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Fissures in Opera's Glass Ceiling: Women in Opera

Lisa Bielawa conducts the Kronos Quartet | Remsen Allard
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Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on and

We may not have elected a woman president in 2016, but after a 113-year run of presenting operas by men, New York’s Metropolitan Opera finally went with a work composed by a woman: Kaija Saariaho’s “L’Amour de Loin” (“Love From Afar”) was not only a triumph for the 64-year old Finn last December, but it also marked the Met debut of Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, only the fourth woman to grace the podium in that company’s storied history.

Kaija Saariaho. | Photo: Priska Ketterer, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival
Kaija Saariaho  | Priska Ketterer, courtesy of Ojai Music Festival

On this coast, however, things are looking a tad more female-centric in the world of what some people call the highest art form. This isn’t to say that women will soon be calling all the shots, but that they are certainly becoming more visible. Indeed, as recently as February, an excerpt of “Balls,” an opera based on the historic “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, was featured in “First Take,” the biennial workshop co-produced by the cutting edge L.A. opera company, The Industry, and the contemporary music ensemble, wild Up.

With a score by Emmy award-winning, L.A.-based composer Laura Karpman and a libretto by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, “Balls” was one of six new operas-in-progress offered in the series. Karpman, who has composed music for television, films, the concert stage and opera, including her 2016 Glimmerglass youth opera, “Wilde Tales,” with librettist Kelley Rourke, received funds from Opera America (an organization that has been awarding grants to women to create new works since 2013), to begin work on the opera with the gender-charged title. 

“’First Take’ really did a nice job,” said Karpman, “with a nice-sized orchestra and terrific singers. It was a real opportunity to put the work on its feet, to get a little bit of gas in a car. For opera it’s so essential, because it’s so unwieldy.”

That said, Karpman pointed out that it’s difficult to compare her experience as a woman composer from that of her male peers.

Vireo composer Lisa Bielawa | Daniel Clark
Vireo composer Lisa Bielawa | Daniel Clark

“Because I’ve been inside my own head and body and don’t know what it’s like inside somebody else’s head and body, I’ve devoted most of my compositional life to writing film music, and not because it’s more of a passion of mine. But the truth is, opera and film music are very tied together, and in the film music world, there has been sexism that has been pretty mind-boggling on multiple levels, and there are lots of reasons for it that are all true and none true, and most true some of the time, and some true none of the time.”

Hmm. Talk about topspin! Seriously, Karpman, who is founder and president of the Alliance of Women Film Composers and is also a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, added: “First and foremost, if you ask little girls what a scientist looks like, it’s Einstein. If you ask adults what does a composer look like, they would think of men – like Mozart. 

"And if you look in the seasons of the major orchestras and opera houses, it’s not some big secret. There is music by women composers, but you have to ask the programmers, the people hiring, the commissioners: Why aren’t they seeking out more women? I don’t know why.”

" ... There is music by women composers, but you have to ask the programmers, the people hiring, the commissioners: Why aren’t they seeking out more women? I don’t know why.”

With all her success, Karpman, 58, and the composer of the 2009 opera/oratorio, “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,” written for megastar soprano Jessye Norman to a set of Langston Hughes poems, said she thought the issue of gender, “would have been changed by now. It might even be worse than it was,” she noted, “though I will say there’s a lot of hope, because people are talking about it now. Five years ago people were rolling their eyes [at the subject], now there’s no eye-rolling.”

Another composer affiliated with The Industry is Anne LeBaron, whose opera “Crescent City,” was produced by the company in 2012. The L.A. Times’ Mark Swed called the production, which was billed as "hyperopera" (meaning it includes a wide range of contributing artists), “darkly mysterious, troubling yet weirdly exuberant and wonderfully performed.” 

LeBaron, also a formidable harpist, was the first woman to be hired as a full-time professor at California Institute of the Arts, where she is still on faculty, 16 years ago. She has composed seven operas to date, including the 2008 cyborg opera, “Sucktion” and the work-in-progress, “LSD: The Opera,” which was initially produced at REDCAT in 2015 with the help of an Opera America grant, and has been renamed, “Huxley’s Last Trip.”

Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, LeBaron, 64, said she didn’t think about gender much. “I had such a strong passion for writing music and had not encountered with my male composition teachers any overt sexism. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m different, I’m a girl, I need a role model.’ I just went where my ears took me.”

As for the difficulty of crashing the composing ceiling as a woman, LeBaron recalled: “Of course, it is [difficult] and of course, in hindsight, I see so many people were shut out, and men included, because breaking into the field is often [helped by] being mentored, and I was never really mentored by people in positions of power.” 

“It’s politics,” she added, “and unfortunately, [that’s] the way things work. 

But LeBaron, who is also working on a piece that she calls a “conflagration of Japanese Noh dramas,” with two librettists, added that things aren’t as bad as they used to be. “It’s a bit more open today. Younger male composers are, for the most part, aware of the situation. Some are quite outspoken that we need to include more women composers in our programming.” 

LeBaron also said that if, in fact, women composers have come a long way, “we would see more being programmed. [We’ve] come a distance, but not as long a distance as we would have hoped for at this point in time. It simply has to get better.”

The Industry’s Yuval Sharon doesn’t believe there are fewer women working in opera. “I just believe that they’re given fewer opportunities, especially,” he said, “in Europe. I do make an effort to engage women for The Industry because a multiplicity of viewpoints is essential to opera’s validity, and that means diversity in all aspects of the creative process.”

In fact, Sharon said that since The Industry’s founding in 2010, he’s worked with eight females out of 24 composers, or one-third, adding, “But I wish it was closer to one-half.”

For Brooklyn-based Missy Mazzoli, 37, Opera America also helped sponsor her full-length opera, “Breaking the Waves.” Based on the 1996 Lars von Trier film, the work, a co-commission from Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects, an organization that supports the work of emerging and established composers and their multi-media collaborators, features a libretto by Royce Vavrek. 

After its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia last September, the New York Times’ Zachary Woolfe wrote, “It is not easy to find new operas that command attention, tell their story lucidly and create a powerful, permeating mood. Dark and daring, ‘Breaking the Waves’ does all this with sensitivity and style.”

"For there to be gender parity, for example, with something like opera programming, basically every opera done in every company for the next 20 years would have to be by a woman to reach equality. Women have been shut out of that process for centuries."

Dealing with von Trier, Mazzoli said, was a great experience, while working as a composer in a male-dominated field, however, has been hard to quantify. “I only have experienced this field from the perspective of a woman, which is what I am. In some ways, I’m the last to know how things are different,” explained Mazzoli. “I can say that the way men navigate social and professional situations is very different. What is acceptable socially for a man is different than from a woman.”

As for establishing herself as a composer, Mazzoli said she’s always “done her own thing and have always just persevered. I don’t really work with people or companies for whom gender is a problem or an issue. In the beginning I think composing is a very competitive field, and I think young women bear the brunt of that criticism.

“It’s a shame that comes at you when you’re young and you don’t have the defenses and when a male colleague is more critical of you. That leads to a lot of discouragement for most women just starting out as composers.”

Mazzoli has taken steps to remedy that. Last year, she and L.A.-based composer Ellen Reid, co-founded Luna Composition Lab, a mentorship program for young female composers ages 13 to 19, at New York’s Kaufman Music Center. 

“I feel very happy to be a role model for young women,” said Mazzoli. “Every day I get email or phone calls from female composers around the world looking for advice, wanting to connect. There’s power in that community, and I’m in a position that I can help elevate younger female composers who are just starting out.

Mazzoli has also had a presence in Los Angeles. Her first opera, the multimedia chamber piece, " Song From the Uproar: The Lives & Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt," a Swiss writer at the beginning of the 20th century," premiered in 2012 at the Kitchen in New York, and then had a brief run in 2015 at REDCAT, as part of Los Angeles Opera's Off Grand series. She is currently working on “Proving Up,” an hour-long opus that will premiere at Washington National Opera next January.

With her success, then, does Mazzoli believe that women composers are on the road to gender parity? 

“That,” she exclaimed, “is impossible to gauge. What is gender parity? For there to be gender parity, for example, with something like opera programming, basically every opera done in every company for the next 20 years would have to be by a woman to reach equality. Women have been shut out of that process for centuries. 

