Women in (New) Music: Two Women and an Opera House

by Elisabeth Blair, with introduction by Maggie Molloy

It’s been a few years since the Metropolitan Opera featured a work by a female composer—113 years, to be exact.

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That century-long drought ends this month with Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin, running now through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Dazzling melodies, lush orchestration, shimmering electronics, modern LED set designs, and a heartrending French libretto by Amin Maalouf come together to tell a stylized tale of the 12th century troubadour Jaufré Rudel.

But we can’t all be in New York City to see it—so Classical KING FM 98.1 is bringing you the next best thing: a live broadcast of the matinee performance this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. PST.

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L’Amour de Loin (French for “love from afar”) first premiered at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 2000, and quickly went on to become one of the most acclaimed operatic works of the 21st century. Scored for just three soloists, chorus, and orchestra, the opera offers an intimate look at the enduring power and purity of true love.

“In the midst of composing it, I understood that it was also my story,” Saariaho said in an interview with the New York Times. “I was at once the troubadour and the lady, these two parts of me that I try to reconcile in my life. To write music, concentration is necessary; an interior hearing. To be a woman, to be a mother, one needs to be always available and busy. It’s difficult to have, at the same time, your feet on the ground and your head in the sky.”

It’s difficult for anyone—but especially for women, who have been systemically and institutionally excluded from composition and other leadership roles throughout history. Saariaho’s Metropolitan Opera premiere is a triumph for women everywhere who are fighting to have their music heard—a triumph made possible by the bold footprints of the women who came before us.

The first and only other woman to break the ranks forcefully enough to see her work performed at the Met was English composer and suffragist Ethel Smyth, with her 1903 opera Der Wald: a richly orchestrated folktale of two young lovers and the witch who comes between them.

And so, with the Met’s century-long spell of male composers finally broken, we wanted to take you back in time 100 years and give you a closer look at just what it took for Smyth to become history’s first female composer on the Metropolitan Opera stage.

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Ethel Smyth’s adulthood began with a well-orchestrated protest.  When she was 19, her father forbade her to go to Leipzig to study music composition. She responded by refusing church, musical participation at dinner parties, riding, and speaking. Eventually her father, having become so frustrated with her that he kicked her bedroom door until the panel was “all but penetrated,” relented—and gave up disallowing her much of anything ever again.

She continually found creative solutions to the restrictions placed upon women at the time. In 1878, still 19 and now victoriously arrived in Leipzig, she dressed up as an elderly lady in order to attend an evening concert unescorted. The costume included drawn-on wrinkles and a rented wig, and the ruse was a success. She was plainly unafraid of public humiliation—a valuable quality in a woman whose life’s calling forced her to overstep social mores each day.

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A devout dog-lover, Smyth had a total of five dogs in close succession. Eight years before her death she devoted an entire book, Inordinate (?) Affection, to recollections of her animal companions that sometimes offer an unlikely and intimate view of the elite music world at the time.

In her memoirs she tells of a time that she spiritedly took up a dare and wore a French coachman’s hat while riding her bike down Piccadilly, leading her dog as she went. This may seem unremarkable now, but in the first decade of the 20th century, such a gender-bending public display was bold.

In a musical context she was also unafraid. In 1911 she put on a concert of her opera The Wreckers herself, stepping outside the main concert venues and securing a conductor, Thomas Beecham—who promptly forgot about this engagement. When it came time for the performance, he was nowhere to be found—so Smyth simply conducted the performance herself.

Combined with luck, money, and a high social status, these qualities—a refusal to engage with the male-determined status quo in the manner expected, boundlessly creative problem-solving, and bold ambition—helped her break through the ceiling of the classical music world.

But it was no easy task.

ethelSmyth’s memoirs recall a merry-go-round of failure, rejection, dashed hopes, extraordinary social maneuverings, disappointments, delays, cancellations, futile energies spent, promises broken, twists of fate, and every other kind of impediment, particularly in her fight to have her operas staged.

As she notes in one of her memoirs, What Happened Next, so many sudden, untimely deaths, dismissals and retirements occurred during or leading up to performances that she wondered whether her operas were cursed. Long-awaited contracts about to be signed would halt when the person responsible would be “swept off the scene by sudden illness.”

A producer in Germany, one Georg Pierson, had been working on the rehearsal sheets for a hoped-for premiere of Der Wald when he fell ill and soon thereafter died. (She wrote blithely but resignedly to her long-time companion Henry Brewster, “You will not be surprised to hear that I have killed Pierson.”)

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These events were generally disastrous for her plans, forcing her to start over, leverage new social capital, and follow what leads she could. She underwent trial after trial in this way, and her American adventure was no exception. Soon after she arrived for her five-week stay in New York City, Maurice Grau—the director of policy of the Metropolitan Opera House and the man who had booked Der Wald after its success at Covent Garden—died, after a brief illness.

By Smyth’s account, Grau’s successor was whiny, manipulative, and oppositional. In New York she also suffered from tonsillitis, a fever, and finally laryngitis, and she was only able to attend the final choral rehearsal. Although she granted that the press reviews were favorable overall, of the Met performance itself she remarked only, “I do not remember much about it except that the scene-painting and the quality of the orchestra were on a higher level than at Covent Garden and everything else far worse.”

The replacement director had also limited Der Wald’s run to just two performances in New York and one in Boston, and she felt she had travelled too far for too little return. She pronounced her consent to the New York City project as “one of the major foolish acts of my life.”

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“The cards put by kind Fate into [my] hands […] were good health, a fair dose of persistence and fighting instinct, and most important of all, a small independent income which rendered possible a continuous struggle for musical existence such as no woman obliged to earn her livelihood in music could have carried on.”

In her book Female Pipings in Eden, Smyth carefully details with typical clear-headedness how difficult a process it was for anyone, men included, to move a work from conception to performance. It began with writing the manuscript and parts, making costly engravings, and convincing publishers whom she suspected were of the opinion that “all this damned modern stuff ought to be put down by the police.”

If publication could be had, then a conductor was needed, and at the time conductors always worked with a committee of several dozen tradesmen, who avoided new music in favor of older, more crowd-pleasing stuff. Add to this already intimidating process the hassle of being a woman, and the obstacles became, as she points out, almost insurmountable.

“As things are today,” she wrote, “it is absolutely impossible in this country for a woman composer to get and to keep her head above water; to go on from strength to strength, and develop such powers as she may possess.”

Yet Ethel Smyth did the impossible, and even maintained a vibrant optimism while doing it. She delighted in the notion that any day now a “champion” of women in music, someone with all the power, will, and money necessary to make changes, would enter the scene. She suggested presciently that “the wireless, and future developments thereof that we cannot foresee, may help to break down many ancient taboos, this among the number.”

It is difficult to imagine maintaining such an optimism despite everything—and yet she did. But have we, who are swimming now in the internet and in globalism, yet arrived at that taboo-breaking moment?

Smyth was an exceptional human being and she broke exceptional ground in the face of great resistance. Yet it was apparently asking too much of society to invest in the talent, ambition, and vision of any other female opera composer in the past century who dreamed of a Metropolitan Opera debut.

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Thus we find ourselves at the end of a 113 year gap—the time between the staging of Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald and the current staging of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin—hoping that enough changes are taking place within the classical music world and society at large that we will not have to wait another century for the next woman composer to grace the stage.

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin runs through Dec. 29 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. KING FM 98.1 presents a live broadcast of the performance on-air this Saturday, Dec. 10 at 10 a.m. PST. Tune in at 98.1 or online at www.king.org.

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