Mim‹ and Salome, Br‹nnhilde and Elvira. Opera without women's voices may be unimaginable, but when it comes to offstage business, their absence is rarely questioned.
"Sopranos are necessary," points out Sorrel Hays, one of the composers invited to participate in New York City Opera's VOX 2008 Festival. "So there are more women in opera than there are men, even though they're not the authors. But for us to be behind the scenes as the creators, it's a harder thing."
Women composers have had to put up a particularly tough fight to gain parity with their male colleagues. Women doctors and lawyers may no longer turn heads and raise eyebrows, but both overtly and indirectly, composers who happen to be female often still feel the drag of their gender. Yet change, though slow, seems finally to be coming.
"I think it's taken for granted now that women should be in there somewhere," continues Hays."Bias still exists, and it comes, it seems to me, from men who are heads of departments, heads of orchestras, in places of power, who really are uncomfortable with women being on an equal basis. But as more and more women find their way into top positions, of course, the picture changes."
One indication that the situation is improving may be seen in the VOX 2008 Festival lineup, in which four of the ten selected composers are female. This could be an anomaly, of course, particular to this year's panel of judges. But could it also indicate an industry-wide attitude adjustment?
VOX composer Veronika Krausas is inclined to think it may. "I don't think it's that women are growing into art, I think it's just that society is letting them be heard," she explains. "To me, it really doesn't matter at all that someone's a woman, and [making the distinction] kind of annoys me."
Women-only concerts and festivals, and scholarships designed to foster and encourage female composers have helped bridge the gap, yet they may leave the impression that the composers are trading one kind of discrimination for another. Women composers want a level playing field, not a pedestal‹but no one seems to have a clear answer on how to get there.
Justine F. Chen, another of this year's VOX participants, recalls being one of only three women in her composition department. Though raised with a strong sense of matriarchy, when she went to college she was taken aback by how easily accepted the male students were. She decided that something had to change, and she chose what was closest at hand‹herself.
"I just decided that I would stop focusing on that and start focusing more on my own development," Chen says. When she met conductor Marin Alsop, she asked her for advice. "I asked her how she felt about being a woman in a male-dominated field, and she said that the most important thing is to not make it something so different‹if it's a woman, if it's a man. If you place them in different categories, then you're immediately almost handicapping yourself
Krausas counts herself fortunate that sexism hasn't colored her own career in such a personally defining way. "It's not been very much part of my life, in terms of being a woman composer versus being a composer," she says. "Now I could be completely not seeing things or not understanding what certain people are doing, but I guess ignorance is bliss."
Though Krausas hasn't confronted the issue head on, she's not discounting that it's a very real problem for other composers. "It still exists, so I don't think you can completely ignore it. But I also don't think it should be so focused on that it makes it a huge issue."
Though some women may largely have avoided confronting overt discrimination, Alice Shields, also a VOX participant and one of the first women to earn a doctorate in composition from Columbia University, has borne longer witness to the field's evolution in this area. And though she doesn't hide behind her gender, she also doesn't want to hide it.
"I feel it's a big deal," Shields explains, "and yes, composer is what I am, but anyone considering performing music should know that there is this issue, that women are still discriminated against in a very quiet form."
To her mind, correcting this problem entails not ignoring gender, but being keenly aware of it. She feels that musical organizations need to actively avoid unconscious forms of discrimination. They need to understand that women are composing great work, and if they are not hearing it, they need to search further.
This may sound like affirmative action, but Shields is unflinching. "In my view, only excellence should be accepted in music, but one has to always be aware in life that every one of us has prejudices. So when looking for pieces to perform, organizations should consider whether they have looked at women's work. I think it's a matter of consciousness raising."
Hays takes this concept one step further, suggesting that women in places of artistic decision-making power are vital to gaining balanced attention and performance consideration. "What do we need now? More women in positions of choice, because, after all, somebody has to say yes to my opera. I can't sing it, conduct it, produce it. Somebody has to say, 'Yes, we like this woman's work.' That's happening more, but it's still not a field where women are largely in positions of power."
Leaving aside the challenges of opportunity and focusing instead on the music itself, questions of parity become further clouded. Women's music may be equal, but it also may be very different from what is written by male colleagues. We may need to wait, however, until we've heard more music by women to make any kind of meaningful appraisal. Hays suggests that it all remains to be heard. "I think that we in our time cannot quite know. There are some of us who have ventured more into our own language than others. Fifty years from now maybe we can look back and say, 'Oh, that really is a woman's expression for that period'."
Both Chen and Krausas hear feminine and masculine characteristics in music, but though stereotype may lead us to equate bombastic with male, in the end it's an unreliable predictor of the composer's gender. Using herself to illustrate her point, Chen says she doesn't think of any of her music being particularly 'female'. "I know I'm a woman," she acknowledges with a laugh, "but I don't think there's any specific gender influence. There might be, but if there is, it's completely subconscious."
Meanwhile, whatever the challenges have been or will be, these four VOX composers will keep writing. For Shields, quitting has never been an option. Without it, she says, "I think I couldn't exist. If you have to write music, you have to do it; it's not a choice." The quality of the environment in which women must compose is our choice, however, and with awareness and action, female composers can become just as necessary to opera as Salome or Br‹nnhilde.
Molly Sheridan is the director of CounterstreamRadio.org and the managing editor of NewMusicBox.org, both programs of the American Music Center. She is also host of Carnegie Hall's Sound Insights podcasts.