“I always say the same thing about female composers,” added Mazzoli, “why aren’t there more? The problem has to be addressed at the top. I’m optimistic and frustrated and I’m always surprised at the degree to which [arts organization leaders] go with what is comfortable. For composers, there’s this idea of the white man, and to break from that is much harder than I thought.

“That’s frustrating to me,” she continued, “but I’m optimistic because now there’s a conversation happening that is amplified by social media, and people feel they have an outlet for their frustration.”

"Hopscotch" opera
"Hopscotch" opera |  Courtesy of The Industry.

Mazzoli’s colleague, Reid, 32, has a master’s degree from CalArts, and has also worked with The Industry, contributing music to “Hopscotch,” the opera with 24 limousines that took Los Angeles by storm in the fall of 2015. On being a woman working in a predominantly male field, the composer said: “You have to have the crazies or you don’t. You either have the disease or you don’t, and more than anything in the world you want to get into it. 

“I think being an artist,” she added, “is difficult no matter who you are, no matter what your gender is.”  

Reid is currently working on projects that include “Prism,” an original story about a young woman’s discovery of her past, and “Dreams of the New World,” a commission from Los Angeles Master Choral that premieres next year and is a collage of voices from disparate places, including Memphis, Houston and Los Angeles. 

Reid, nevertheless, has mixed feelings regarding female composers. “Being a woman there are some benefits. People are getting more interested in more diverse programming, even though you don’t want to be pigeonholed. One of Beth Morrison’s missions is to promote women artists. 

“We are coming to a different place,” she added, “but there are very deep sexist issues in the field and it’s going to take some time.”

Then there’s the female-centric “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser,” the opera created for TV and online broadcast that considers the usage of "female hysteria" throughout the decades. The multi-episode production was composed by Lisa Bielawa, the 2009 Rome Prize winner in composition, with a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte. "Vireo" was the winner of the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award, and will premiere on television June 13.

But what’s an opera without singers, with sopranos and mezzo-sopranos facing a different reality than female composers, and where physical appearance is nearly as important as vocal prowess. In 2004, for example, soprano Deborah Voigt, who sings the role of the Queen of Sweden in Episode Eleven, "Circus," in "Vireo,” was fired from a Royal Opera House production of “Ariadne Auf Naxos,” because she was deemed too heavy to wear a little black cocktail dress. This notion of so-called “body fascism” prompted the singer to undergo gastric bypass surgery, a radical step that, let’s say, the late Pavarotti would never have considered, as he would never have been canned from a production because of his weight.

Still, lyric coloratura Jamie Chamberlin understands that physicality comes into play when being cast for a role. Having sung in the chorus of 49 L.A. Opera productions, as well as having given a number of standout performances in Long Beach Opera fare, Chamberlin makes the most of both her vocal abilities and her natural allure. She was tapped, after all, to sing the “outer” Marilyn Monroe in the American premiere of Gavin Bryars’s “Marilyn Forever” (2015), for LBO. 

Deborah Voigt and the San Francisco Girls Chorus appear in a scene from "Vireo." | David Soderlund
Deborah Voigt and the San Francisco Girls Chorus appear in a scene from "Vireo." | David Soderlund

“I’m not the kind of person who thinks it’s all about looks,” says Chamberlin,  “recognizing that that doesn’t define my ability, the way I look, but it can enhance my marketability, and it can help me be more desirable to opera companies. That’s something you learn to deal with as a woman. 

“There is a lot of sexism in the industry,” she continued, “we all know that. It’s realizing that, on one hand, you have to play the game. I don’t feel I have the freedom to weigh 300 pounds – not that I would want to – but there’s a fine line. What I can do is to continue doing the best work I can possibly do, to be the most gracious colleague and always give 100 percent, and also honor myself as an artist, but letting the work speak for itself.”

Chamberlin, who was in the LBO production of Philip Glass’s opera, “The Perfect American” last month, tackles the lead role in “Lucia di Lamermoor” for Pacific Opera Project in September, and will also trod the boards in Gian Carlo Menotti's “The Consul,” with Met Opera star Patricia Racette, when LBO kicks off its 2017-2018 season.

She agrees that women are making positive strides and that there seems to be more of an effort to include more female conductors and composers. “There are good roles being written for women and men – countertenors are having a day now –which makes it all the more important to make yourself exceptional as an individual artist - what makes me special, what would make someone want to come and see me?”

