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Article Published: 01 Apr 2020

Female Composers in the Spotlight

Before OPERA America launched Opera Grants for Female Composers (OGFC) in 2013, fewer than five percent of its grants for repertoire development had been awarded to works by female composers. OGFC has helped to reverse that trend by investing over $1.2 million in operas by women to date, including support for Laura Kaminsky’s As One, now the most performed American opera in the country, and Ellen Reid’s p r i s m, which went on to win the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.

Through the OGFC program, OA most recently awarded $100,000 in Discovery Grants to seven composers, supporting developmental activities for their new operas. The funded works represent diverse musical styles and wide-ranging subject matter — from a reimaging of the Pleiades myth, to an archaeological mystery, to a portrait of a civil rights activist. The aim of the grant program is not just to fund new works, but also to raise the visibility of female composer among stakeholders in the field. To that end, OA invites and subsidizes all grant recipients to attend its annual Opera Conference and its New Works Forum, enabling them to develop relationships with potential collaborators and producers. The grant recipients also receive mentorship from creative consultant Peggy Monastra, senior advisor and former artistic director of G. Schirmer Inc./AMP, who provides guidance on the strategic planning and business aspects of new work development.

In addition to Discovery Grants, the OGFC program also provides Commissioning Grants to opera companies, helping to cover the commissioning fees of female composers. The next round of Commissioning Grant recipients will be announced this summer.

Opera Grants for Female Composers are generously funded by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.

2020 Discovery Grant Recipients

Lisa Bielawa
Centuries in the Hours
Libretto by Claire Solomon and Laurie Rubin, with found texts

Centuries in Hours is based on 72 American women’s diaries from the 17th to 20th century, researched by Bielawa at the American Antiquarian Society. The opera asks the question: What if these women could be lifted out of their historical contexts and respective life circumstances to encounter one another?

Justine F. Chen
Seven Sisters
Librettist by Stephanie Fleischmann

This comic reimaging of the Pleiades myth is inspired by Chen’s own mother, who was one of seven sisters raised by a powerful, complicated Taiwanese matriarch. The work looks at the hard truths of a family rooted in a culture that demeans and disempowers women, and asks how the next generation — now Taiwanese American — can move beyond this legacy.

Melissa Dunphy
Alice Tierney
Libretto by Jacqueline Goldfinger


The opera follows four archaeologists as they unearth the mysterious history of Alice Tierney, a 19th-century prostitute who died of an apparent freak accident on one of Philadelphia’s then-notorious streets. The archaeologists draw their own conclusions, Rashomon-style, from the evidence found.

Johanny Navarro
¿Y los Pasteles? Ópera Jíbara en Dos Actos (Where Are the Pasteles? Jibaro Opera in Two Acts) Libretto by José Félix Gómez

Set in Puerto Rico during Christmastime, this comic opera centers on Chica, an empowered young woman who falls in the love with the culture and traditions of her country, as well as with a beautiful soul.

Milica Paranosic
Penelope and the Geese
Libretto by Cheri Magid

This feminist retelling of the Penelope story from The Odyssey explores the double standard of faithfulness in Homer’s epic poem, in which Odysseus enjoys extramarital sex without consequence, while Penelope must remain steadfastly faithful to her husband.

Kirsten Volness
Letters That You Will Not Get: Women’s Voices from the Great War
Libretto by Susan Werbe and Kate Holland

Letters tells the story of the WWI as experienced by the women who lived through it, based contemporary writings from both sides of the conflict. Through a series of vignettes, the opera depicts women’s varied responses to the war — from enthusiasm to resignation; support to opposition.

Mary D. Watkins
Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story
Libretto by the composer

Through a fusion of classical, spiritual, gospel and protest music, the opera brings to life the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the first African Americans to register vote in Mississippi. Hamer became a leader in the civil rights movement, enduring death threats, beatings and imprisonment to obtain voting rights for her people.