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