Mezzo Danielle Marcelle Bond has also been in a number of LBO productions, including assaying the role of the “inner” Marilyn Monroe in the Bryars opera. She recently co-starred with baritone Lee Gregory in “As One,” composed by Laura Kaminsky and based, in part, on the life experiences of a former high school football team captain who later became the filmmaker Kimberly Reed. 

Bond, whose varied roles range from playing Dido in “Dido & Aeneas” and Siebel in “Faust” to the Witness in L.A. Opera’s “Ghosts of Versailles,” will also be seen in POP’s “Lucia.”

She admits to having experienced sexism and intimidation at times during her career. “I’ve had sexual harassment issues, and it’s still a struggle, unfortunately, in the arena of sexism and the business aspect – negotiations - of opera. But we have more resources now and there are more advocates for women in the workplace. 

Jamie Chamberlin  and Danielle Marcelle Bond in "Marilyn Forever" | Keith Ian Polakoff
Jamie Chamberlin and Danielle Marcelle Bond in "Marilyn Forever" | Keith Ian Polakoff

“People have sometimes been inappropriate and it is hard to balance that – making sure you’re projecting confidence and security within yourself, as well as being open and vulnerable enough as an artist.” 

In addition to singers, composers and conductors, it’s the job of the director to help communicate a vision. And while there are several well-known women helming operas – Julie Taymor and Francesca Zambello come to mind - Bond enjoys working with females because of their “specificity to detail,” adding that, “women directors, in my experience, have the ability to make things clear to me as an actor in a really brilliant way. 

“Unfortunately, that kind of specificity from a man can come off as dictating to you. The way a female director conveys her specificity can seem bossy at times, but I do feel you understand the picture in a more specific way.”

Tara Faircloth, 41, has had dozens of directorial gigs in her career, from helming “The Rake’s Progress” for Wolf Trap Opera (Opera News called the 2012 production “bracing”), to overseeing two world premieres with Houston Grand Opera's East+West series (“The Bricklayer” and “Her Name Means the Sea”). Last month she directed “La Rondine” for Opera Santa Barbara at the Granada Theatre.

A Houston resident, Faircloth was born in Ft. Valley, Georgia and, after beginning as a singer, she switched to directing in 2006. It was a woman, she said, who gave Faircloth her “first shot” when she was invited to be part of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Opera Program. At that point, she recalled, “I had never met a woman director and didn’t even realize it was a career option. 

"I had never met a woman director and didn’t even realize it was a career option."

“I’ve always been the kind of person that if I decided I wanted something I would work myself to death until I made it happen. As I get older, I see more and more women in the industry and it becomes much less unusual.

“Still,” noted Faircloth, “the opera business is a hard one and people use whatever angle they have to make it work. On an individual basis, I’m treated very respectfully, but I think there is a tendency for people who run the opera companies, who are mostly male, some of them are more comfortable with men. I think, slowly, as more women pervade the industry, it becomes less of a problem.

“Also,” added Faircloth, “being a woman sometimes gives me an advantage, because companies are interested in having an angle and it looks good for them to hire a woman.”

Faircloth, in fact, was so committed to having a directorial career in opera that she once sold everything she owned and lived out of an Airstream trailer for three years, parking it on the outskirts of Houston when she wasn’t commandeering it in search of work. “I wanted to make myself financially available for any jobs that came my way. I would drive the trailer to my jobs – that was my plan - but I was lucky and got shuttled into better companies that put you up.”

The Airstream is now at her parents’ home in Georgia, and Faircloth is busy booking operas up to 18 months in advance. “I’m often working on five or six shows at a time in various stages of preparation. I try to work hard and do the best job that I can everywhere I go.” 

If there’s one thing that can be said for women in opera these days – and, perhaps, women in general – in addition to being supremely talented, they are determined, persistent and tenacious. And, once they set their minds to something, odds are the results will be positive, as was the case with Billie Jean King besting Bobby Riggs that September day in 1973 at the Houston Astrodome, not far from where Faircloth would one day be parking her trailer to pursue her dream. 

Top Image: Lisa Bielawa conducts the Kronos Quartet | Remsen Allard

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