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Article Published: 28 Jul 2022

Women Composers at the Fore

This year, 60 percent of OPERA America’s grantmaking will support women and BIPOC composers, librettists, stage directors, conductors, and administrators. This is a far cry from 2013, when fewer than five percent of its repertoire development grants were awarded to women composers. Opera Grants for Women Composers (OGWC) have been at the center of the shift, awarding more than $1.4 million since their inception in 2013.

Through the OGWC program, eight composers were recently awarded Discovery Grants, receiving a total of $104,000 to develop new operas. The composers tackle big themes, and big characters, in their grant-supported works: from the trauma of forced migration and the challenges of climate change, to singular characters like Hawaiian Queen Lili’uokalani and Oscar Wilde. In addition to providing funding, Discovery Grants include mentorship opportunities from Peggy Monastra, creative consultant for OA and senior advisor of G. Schirmer Inc./AMP, on creative planning and the business side of developing a project.

Since 2014, 67 composers have received Discovery Grants. Commissioning Grants, another dimension of the OGWC program, help opera companies cover the commissioning fees for new operas by women; nearly 40 projects have been funded to date.

These grants have helped move the needle when it comes to the representation of works by women onstage. Performance data reveals that operas by women account for 48 percent of North American premieres over the last three seasons, compared to 36 percent of premieres over the last decade as a whole. This recent uptick is reason to feel optimistic that gender parity may be within reach.

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

Layale Chaker, composer

Ruinous Gods: Seven Suites for Sleeping Children (Lisa Schlesinger, librettist)

The opera centers on seven displaced children with uppgivenhetssyndrom or resignation syndrome. This rare response to the trauma of displacement found in refugee camps causes the sufferer to fall into an unresponsive sleep. Based on testimony from survivors and families, the narrative creates space for imagination and agency.

Ashi Day, composer/librettist

Waking the Witch

This one-act opera for solo countertenor or mezzosoprano and chamber ensemble places the audience in the role of an accused witch being interrogated by a Witchfinder. Through a series of escalating questions, the Witchfinder works to extract confessions from the audience.

Susan Kander, composer/co-librettist

Carry My Own Suitcase (Roberta Gumbel, co-librettist)

A pleasant evening at home goes awry, forcing profoundly autistic 25-year-old Roger and his family on the first step toward Roger’s independence. Roger’s unique world of sound and motion is evoked by the tandem performances of a speaking actor and dancer in the role of Roger.

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, composer and librettist


Set in 1895, when Queen Lili’uokalani was imprisoned for almost a year in Iolani Palace for her alleged knowledge of an attempt to take back the Kingdom of Hawai’i, the opera tells the story of the queen’s life at a time of great upheaval. Dependent on secret messages, she encodes hope and seeds of cultural renewal in her writings and compositions.

Pamela Madsen, composer/librettist

Why Women Went West: Eleven Eleisons from East to West (Quintan Ana Wikswo, librettist/video artist)

This multimedia chamber opera explores controversies over human rights, water wars, and early 20th-century feminist artist communities through the life of Mary Hunter Austin — a writer, feminist, conservationist, and defender of Native American and Spanish American rights. Through Austin’s quest, trauma, and journey, the opera reveals the ongoing trauma in women’s quest for autonomy.

Rachel J. Peters, composer

Nothing Except My Genius (working title) (Kevin Thomas Townley Jr., librettist)

When Oscar Wilde arrived in America in 1882, he was asked whether he had any goods to declare. “Nothing ... except my genius,” he replied. The opera is inspired by Wilde’s subsequent lecture tour across the U.S., during which he created an enduring template for becoming famous.

Amber Vistein, composer/librettist


When a massive solar storm is found hurtling toward Earth, residents of The City must confront impending catastrophe: massive power outages, communication blackouts, scarcity, cold. As the storm draws ever closer, each character in this four-person chamber opera maps their individual struggles onto the cosmic event. The storm’s arrival brings unexpected connections that illuminate new ways forward.

Alyssa Weinberg, composer

Drift (J. Mae Barizo, librettist)

A story of migration and climate change, the opera explores the forces that drive families from their homes into the uncertain refuge of new lands. The opera follows the characters as they navigate multiple selves that emerge into an alien and uncertain future.