Can Opera Cure Its Sexism Problem?

As the Met Opera prepares to stage only its second opera composed by a woman, the industry as a whole is finally fostering female talent.

02.26.16 5:01 AM ET

Next season, the Metropolitan Opera will stage an opera written by a woman for only the second time in its history and the first time since 1903.

L’Amour de Loin, or “Love from Afar,” written by female Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, premiered in 2000 at the Salzburg Festival and had its U.S. premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2002.

The Metropolitan production will open on Dec. 1, 2016. The opera is based on a story by Jaufre Rudel, one of the greatest 12th-century troubadours, his love for a woman “from the East” of whom he has only heard, and his epic journey to find her.

113 years ago, it was Victorian militant suffragist, sometime terrorist and composer Ethel Smyth’s one-act opera Der Wald, which premiered at the Metropolitan.

Der Wald’s Met premiere was greeted with brutal reviews, many with a strong undercurrent of sexism.

The New York Times called it a “disappointing novelty” and continued, “it is quite lacking in dramatic expressiveness, in characterization, in melodic ideas, in distinction of any kind.” And finally, “the judicious could only grieve that the great resources of the great opera house were expended upon a work that so inadequately repaid them.”

Although in Europe, especially in the U.K., female composers are slightly more prominently programmed, the U.S. particularly lags behind in equal performance opportunities for female composers.

According to Operabase, an online opera database, in the years 2009 to 2014 there were only three women amongst the 60 most-performed living opera composers in the world. Saariaho comes in highest at number 33.

In all opera composers performed in that period, living or dead, women fared far worse, with not a single female composer in the top 30. And in the most performed 50 operas worldwide in that same period, there was not a single work by a woman.

Even Saariaho herself said recently, “I was doubting [for a] long time before daring to take the steps to believe that I could be a composer, because there were not any around me. We are not used to having woman composers writing large works.”

The effects of sexism in opera are not exclusive to female composers.

In 2014 a small firestorm was set off when several critics commented on young Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught’s weight more than her performance, with one even calling her a “chubby bundle of puppy fat.”

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The comments were widely debated and condemned by many, but it brought to light something that the operatic community in general has long been accused of: placing unfair standards on women (that are not placed on men) and being way behind the times in terms of diversity and equality.

The furor, too, spoke directly to the heart of opera’s current struggles to find new audiences.

As commentator for NPR’s Deceptive Cadence, Anastasia Tsioulcas put it in a commentary on the fat-shaming controversy, “The fact that we are having this conversation in 2014…honestly makes me wonder if classical music doesn’t deserve its stereotype of being silly, reactionary, outdated and out of step with the contemporary world.”

But hopefully this is changing—at least for female composers.

In December 2013, Opera America, a national service organization that supports opera and the musical arts, announced a new grant program for female composers of up to $50,000 to “provide support for the development of new operas by women, both directly to individual composers and to opera companies, advancing the important objective to increase diversity across the field.”

An early success of the Opera America grant program was its support of the commission of As One, an opera, by composer Laura Kaminsky, that follows Hannah, the transgender protagonist, and her journey toward and through gender reassignment surgery. Hannah is portrayed by both a male and female singer.

In June 2017, LA Opera will present the West Coast premiere of Thumbprint by female composer Kamala Sankaram. Thumbprint tells the story of Mukhtar Mai, the first female victim of gang rape in Pakistan to successfully bring charges against her attackers.

Additionally, the Female Composer Grant program was renewed for 2014 and onward.

Opera Philadelphia has co-commissioned two major operas by women in the very recent past.

Cold Mountain, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, based on Charles Frazier’s award-winning novel, had its world premiere at Santa Fe Opera in August 2015 and its East Coast premiere at Opera Philadelphia earlier this month.

They will open their 2016-17 season this September with Breaking the Waves, an opera based on the Lars von Trier movie of the same name by female composer Missy Mazzoli.

Sarah Williams, the new works administrator for Opera Philadelphia, was instrumental in getting these works commissioned, and believes that while there are still issues of diversity in opera there has been a positive shift in the industry.

“I think we’re late to the game, which is why you’re seeing a lot of these female composers not at the biggest level of companies, which is why the Met doing L’Amour de Loin is a huge deal,” said Williams.

“But to also realize the time span in between the last female composer to this one there, it puts it right into perspective that I think a lot of people don’t think about on a daily basis.

“A lot of arts organizations are run by men. These companies are commissioning the creative artists, so the more we continue to diversify our arts organizations, the more we will diversify our composers, librettists, stories, music, directors, conductors, and singers.”

Missy Mazzoli told The Daily Beast, “In all aspects of life, until we see more women in positions of power we’re not going to see huge changes at any level. Older male filmmakers will look at younger male filmmakers and say, ‘You know, I see a lot of myself in you and I’m going to give you this opportunity.’ You support the people who remind you of yourself. It makes it harder to break into the opera world when so few women are in charge.”

Mazzoli continues, “There’s an idea that Sheryl Sandberg presented in Lean In, where she says that men are often given opportunities based on potential and women are given opportunities based on past experience. That really rang true for me and really reflected what I see in the music world all the time.

“The problem with opera is you’re always commissioning someone based on their potential. Even if you have someone who has written 10 operas there’s no guarantee this next one is going to be good because each opera is its own universe. So, as a woman, if you don’t get the opportunity to even write your first opera it’s impossible to establish a foothold in that world.”

Mazzoli also feels there still can be a double standard for female composers, not dissimilar to the ones applied to female singers’ looks.

“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.”

However true this may still be, there are greater opportunities than ever before for female and underrepresented demographics in smaller development and incubator programs for new opera works, like American Lyric Theatre, Frontiers at Fort Worth, Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative 20-Minute Operas, or the experimental companies like the Prototype Festival and The Industry.

“They are fostering a lot of female composers,” said Williams. “You’ll find at least two female composers in most of these. But there still is overall a lack of access and opportunity.”

Mizzoli said she hopes “the doors don’t close” on female composers when they start to move from workshops and incubator programs to professional opportunities. “I hope that in 10 years there will be so much amazing work by women that it will be impossible to ignore. I think we’re almost at that point. Almost.”

Williams said opera was entering a new era of storytelling. “We want to tell different stories, we want to hear different music, we want to have opportunities for all people. So what’s starting to happen is everybody is looking outside the box of what we know and so you’re seeing more female composers. But it’s beyond gender. You’re seeing more variety of ethnic composers that are coming out and writing, and the different opera musical soundscapes that are happening because of that.”

Let us hope we will not have to wait another 113 years before another opera by a woman is staged at the Met, the U.S.’s largest artistic institution. Or even another 10.