A discussion of women composers in the operatic canon.
By Annarosa Berman

Every opera lover has a favourite soprano. If very few have a favourite woman composer, the reason is obvious. In Breaking Glass, a quadruple bill of four one-act operas composed by four women composers, Sydney Chamber Opera (SCO) in partnership with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Composing Women program, addresses the absence of women composers in the operatic canon.

Fittingly, composers Peggy Polias and Bree van Reyk have chosen feminist themes for their works. Neither musician had been thinking of writing an opera until the opportunity of an SCO collaboration came up. Polias imagined that it would come later in her career, if at all, and van Reyk didn’t think she’d ever write an opera.“The expense of grand opera is intimidating to begin with,” she says.“And opera is so problematic for women. It almost always involves a woman dying or being raped. Do we really want to glorify this?”

Moreover, Polias says, opera composers of the past all being male, “the burden is the canon and companies wanting to stage and restage it because that’s what their audience wants to hear.” She doesn’t see this as an insurmountable problem though. “It’s about finding the audience who wants to hear what you have to offer. You wouldn’t force punk on someone who likes rap, would you?”

The idea for van Reyk’s opera, The Invisible Bird, came from thoughts about women’s invisible contribution to society. “We are not lauded as the great heroes or masters or saviours of the world,” she says. She saw a parallel between women’s contribution to society and birds, whose beautiful sound enrich our lives even though we often don’t see them.

Invisible Birds, directed by Clemence Williams and composed by Bree van Reyk. Photo by Daniel Boud

The night parrot, the subject of her opera, was long thought to be extinct, yet found again in the early 2000s. “Someone found a dead night parrot by the roadside, then ornithologists found a nest with three eggs nearby. But the next day the eggs had gone – eaten by snakes.” A ground-dwelling bird, the night parrot’s survival was always unlikely, but the arrival of settlers, who brought introduced predators with them, and who hunted the bird as a prized trophy, made matters infinitely worse.

“The fact that everyone thought it had disappeared and yet it was still there, plays into the idea of invisibility – if you’re not looking in the right places, you won’t see anything.” That goes for women too. “It’s not that they haven’t been there; they just haven’t been included.”

The Invisible Bird has no narrative arc, and van Reyk wrote the libretto – the names of birds currently extinct or endangered – herself.

Polias, who chose a feminist angle for her opera, Commute, because the commission came at the height of the #MeToo public discourse of 2017/18, likewise wrote her own libretto.

“I was hearing my friends’ #MeToo accounts, and I’d had my own experiences in that regard.” As a composer, it was logical to explore the theme through music rather than through social media. As for the focus on a commute: “Most women have had scary experiences walking home from work. Commute asks the question: where does this walk home lead?” The work is about navigating public spaces safely.

Yet Polias found the idea of a narrative along the lines of “woman walks home and all these things happen to her and you’re going to see it on stage” uninspiring. “Many Hollywood films do that; I was not interested in perpetuating the same tropes.” Thus, Commute is an interior journey.

As for the libretto: Polias, who has Greek heritage and reads a little ancient Greek, found inspiration in the Odyssey’s episodic structure, where Odysseus vanquishes or outsmarts some creature in each episode. The text is mostly in English, with some Modern Greek, and a short quote from the Odyssey in Ancient Greek.

Both composers found the SCO collaboration inspiring. Polias says: “Writing an opera for the first time, the temptation was to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it. But you learn that you don’t have to express everything in the music; that some meaning will happen in the lighting, the costumes, the acting. Getting input from different perspectives has been amazing. ”

“The expense of grand opera is intimidating to begin with,” she [ composer Peggy Polias] says. “And opera is so problematic for women. It almost always involves a woman dying or being raped. Do we really want to glorify this?”

Van Reyk, who has been working as a percussionist and drummist since graduating from uni twenty years ago, began to compose a decade ago. “I have a punk rock/garage rock upbringing and played drums in lots of bands,” she says. She later played as a casual in the opera and ballet orchestra, but could never see the singers. “And what you hear down in the pit is crazy.”

Polias grew up learning piano and trumpet, “mucked around” on the guitar, all while acquiring a strong grounding in theory. From around the age of ten she started sketching composition ideas “for when I had more skill”. In high school, shy as a performer, she wrote little pieces for other people. She did her masters in composition at Sydney University under Anne Boyd and applied for the Composing Women program because she wanted to “push her craft” a little more.

She’d love to revisit the opera format again some day. “I like the compressed thirty-minute form, and I love the quad bill; it’s a really great format for presenting new work. But maybe one day I’ll write a massive grand opera, who knows?”

Van Reyk is looking forward “to just keep writing music”. The next couple of things she’s working on are less political though: “To be thinking of feminism all the time can be quite exhausting.”

Composing Women offers aspiring composers either a masters of a doctorate, which includes collaborations with SCO, the SSO, and a soloist. Founded by Matthew Hindson, the initiative addresses the fact that among first-year uni students worldwide, equal numbers of women and men pursue composition, yet in the professional world, the ratio between women and men drops to 1:4.

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