Operas by Beach, Smyth, and Higdon: Compelling Opportunities for Diversification
In this first installment of the series, I concentrate on three operas—Cabildo (composed 1932, premiered 1945), Der Wald (1902), and Cold Mountain (2015)—by Amy Beach, Ethel Smyth, and Jennifer Higdon, respectively. These works present enticing productive and historical opportunities for musicians, researchers, and institutions that allow them to diversify their efforts, an argument that I will support throughout this piece.
Amy Beach: Cabildo
In the early part of the 20th century, American composers tried to develop a distinctly national style of opera. They generally used American stories and themes, and set English texts. When Amy Beach considered a plot for such an opera, she decided that it needed to have the “necessary haze of romance,” meaning it must be sufficiently in the past. Following this belief, she reached back to a story that takes place in New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. The work begins in a prison, called Cabildo, where a couple is taking a tour of the facility. It then flashes back to the war time, in which a romantic relationship unfolds between two of the characters.
To create a historically and regionally appropriate sound for the opera, librettist Nan Bagby Stevens sent Beach creole folk tunes. These were appealing for Beach’s project, as she considered creole music essentially American. By harmonizing and adapting these, Beach connected her opera with both the region and nation.
Beach strengthens this connection in three passages. A choral anthem advocates for the preservation of America, and two solos map the defense of Louisiana onto the protection of America. Beach thus created an American work through musical and textual methods.
After a string of complications, the one-act opera—succinctly titled Cabildo—premiered on February 27, 1945 at the University of Georgia, just two months after Beach’s death. The performance, given by students, alumni, and faculty of the university, was hailed by a critic from the Atlanta Constitution as “epoch-making.” Despite such praise, the opera has been performed only about seven times since its premiere.
Although Cabildo has had little critical and musical attention, as Nicole Powlison indicated in her presentation, it presents exciting opportunities for scholars and musicians alike that could alter this reception. Researchers could analyze the opera to understand how composers attempted to represent American identity—specifically nationhood—through music and drama in the early part of the 20th century. The opera’s simple stage machinery and manageable production demands, such as the small instrumentation and cast, give community opera companies the chance to execute the work on a limited budget, funds for which they could procure from arts administrations, citing the work’s broad appeal and limited requirements. (An abstract of Powlison’s 2017 dissertation on Cabildo is here).
Ethel Smyth: Der Wald
In December 2016, the Metropolitan Opera produced L’amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho. This was only the second time in the company’s 128-year history that it staged a work by a woman composer. The auspicious moment made scholars, audiences, and critics reevaluate the first such instance at the Met: Der Wald, by the British composer Ethel Smyth, in 1903. To foster a better understanding of why it took so long for the institution to produce another opera by a woman composer, Amy Zigler addressed Der Wald’s gendered reception. In her research, Zigler examined 47 press clippings from American newspapers. She divided these into three categories: 1) reviews of the music, 2) articles that described her appearance, and 3) written responses that commented on her social connections.
35 percent of these articles described either Smyth’s appearance, a technique rarely if never used in pieces on male composers, or both her appearance and connections in society. One critic called her a “dainty little woman” and another described the black gown that she wore to the Met premiere of Der Wald in acute and overblown detail in the New York Times fashion section. This focus demonstrated that Smyth’s looks provided part of the concert-going experience for these writers.
Smyth’s femininity stood in marked and anxiety-inducing contrast to her “masculine style” as a composer. One writer classified her opera by its “errant masculinity;” another asserted that Smyth exerted “masculine energy” in her work. These responses underscored a pernicious double standard; her work did not sound like the product of a woman, which made it errant and poor, and, if it had, critics would have still disliked it.
Some newspapers grouped Smyth with the other women composers of the time. This classification placed Smyth into a separate and decidedly unequal category. At their worst, critics accused the Metropolitan Opera of wasting its resources on a work so inadequate to repay them. Zigler’s research, however, demonstrated that Der Wald in fact brought in the greatest revenue of the season, a fact that stabs at the heart of these critic’s assessments.
Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Opera may have become wary of premiering new work, especially one by a woman, or, for that matter, fearful of producing any work by a woman, because of these criticisms.
For her part, Smyth cared more about her audiences than about her critics. Concert-goers evidently liked Der Wald, as evidenced by their enthusiastic responses, which were duly recorded by the critics. In any case, Smyth felt that she had to defend her opera. “I feel I must fight for Der Wald because…I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs; not just to go on hugging the shore, afraid to put out to sea. Now I am neither afraid nor a pauper, and in my way I am an explorer who believes supremely in this bit of pioneering.”
Der Wald’s reception provides helpful insights into why Saariaho’s opera was only the second by a woman composer at the Metropolitan Opera, what is widely considered America’s most-respected and storied opera company. With such understandings, the opera community can ensure that the next work by a woman at this institution comes much sooner than it did before.
Jennifer Higdon: Cold Mountain
The last opera analyzed in this session was Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain. This differs from the others in its age—it premiered in 2015 at the Santa Fe Opera—and relative proliferation—the opera has already enjoyed stateside productions at Opera Philadelphia and North Carolina Opera, in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and was tentatively planned for a production at the Minnesota Opera in the 2018-2019 season (it is currently not on their online schedule.).
Cold Mountain is based on the 1997 book of the same name (by Charles Frazier), which takes place in the South during the Civil War. In her adaptation, Higdon (with librettist Gene Scheer) expands the role and significance of a runaway slave named Lucinda. As Sharon Mirchandani argued, Lucinda exerts power and individualism through music, adds a much-needed black role in opera, and encourages diversity in casting.
To support her interpretation, Mirchandani focused on a scene noted for its poignant effect. In this, Lucinda finds a white man— the male lead, Inman—shackled in a chain gang, left to die. Lucinda, gun in hand, swears that she would kill all the white people in the world if she could. Even though Inman urges her to begin her revenge with him, she decides to set him free. Musically, Lucinda’s voice expresses emotional pain with a dramatic and moving vibrancy that creates an impactful and impassioned experience.
Lucinda expands the typical restricted position of a Civil-War-era slave by claiming dramatic authority. As Higdon explained in an e-mail correspondence with Mirchandani, the scene presents an ironic twist on the white-frees-black narrative, in essence, flipping it on its head. The composer’s reconsideration of agency in opera highlights shifting perspectives and emerging voices, especially those previously silenced, in contemporary American society.
Cabildo and Der Wald demonstrate that women have written operas that practices of critical reception and organizational decision-making have excluded from the concert hall. Moving in a positive direction, Cold Mountain underscores the slow expansion of opportunities for women composers in opera, as demonstrated by the size, scope, and success of Higdon’s efforts. Viewed as a group, these works provide institutions exciting and compelling narratives, and stirring and captivating music. Thus, the case for diversity in the opera house accretes its definitive, meaningful, and tangible support.
I thank Nicole Powlison, Amy Zigler, and Sharon Mirchandani for answering my e-mails with detailed and helpful responses.