Folks in the United States, especially those of us in the cultural sector, frequently pride ourselves on our gender parity compared to that of other nations, but we’re actually lagging behind. While the balance of men and women in the field of new music has inspired an extremely wide range of viewpoints on these pages, there has been less discussion about how we compare to the rest of the world on this issue.
One of the highlights of my time in Bratislava last month was attending the world premiere performance of Dorian Gray, a new opera based on Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, at the Slovak National Theatre. At the reception following the performance, many people remarked about what an historic occasion this was since the composer, Ľubica Čekovská, and the librettist, Canadian-both British experimental novelist Kate Pullinger, were both women. The director of the production, Nicola Raab, was also female. I couldn’t help but think that to this day there has only been one opera by a woman ever presented at our own Metropolitan Opera House, the one-act Der Wald by British composer Ethel Smyth which received its American premiere on a double bill with Il Trovatore back in 1903. (While the track record at the now defunct New York City Opera was slightly better—NYCO gave world premiere performances of operas by Thea Musgrave and Deborah Drattell and presented excerpts from additional works by women composers as part of its Vox Contemporary Opera Lab—even they were still nowhere near gender parity.)
The biggest part of the problem is the Great Man myth that still permeates classical music and which has also found its way into the new music claiming its lineage from that tradition. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that the best music of all time was created by a handful of men who lived an ocean away from us and who all died more than a century before any of us were born, we will never have programming that truly reflects the vast array of musical creativity all around us. It’s the same myth that locks American repertoire out of most programming at opera houses and symphony orchestras as well as music by anyone from anywhere who is currently alive. When a work by someone who is alive, American, or female (or a combination of those attributes) is played, it’s inevitably a single work wedged in between the obligatory performances of works by Great Men. Heaven forbid a major opera company or symphony orchestra would mount a season that included a broad range of works that were not penned by Great Men!
To that end, it was fascinating to hear from Kealy Cozens about how Sound and Music, the national agency for contemporary music in the United Kingdom, is attempting to make a difference. (Last week, New Music USA hosted Kealy, who is Sound and Music’s Digital, Development and Communications Assistant, as part of a staff exchange sponsored by the International Association of Music Information Centres.) Under the leadership of its new Chief Executive, Susanna Eastburn, the organization makes clear in its criteria that “it expects applications to its multiple composer programmes to include women composers and that there would need to be an exceptionally good reason why this was not the case to secure funding.”
When Kealy explained this policy to representatives from various music organizations she met with during the week, reactions varied. While some lauded this initiative, others voiced concern that it was somehow forcing a quota system. But if most concert programs do not include a single work by a woman composer, many for an entire season year after year, are these programs truly reflective of the society in which we live and do they have relevance to today’s audiences?