Sky Ingram (Avis) in Ethel Smyth’s “The Wreckers.” Directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, conducted by Leon Botstein (photo by Cory Weaver)

I grew up with opera. Every Saturday afternoon, my mother listened to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio. Our Bensonhurst, Brooklyn apartment was filled with the music of Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini, as well as the voices of Richard Tucker, Renata Tebaldi, Marilyn Horne, and so many others.

My parents couldn’t afford tickets to the Metropolitan Opera but whenever there was an opera performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the 1950s, my mother would take me with her. I saw my first opera at the age of seven. Many more followed. Overwhelmed by the spectacle and unable to understand a single word of the Italian, French, German, or Russian librettos, I focused all my attention on the music— such glorious music. My mother seemed to know everything that was happening on the stage. I wondered how this Yiddish and English speaker could possibly know all these other languages?

By the time I was an adolescent I had attended several operas with my mother. I read librettos and the biographies of composers and singers. When I was 14, after reading yet another biography of Verdi, I asked my mother, “Do women write operas?” She looked at me with incredulity and responded, “Never heard of any.” If my mother, who answered questions correctly in the Texaco Opera Quiz, didn’t know, who did?

This past December, the Metropolitan Opera presented L’Amour de Loin by Kaija Saariaho, the second of only two operas composed by women in the venue’s history. The first was by Ethel Smyth, in 1903.

Her-Story at the Metropolitan Opera: Ethel Smyth

Portrait of Dame Ethel Smyth by John Singer Sargent (1901) (via Wikipedia)

On March 12, 1903, the Metropolitan Opera presented composer Ethel Smyth’s one act opera Die Wald (libretto by Henry Brewster) on a double bill with Il Trovatore. Die Wald was performed a second time on March 20, on a double bill with La Fille du Regiment. While the reviews were generally positive, they all focused on whether the opera demonstrated more “feminine” than “masculine” tendencies. Most critics felt that Smyth had overcome the “feminine” to compose music that was vigorous and strong, reflecting a long-held prejudice that women could not produce powerful music. In fact, Smyth’s Die Wald was Wagnerian in its scope and sound.

Ethel Smyth was quite an amazing woman. Born in England in 1858, she was a prolific composer of operas as well as chamber music, chorals, and instrumental music. She wrote many books, librettos and essays. She was a Sapphist and came out at a time when doing so was daring and dangerous.

Smyth, who died in 1944, was active in the women’s suffrage movement in England in the early 20th century, and composed the anthem of Britain’s suffrage movement, “March Of The Women.” She was close friends with suffragists Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, George Bernard Shaw, conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, author Vita Sackville West, and paramour of Virginia Woolf. The painter John Singer Sargent portrayed Smyth in 1901 as an attractive, strong women gazing into the distance – perhaps searching for her muse.

In spite of all her accomplishments, she had great difficulty getting her work performed. She attributed these obstacles to the male music establishment, or what she termed the “male machine”; this “male machine” held to the sexist, conservative notion that women could not, by their very nature, compose music of any lasting value.

In the summer of 2015, Bard College President Leon Botstein conducted and staged a full production of Smyth’s opera The Wreckers. This neglected work brought to the attention of contemporary audiences the breadth and scope of Smyth’s artistry.

Her-Story after 113 Years: Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho (photo by Marrit Kytoharju)

Kaija Saariaho’s (born 1952) first opera, L’Amour de Loin (libretto by Amin Maalouf) had its world premiere in 2000 at the Salzburg Festival and its American premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2002. After 16 years of being performed all over the world, the opera finally arrived at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, conducted by Susanna Malkki and produced by Robert Lepage. One hundred and thirteen years after staging Smyth’s opera, the Metropolitan Opera presented its second major work by a composer who is a woman.

In the exemplary reviews, the debate as to whether a woman is capable of composing a substantial work has not presented its sexist head. Instead, Saariaho’s opera has been hailed as a work for our times. The opera’s themes of longing, unrequited love, and obsession expressed in the dichotomies of reality/fantasy, carnal/divine love and love/death are rendered beautifully through exquisite music and a spectacular set.

Saariaho’s other works are celebrated, as well, especially her oratorio, La Passion de Simone, with a libretto by Amin Maalouf. La Passion de Simone dramatizes the life of the philosopher/humanitarian Simone Weil as a passion play linked to the 15 stations of the cross. The oratorio was performed in November 2016 in New York City. Are we to now assume that women have finally broken through the glass ceiling at the Metropolitan Opera?

Rising Up! A Cautionary Tale

In the Fall of 2016, I attended a seminar about L’Amour de Loin. While waiting to get into the venue, a man asked me if I had already seen the opera. I had not. He had. He liked the opera. I said that it was about time a woman composer had her work performed at the Metropolitan Opera, after a 113-year hiatus. He became quite agitated and informed me that what is of interest to him is the work, regardless of the artist’s sex. He went on to say that we live in a “post feminist” time.

From this perspective, the absence of women composers at the Metropolitan Opera is solely based upon the quality of the work and not a gender bias. Does this mean that in 113 years no work by a woman composer has lived up to the standards of the Metropolitan Opera? Kaija Saariaho is just one among many contemporary women composing operas, such as Meredith Monk, Missy Mizzoli, Olga Neuwirth, Thea Musgrave, and Unsuk Chin. Do we have to wait another century or more before the work of a composer who is a woman will be seen at the Metropolitan Opera?

Irene Javors is the author of Culture Notes: Essays on Sane Living, (2010) and a volume of poetry, Mists of Memory(1986). She is a member of PEN. She is a contributor to journal the The Gay and Lesbian...