Why the Met Opera’s com­mis­sions by women com­posers need to be hits

BBC Music Magazine - - Con­tents - Richard Mor­ri­son Richard Mor­ri­son is a colum­nist of The Times and its chief mu­sic critic

The New York Met’s fe­male com­poser com­mis­sions

Most men know two things. The first is that if you come home smelling of pep­per­mint, your life-part­ner knows you have been drink­ing. The sec­ond is that if you un­ex­pect­edly present them with a bunch of flow­ers, they in­stantly sus­pect you are guilty of some­thing.

I’ve been hav­ing sim­i­lar sus­pi­cions about an un­ex­pected an­nounce­ment from the Metropoli­tan Opera in New York. Af­ter more than 100 years dur­ing which the com­pany has staged just one opera by a fe­male com­poser, the Met has ap­par­ently com­mis­sioned two in quick suc­ces­sion. Its bosses (both males, ob­vi­ously) – gen­eral di­rec­tor Peter Gelb and in­com­ing mu­sic di­rec­tor Yan­nick Nézet-séguin – have an­nounced they will present new pieces by the Amer­i­can com­posers Missy Maz­zoli and Jea­nine Te­sori. Cyn­i­cal old hack that I am, my first thought was ‘hmm, what are they feel­ing guilty about?’

Well, do you want the short an­swer or the long one? The short an­swer is that af­ter a year of ter­ri­ble head­lines, brought about by the dis­missal of its long­stand­ing mu­sic di­rec­tor James Levine for al­leged sex­ual mis­con­duct (which he de­nies) and fall­ing au­di­ence fig­ures, the Met needs all the good pub­lic­ity it can get. Bring­ing in the pop­u­lar Nézet-séguin two years early, then mak­ing this an­nounce­ment about women com­posers, strikes me as a bla­tant at­tempt to de­flect at­ten­tion away from a trou­bled past and to­wards what the com­pany hopes will be a less ran­cid, more in­clu­sive fu­ture.

The longer an­swer is that we are in the mid­dle of a rev­o­lu­tion – a volatile and bruis­ing tran­si­tion from the ul­tra­male clas­si­cal mu­sic world of the past to one in which women mu­si­cians are right­fully de­mand­ing not just their fair share of the cake, but a guid­ing hand on the knife as well. And if great mu­sic in­sti­tu­tions such as the Met don’t re­spond to this mas­sive change, they will quickly find them­selves on the wrong side of his­tory.

The irony is that, in this re­spect, the Met once made his­tory. In 1903, when it took a lot more bold­ness to pro­mote a woman com­poser than it does now, the com­pany staged Ethel Smyth’s Die Wald, to largely pos­i­tive re­views. Rather than build­ing on that suc­cess, how­ever, it then waited 113 years be­fore stag­ing an­other opera writ­ten by a woman. That was Kaija Saari­aho’s L’amour de Loin, in 2016 (see Com­poser of the Month, p68).

Of course, it’s not the only place with a lot of catch­ing up to do. Nézet-séguin may have won him­self a few Brownie points in fem­i­nist cir­cles by an­nounc­ing these com­mis­sions for women com­posers at the Met, but the ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tion of which he has been mu­sic di­rec­tor since 2012 – the Philadel­phia Or­ches­tra – doesn’t in­clude a sin­gle piece by a woman com­poser in its 2018/19 sea­son. Not ex­actly a shin­ing bea­con of gen­der equal­ity.

And it would be easy for me to fill the rest of the col­umn with sim­i­lar ex­am­ples of en­trenched male dom­i­na­tion. But I think the tide is now turn­ing so strongly that nam­ing and sham­ing is no longer nec­es­sary. What is nec­es­sary, though, is for the women com­posers who have been given the big op­por­tu­ni­ties – a pre­miere at the Met be­ing the big­gest of the lot – to prove to the world that they are there on merit, not be­cause an opera house needs to make a to­ken ges­ture, as big­ots will un­doubt­edly claim.

Will Maz­zoli or Te­soro achieve that? One writes in a lush, neo-ro­man­tic style spiced with min­i­mal­ist and jazz flecks; the other is a suc­cess­ful Broad­way com­poser, col­lab­o­rat­ing with Tony Kush­ner among oth­ers. So both sit at the ‘ac­ces­si­ble’ end of the con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal spec­trum. On the other hand, both have cho­sen chal­leng­ing sub­jects. Maz­zoli’s opera will be based on Ge­orge Saun­ders’s re­cent novel Lin­coln in the Bardo, about the pres­i­dent’s de­scent into a kind of pur­ga­tory as he grieves for his dead son; while Te­sori sets a provoca­tive Ge­orge Brant play, Grounded, about a fe­male fighter pi­lot pushed aside af­ter preg­nancy and forced to op­er­ate drones.

It’s im­por­tant that at least one of these op­eras is a big suc­cess. In the past few years I’ve heard a suc­ces­sion of new op­eras – Ge­orge Ben­jamin’s Writ­ten on Skin, Brett Dean’s Ham­let, Jake ★eggie’s Dead Man Walk­ing, Thomas Adès’s The Ex­ter­mi­nat­ing An­gel, to name but four – that have been as­ton­ish­ingly grip­ping, mu­si­cally and dra­mat­i­cally. For any new com­poser, male or fe­male, en­ter­ing the field of ‘grand’ opera right now, the bar is set daunt­ingly high. Let’s hope the Met’s be­lated recog­ni­tion of women com­posers pro­duces the mas­ter­piece that will prove the big­ots wrong.

We are in the mid­dle of a volatile tran­si­tion from the ul­tra-male clas­si­cal mu­sic world of the past

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.