. There is also some evidence that lesbians and bisexual women tend to be more inclined towards composer, conductor, and in popular music the lead guitarist or other instrumentalist rather than the lead singer. And for women, the chemical make-up, the hormones, pretty much rule. For men, it appears more rooted in cellular structure of the brain (the Gay Gene present in males but not females). I am a bisexual (mostly lesbian) female and a rock guitarist and budding opera and art rock-classical fusion music. This is a fascinating topic and would love any suggestions on further reading or videos on these subjects I would be most grateful.
    As an aside, for the opera-lovers out there, what are your thoughts about the idea of a new approach to both musical direction and staging of operas to keep it fresh and profitable by way of infusing aspects of rock music, sampling, and mixing rock/jazz/pop singers and actors with the traditional opera stars. Also, rather than cumbersome staging and large casts, using pre-recorded video projected on clear screens and using local techs and secondary performers whilst touring the opera? Think Wagner meets Bowie meets indie art film. Does this appeal to anyone out there?

  • Janis says:

    Honestly, this is the second of two huge reasons why I like Haendel’s big four so much. No g/d dead chicks. No “she had sex and must die” bullshit. No “her husband/boyfriend/brother/father is a jerk, so we’ll get back at him by kacking HER! That’ll show him!” Loving big voices and opera as a woman is a bit like being a gay man and having to watch “Brokeback Mountain” sixteen million times in a row. You get right goddamned sick of it after a while.

    With the exception of those four operas, I can’t really think of many of them that I’d really want to bring an 11 year old girl to, any more than I’d want to take an 11 year old boy who I think might be gay to see “Brokeback Mountain.” Here you go kid, here’s the part where the f*g dies — ooh, this is the best part. Is that what you’d want that kid to see? How people love it best when his kind dies?

    No wonder there aren’t many women writing opera. What woman would want to write that crap?

    I’d rather show that 11 year old girl a sexpot queen who gets her man and the throne, a brave queen who saves her kingdom (and lands Andreas Scholl in long hair and leather boots), a brave princess who tries to save her father (who gets the Big Death Scene), and two women who get the romantic partners they love best in the end, after a big blowup caused by justly despised infidelity.

    Of course this means I can only really watch and enjoy FOUR OPERAS … not quite enough to sustain that “three times a week” crap that Peter Gelb is dreaming of …

    God, this disgusts and depresses me as only it could disgust and depress someone who really wants to love this art form and does love it when it’s at its best.

    And Mazzoli’s friend is right when it comes to sentiment. Male sentiment is prized — thank fate that Sergei Rachmaninoff was a man, because if he’d written his second piano concerto as a woman, it would have been rehearsed once and then condemned as sticky, useless feminine schmaltz.

    And to bring this around to the last topic that pissed me off, I see no way in which breaking out the pitchforks and torches and pouncing viciously on some dude who taught a class on opera in a prison, or opening every single conversation in some musicology classroom with “as a feminist, I feel that” helps with any of this at all.

    I wish I saw a way out of it. When I was in my 20s, I might have wanted to imagine there was one. Hitting 50 though … I see no way out. I see one side baying for their hackneyed BDSM fantasies that always end up with a dead chick, and the other side drenching people who are brave enough to try to ameliorate the situation with flamethrowers for poor word choices in blog posts.

    I think I’ll just stick to my own piano and my own private business in the end, arranging and composing and keeping it to my g/d self.

    • MWnyc says:

      Janis, please don’t keep it to your g/d/ self. Your comments rock.

      – – – – – – – – – –

      PS – Your all-too-true comments about what tends to happen to female characters in opera really, really makes me wish that Missy Mazzoli hadn’t chosen Breaking the Waves, of all stories, for her first full-length opera. Gah.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Martin Andersen´s suggestion that composers could be autistic as a sort of precondition to be able to write music, is very strange. To begin with, the human brain is something different from the human mind, and composers write with their mind. It is the difference between the radio set and the programme broadcast. Although there are many composers nowadays who write with their brain only, sometimes directly connected to their computer, it seems, worthwhile music does not come from the brain as such. Autistic conditions can as well be the result of the composing…. it may require such inner concentration upon ´abstract´ imagining, that the outside world has to be closed off which for other people may give the impression of ´autism´.

    As for female opera writing… by the time that women got some entrance to the field, the overall ´modern musical languages´ have changed so much that only on the basis of such languages, it is almost impossible to write effective, musically worthwhile opera. So, it may be that women came ´too late´ to the game, it has become very hard for everybody. You could think that especially women would be very talented for opera writing because of their talents for interhuman relations, but history shows that males are perfectly capable of getting into the mind and heart of their protagonists, from Monteverdi onwards. Their presentations of female psychology will be as much determined by the cultural fashions of the day as by possible male bias, difficult to find out. The most ´feminine´ opera writing we find in Debussy´s ´Pelleas et Melisande´ and he definitely was a man, according to historical record, and was chasing women in real life quite regularly.

    Until the contemporary musical language changes considerably and allows for genuine musical expression, which is a condition for any opera writing, it seems unlikely we will see great female opera composers appearing. The matter of discrimination is happening under the umbrella of this bigger problem, and we should not forget that female composers of a certain progressive type, burning with aesthetic idealism, regularly beat the male competition on their own game, also in opera.

    This is an example of a female politically correct opera….

    Which shows that nowadays, misery is presented as effectively by either sex.