Four Essential Operas by Women Composers


March 8, 2024

Throughout time, women have routinely been at the bad end of the deal when it came to composing, performing, or really anything that has to do with music. However, as we now know that didn’t mean women composers, performers, critics, and everything in between didn’t exist. Actually, the opposite! In celebration of International Women’s Day, Opera Wire would like to explore the important role women have played in the expanding the operatic genre for us all.

Paula Kimper: Patience and Sarah (1998)

Although relatively unknown, this opera by Eastman graduate (alongside others like Renee Fleming and Dominick Argento), marked the first time the opera world had the topics of LGBT issues brought to mainstream attention. Based on the American novelist Alma Routsong’s eponymous, lesbian historical novel (1969), the work is widely considered to be the first lesbian opera in opera history. The story of the opera’s creation began in 1981 when the librettist Wende Persons had begun working on a sketch on opera based on a lesbian female, modeled after a crush she had. That crush had failed to empathize with many of the on-stage heroins, victims, and women of the traditional operatic literature.

Initially, Kimper did not want to participate but after seeing the 1993 Met Ring Cycle, she quickly came on board. Shortly before her death, Routsong had given the pair the permission to make an opera based on her novel, and by 1996 after some preparatory work, an initial semi-staged version was premiered to the public.

Three years later, and as part of the 1998 Lincoln Center Festival, a monumentous event which featured the likes of Bingen, Bernstein, Mahler, Ives, Copland, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, and even Chinese opera, the opera got its formal premiere. Under the direction of Douglas Moser, the opera sparked interest among lesbian audiences, an underrepresented community among operatic audiences as compared to their gay counterparts.

Since then, the work has been featured as part of several LGBT festivals and projects, most recently in 2016 as part of New York Pride. Continuations on Kimper’s progress like Charles Wuorinen’s commissioned opera “Brokeback Mountain” (2014), has helped foreground the community and its troubles within public consciousness.

The other three composers in the article are Francesca Caccini, Kaija Saariaho, and Alma Deutscher.

A huge thank you goes out to Linda Lister for her 2019 article and ongoing research into women opera composers. Without researchers like her, many names could have been forgotten but luckily, they are being saved and remembered.