Songwriters come in all walks of life. Men on the bayous of Louisiana playing guitars, women sitting at a piano in Renaissance Europe. No matter the gender, ethnicity, or age of the composer, people that differ as much as the snowflakes that fall from the sky. Today we want to look at some operas that were written by the women composer.
1. Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro
Composed by Shirley Graham Du Bois, an African-American campaigner, playwright and musician, this work she premiered in Cleveland in 1932 is the first “race-opera” in the United States. It was an instant success and there were requests from most major cities in the United States to host a staging. Yet, funding was sparse and the economy due to the Great Depression made a tour impossible.
The plot surrounds a group of conventional African characters and their trek through North America. We have The Voo Doo Man, The Mother, The Girl, and The Boy, whom develop American tenets along the way. This is a story of how their African ideologies and traditions coalesce with the constant changing American culture.
2. La liberazione di Ruggiero
Written by Francesca Caccini, Italian composer born in 1587, this comedic opera premiered at the Villa di Poggio Imperiale on February 3, 1625. The plot is based on the poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. La liberazione di Ruggiero is the first woman composed opera in history and is said to be the first opera from Italy to leave the country.
Caccini was commissioned to create the work by Maddalena of Austria, who employed her as a composer. Maddalena was the Regent Archduchess and married to Cosimo Il de’Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Once completed, this opera was printed in 1625 and to date it is the only surviving opera by this female composer.
The plot surrounds Alcina, who is malicious and erotic, and Melissa, who is wholesome and asexual. Opera scholars say his melodies are a testimonial to sexual role. It has been reproduced several times in the late 20th and early 21st centuries throughout Europe including Cologne, Ferrara, Stockholm, Regensburg, and Neuburg an der Donau. It was also produced in Minneapolis in 1991
Thea Musgrave is the composer of this next female written opera. Musgrave also penned the libretto around Micaela Almonester, who was the Baroness de Pontalba, in New Orleans. Musgrave is a 21st century composter and Almonester 19th century royalty, which are obviously worlds apart.
Yet, when the New Orleans Opera asked her to write a piece to celebrate two centuries since the Louisiana Purchase, and the story of this Baroness was what inspired Musgrave. She based it on a 1997 book about Almonester by Christina Vella. Musgrave altered Almonester’s age so that her wedding to Celestin de Pontalba would coincide with the Louisiana Purchase.
The budget ran far over what they had originally planned so another production had to be halted. Pontalba premiered in 2003 at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre in New Orleans. It was performed two more times after its debut but has not been revived since.
Almonester was born wealthy in New Orleans. She set off to France and married Célestin de Pontalba, who was her cousin. He held her prisoner hoping to control her vast wealth. Pontalba’s father shot her and then shot himself. Surprisingly enough, she survived and could legally separate from Pontalba and return to New Orleans.
4. La Esmeralda
Louise Bertin, a French composer born in Essonne, wrote this next opera and the libretto was written by Victor Hugo, who took parts of his successful Notre-Dame de Paris. It premiered on November 14, 1836 in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique. The lead role was sung by Cornélie Falcon, a celebrated soprano of the time.
Bertin was unable to walk being partially paralyzed and was also a phenomenon in the arts when she was just a child. Bertin dabbled in painting, writing, and wrote her first opera before she was twenty. La Esmeralda was not well received though and it is said the critics were not kind, and the audience audibly displayed their disapproval.
La Esmeralda only ran for six shows and at one point the crowd started to yell callous phrases using the composers name unkind. During the final performance, the crowd was so appalled a revolt began in the theater. Cornélie Falcon had to run away so they could bring the curtain down in a flash.
Despite its reception, the library of the Paris Opera has a copy of it in its archives and a script that was signed by Bertin is at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Also, it had other performances around France and certain numbers were played in 1865 for a concert. It wasn’t heard from again until 2002 when it was revived on piano at the Théâtre-Opéra in Besançon.
5. Ciro in Armenia
Premiering at the Teatro Regio Ducal in Milan on December 26, 1753, this next opera was written by Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini. Considered a musical drama or “dramma per musica” Ciro in Armenia is a three-act work that would go down as Pinottini’s greatest musical achievement. During World War II the score was destroyed and only shreds were found, which were recorded.
The Milan Conservatory has a collection of segments that have endured. It was recently listed as one of the best operas written by women composers by Tom Service of The Guardian in 2015. The libretto was also written by Pinottini and she found inspiration in a piece by Umberto Manferrari and G. Manfredi.
It follows the tale of Cyrus, who is looking to join the Medes, Persian royalty, and instigate a battle against Assyria. When the Armenian King, who was once a vassal of the Medes, chooses to fight on the side of Assyria. This decision prompts Cyrus to raid Armenia.
This title translates to The Ugly Girl and it was composed by Ella Adayevskaya in 1873. Her real name was Elizaveta von Schultz and this work was listed, by the writer, as her Op. 5. Neprigozhaya is the tale of Solomonia Saburova and her marriage Tsar Vasili III. It is based in fantasy.
Solomonia is mentally abused by her father, a boyar, because he believes that she is not his real child, but the product of a beautiful, albeit unfaithful, wife. Her father repeats to her that she is ugly and fastens mirrors to all the wall that made her look ugly just to prove his point. The Tsar falls in love with her at first sight when he is observing his subjects incognito and can undo the damage Solomonia’s father had done.
Vasili’s real mirror proves that she is beautiful. The Tsar is also able to negate the gossip about her mother’s infidelity. The only documented performances that have anything to do with this opera is an aria meant for a soprano that was performed in St. Petersburg in 1870 and other excepts were played in Paris at the Théâtre des Italiens in 1877. Singers taking part in the latter included Ottavio Nouvelli and Adelaide Borghi-Mamo.
Learn more about some of the great female composers of opera to have lived.