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HOT TAKE | Female Composers In Musical Toronto

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The percent of music programmed by major U.S. orchestras composed by women.
The percent of music programmed by major U.S. orchestras composed by women.

Yesterday American composer Mohammed Fairouz published an article on National Public Radio’s website entitled, “Don’t Hire Me. Hire a Female Composer Instead.” In this article, Fairouz divulged the shocking statistic that only 1.8 percent of music programmed by major U.S. orchestras was written by women.

Fairouz points out some obvious facts about the classical music world, saying that, “When it comes to concert music, we may be engaging with the only profession that actively discriminates against the living in favor of the dead.” The majority of classical music programmed by most major institutions was written over a hundred years in the past, when the most celebrated classical music was written by men.

But even in the past, we have numerous talented female composers whose compositions have long been overshadowed by their male colleagues. In March, The Guardian revealed that “Easter Sonata,” a complex and masterful composition originally attributed to Felix Mendelssohn was in fact written by his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. Along with Robert Schumann, we have Clara Schumann, an immensely talented composer, not to mention Alma Mahler, also a skilled composer, alongside Gustav. And of course, many of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzola, Virgil Thomson and Philip Glass, were taught by Nadia Boulanger.

But history aside, how is Toronto’s musical community doing when it comes to presenting female composers?

If we start with an examination of music of the past, earlier this year the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School presented Cendrillon composed by the consummate artist Pauline Viardot, rather than offering the more famous versions of Cinderella composed by Jules Massenet and Giaocchino Rossini.

Although neither the Canadian Opera Company’s 2016-2017 or 2017-2018 seasons offer compositions by female composers, the COC is actively pursuing gender equality in its new opera commissions. In 2019/2020, audiences can look forward to a new commission for the COC by Ana Sokolović, one of Canada’s most celebrated composers.

Earlier this season, Tapestry Opera presented Naomi’s Road, an opera composed by Ramona Luengen with a libretto by Ann Hodges, based on the Canadian children’s novel by Joy Kogawa. A Canadian female trifecta.

In the indie opera world, Bicycle Opera and Opera 5 both present works by female composers this season, with Opera 5’s Suffragette, a double bill by the largely forgotten Dame Ethel Smyth, and Bicycle Opera’s premiere of the new opera Sweat by Juliet Palmer.

Despite controversy over a lack of gender equality in last year’s TSO New Creations Festival, this season, the TSO has presented compositions by numerous female composers. These compositions include works by Cheryl L. Cooney, Jocelyn Morlock, celebrated throat singer and Canadian treasure Tanya Tagaq and composer Christine Duncan, new commissions from composers Nicole Lizée and Cassandra Miller, and the list goes on.

At the end of this month, new music lovers can look forward to Soundstreams’ celebration of the music of South Korean female composer Unsuk Chin, as well as new works by female composers nurtured in its composer’s workshops at the 21C Festival.

And just over a week ago, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company presented a new opera by Canadian female composer Elizabeth Raum.

Perhaps these numbers don’t equate to total gender equality, but it’s pretty encouraging to see how, at least in Toronto, the classical musical community is definitely on the right track.

As our prime minister, Justin Trudeau would say; it is 2017, after all.


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Sara Schabas
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Sara Schabas

Sara Schabas is a soprano and writer born and bred in the heart of Toronto’s musical community. When she’s not singing opera, you can find her covering Carole King on the ukulele, biking through the Annex and advocating the merits of Puccini.
Sara Schabas
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