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Beyond dissertations, articles and individual biographies in works such as the Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers or theGrove Music Online, next to nothing has been written about women's contributions as composers to the history opera. The stacks of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard may be the repository of primary and secondary sources on this subject. Until my exhibit, no one had brought these disparate works and biographies together in one place.
Taken as a whole, they tell a story that gives us new insight into women’s participation in the creation and development of opera. These works ask us to consider that women may write in a different voice than that of their male colleagues. Many of these composers set their own texts, and the reasons for this need to be investigated. Some of them even performed in their own works. Some set stories of female heroism, taking a story that would normally focus on a male protagonist and shifting its focus. Whether the story took place in Arcadia, on a battlefield, in the French countryside, in a foreign land or on an enchanted island, women’s relationship to power is a recurring theme. Also, time and again, and in contrast to many 19th-century works written by men, female characters are able to love, be sexual or seek their independence without being punished by death or madness. There appears to be a parity between the female and male protagonists in these operas that challenges the status quo of what we today call the “standard repertory.”
Ultimately, these works need to be performed, recorded and studied in order for us to unlock the secrets they hold and to inspire present and future generations of composers. Happy endings seem to predominate these operas, sometimes with the female protagonists finding a success that lay in direct contrast to that of their creators. Each of these composers faced challenges to being heard simply because Western society devalued female creativity and denied women full equality. The degree to which this societal devaluation hindered a career could be ameliorated by class, but even better was for a woman to have a male mentor, patron or protector. Those with such aid were able to pursue careers as composers or publish their works.