My approach to artistic programming, as both a performer and a producer, centers around a single question: what contributions by historic and living women creators can I discover? In 2015, I began asking myself this question in earnest, and it has magically transformed my artistic life. As a performer, it has allowed me to construct a more accurate, and sometimes radical, historical-performance narrative about classical music, one in which women of the past mingle with women of the present to create profound, complex and thought-provoking musical works, one in which I can see myself and feel a sense of belonging. As a programmer, the simplicity of this question evolves into something far more freighted. By linking constructs of gender identity to artistic creation, particularly in the fields of opera and classical music, I am asking a question that reveals an absence, a void.
In 2014, I completed my Master’s degree in Vocal Performance & Literature. I had performed a total of three pieces written by female composers: songs by Pauline Viardot, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Schumann. Throughout the previous decade I had spent in lessons and coachings, attending summer programs and festivals, and performing in operas, recitals and concerts, these three songs were the extent of my exposure to musical works crafted by women. Although I had taken several music history and performance practice classes, I entered the post-academic world of the “emerging professional” musician with a stunted sense of lineage, one which sadly alloted the works of one female composer per "era" : Hildegard von Bingen - Medieval, Barbara Strozzi - Baroque, Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann - Romantic, and Libby Larsen – New Music. In my mind, five women, all white, western European-North American women, encapsulated the entire history of women’s contributions to the field, spanning over 500 years of human music-making.
To be blunt, I was not exceptional in my lack of understanding of, or exposure to, the works of creative women in classical music and opera. I was the status quo; I was no different than most musicians, both men and women, who I encountered. It was not until I found myself, lost in a homogenous sea of auditions and aria “packages” in New York City in the following years, that I started to question my own values, both musically and personally. I realized that, while I considered myself a feminist in all other aspects of my life (defined, in this instance, as an intersectional proponent for equal rights and representation for all women), my feminist values were completely absent from my music-making, which supposedly carried the weight, purpose and ambition of what I hoped to accomplish in the world.
I was unsure of how to approach a philosophical and literal inconsistency that seemed so deeply embedded in the musical-theatrical choices around me. I began to read and research, to listen to countless recordings, to study scores. Steadily, I started to re-educate myself about the history of classical music, a history bursting with examples of female creation, while simultaneously obscuring or ignoring them. I used my research to inform concert programs, collaborating with NYC-based organizations, such as The Pleiades Project and The Cantanti Project. I expanded my network of collaborators, both male and female, who were themselves questioning how to achieve diverse representation in our art form. With the support of my teacher, Ah Young Hong, I turned my attention more to the works of living female composers, where I experienced the singular joy and complexity of interpreting a work that is timely and new. I began to pursue a Doctorate of Musical Arts to further study the implication of my original question – what contributions from female artists, both historic and living, can I discover, and once I find them, what will I do with them?
At first, I felt isolated in these efforts, but over the past five years, I have watched these questions and conversations explode through countless fields. Through my recent collaboration with InSeries in the Women Composers Festival, as both a performer and a programmer, I have seen my artistic ethos reveal itself in real-time. Be it ongoing conversations with Artistic Director Timothy Nelson about repertoire for the Gala Concert, rehearsals with Camille Crossot and Julie Bosworth where we dissect Kate Soper’s intricate music together, listening to Jessica Krash describe the subtleties of tone color in her beautiful cycle Cantigas de amigo del Martin Codax and discussions with director Brian K. Shaw about the existential quandary of being a mythological creature in Kate Soper's Here Be Sirens, I feel emboldened and energized for what an inclusive future in classical music and opera can look like.
Ultimately, I see our work in this festival as a wonderful beginning. Through advocacy and research, I hope to build a performance culture in which Women Composers Festivals are somewhat obsolete. We will have accepted that what women articulate creatively is not a niche experience, meant to be understood solely by specialized audiences. We will believe that female creativity encompasses the elements of what it means to be human, and this global perspective, in all its diversity, has the innate power to expand our lives for the better.
Adapted from program notes for InSeries Women Composers Festival