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Article Published: 10 May 2021

Women Composers, Front and Center

Through its Opera Grants for Female Composers (OGFC), OPERA America has now supported the development of nearly 100 operas by women, investing over $1.4 million since the program’s inception in 2013. Several world premieres by past recipients are now on the horizon as companies solidify plans to resume in-person performances: Opera Philadelphia will premiere Jennifer Higdon’s second opera, Woman with Eyes Closed, at its O21 Festival in September. Nell Shaw Cohen’s Turn and Burn, a rodeo-themed opera, will be presented by Houston Grand Opera next spring. Pulitzer Prize winner Du Yun’s In Our Daughter’s Eyes is slated for April 2022 at LA Opera. Rhiannon Gidden’s first foray into opera, Omar, originally planned for 2020, will bow at Spoleto Festival USA in summer of 2022.

Through the OGFC program, OA most recently awarded $100,000 in Discovery Grants to eight composers, supporting developmental activities for their new operas. The funded works represent diverse musical styles and wide-ranging subject matter — from an imagining of an Earth without humans, to the real-life story of a deer who wandered throughout a Harlem park, to an examination of surveillance and digital privacy.

The aim of the grant program is not just to fund new works, but also to raise the visibility of female composers 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.

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

2021 Discovery Grant Recipients

Gelsey Bell
Libretto by the composer

Inspired by Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us, the opera imagines a world in which all humans have disappeared from Earth. The singers double as instrumentalists, embodying creatures who witness the earth from afar as the human-made world gradually erodes away.

Christina Campanella
The Visitation
Libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann

This site-specific promenade opera, to be staged in Harlem’s Jackie Robinson Park, traces the fate of the one-antlered stag that roamed the park for two weeks in 2016, only to be taken into captivity and perish while the city and state battled over his fate. The work explores humans’ relationship to nature and contemplates New York’s aboriginal Lenape people.

Asako Hirabayashi
Hebi-onna (Snake Woman)
Libretto by the composer

Incorporating Japanese culture, language, and philosophy, the opera tells the story of a country man who saves a snake from a trap. When the creature transforms into a beautiful woman, he marries her, only to face his village’s scorn and violence when she turns back into a snake.

Angel Lam
Lost Shanghai
Libretto by Richard Caliban and the composer

Set in 1940s Shanghai, the opera centers on star-crossed lovers who magically traverse time and space in a quest to find compassion, kindness, and love. Lush instrumentation evokes the sensuous, multicultural character of the ancient port city.

Shuying Li
When the Purple Mountains Burn
Libretto by Julian Crouch

The opera explores two figures connected with the 1937 Nanking Massacre: Iris Chang, the Chinese American author of the 1997 best-selling book The Rape of Nanking, and Shiro Azuma, a Japanese soldier who openly admitted to participating in the massacre and other war crimes against the Chinese during World War II.

Nicole Paris
?this is my Body
Co-created Katherine Skovira and Robert Whalen

Written for beatbox artist, mezzo-soprano, ensemble, and electronics, this work draws on the writings of Shoshana Zuboff, author of Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It asks questions about the unregulated power and delimitation of surveillance capitalism and art’s role in articulating thoughts on rights to digital privacy, agency, and the body.

Katherine Skovira
?this is my Body
Co-created Nicole Paris and Robert Whalen

See description above.

Bora Yoon
Handmaiden [Mademoiselle]
Libretto by the composer

Set in the 1930s, when Korea was under colonial Japanese rule, the opera tells the story of a Japanese countess and a Korean handmaiden who plot to cheat and steal from one another but eventually fall in love. The opera seeks to challenge patriarchal traditions and oppressive male dominance in Asian cultures.