OTI Online
Winter 1999

THE Sound OF Women IN Music:
TALENT USED AND ABUSED
by Albert Innaurato


CHOCOLATE, when it was originally discovered, was a horrible concoction that had red peppers boiled in it. You drank it holding your nose. It took the creativity of nuns in Mexico to eliminate the capsicum and add milk and sugar. Their creation tasted so good that, after inventing the drink, the nuns did nothing else but produce, and probably consume, it. Ultimately, the Vatican banned chocolate - and the nuns.

Felix Mendelssohn had a sister, Fanny Hensel, who also composed, but he mocked her creative efforts incessantly.

Women clearly invented ecstasy. Which is probably why Western culture has long banned them from creative and controlling roles in the most ecstatic endeavor we have - music, the chocolate of the mind.Yet in all probability, music was also invented by women, though you would never know it from looking at the Western canon: from Bach to Gershwin to Lennon and McCartney to Tupac Shakur, it's mainly men. When one thinks of women in the music world, what comes to mind is women as performers: Women on display, not women as composers or impresarios.

Now, in a rapidly changing world, the assumption is that the place of women in all kinds of music has changed for the better. In some ways it has. In many ways it's worse.

SILENCED BY THE CHURCH

Though women have had to fight to create in all arts, historically music has been the arena most inaccessible to them. That is odd, given how important women's music is in many primitive cultures. It is even more peculiar when one considers that the first people to sing, indeed to speak, were most likely women. Gathering out in the fields, calling to one another and their children, women probably sang as a means of communication quite frequently, while for men on the hunt silence would have been essential. And surely, from time immemorial, even in caves, mothers have crooned lullabies to restless babies.

Yet in a world where music has made multi-millionaires, it is rarely women, save the few like Streisand, who have made the fortunes in music. Those who usually have done best are figurative courtesans like Madonna, who adopt the fetish costume of the moment and sell themselves like crazy. There is a certain creativity in going from "Like a Virgin" through the dark corridors of S&M to being the spiritually well attuned mother of a fatherless child, like the original. But it speaks more of shamelessly cynical marketing savvy than the highest peaks of art. Madonna might make two points, however: One, what other place does this society have for women? And two, how else can a gifted woman make a mint and get power?

Women were considered incapable of writing major classical works - even though they did

The question to ask, of course, isn't, Why have there been no female musicians of the stature of Verdi or Elvis, but rather, Why don't we know about them and their music? After all, one of the oldest forms of music, the lament, was not only the exclusive province of women but also the basis for much "mainstream" Western music. Research published by Gail Hoist- Warhaft in her book Dangerous Voices and by Constantina-Nadia Seremetakis in The Last Word has shown that the lament tradition - which includes the preparation of the corpse and the celebration of the life, and ends with long cries and songs of grief - was passed on from one generation of women to the next. Women alone made creative changes. The men stood around and watched uncomfortably.

Women lamented the death of Christ with music, and very likely invented the Passion narrative. Jesus had women followers, and wealthy and well-connected matrons occupied important positions in the early commemoration of him. According to Pliny, if hymns were sung (as he suggests in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, c. 111 C.E.), many, if not all, would have been written by women. In the 2nd century, the "inspired utterances" - probably chanted or sung - of two women, Prisca and Maximilla, were widely known.

Women in the late Roman Empire (which is credited with "civilizing the world") had a lot of power, legally as well as socially, as long as they were Roman citizens. But Christians, in their fervor to "convert" the world, disempowered women. Eventually the church came to see them as vessels of sin (rather than as repositories of wisdom, which religious scholar Elaine Pagels has argued is what the Holy Spirit initially meant). As music was added to church services, the Catholic Church preferred castrating boys to having the choir loft defiled by the presence of women.

The basis of large-scale Western music and theater was the "visitatio sepulchri," or lamenting antiphons (also called sung dialogues), which concerned the feelings of the three Marys during their visit to the tomb of Christ. But the women's roles were taken by men. Women were not permitted to participate in any official way in the church service, let alone to sing or compose. Not until later, in the Dark Ages, did touring female troubadours emerge to help in the gradual secularization of music and narrative. But for their pains they were likely to end up dead in a ditch or burned at the stake.

One wonders if the lament of a mother reminded a man of his own mother's lullabies, and if linking women with birth and death in this way has always had and continues to have something to do with the resistance of men to women who make music. Indeed, so called civilization seems positively intent on repressing women in music. The Chinese opera, for example, which became enormously popular after the 16th century, is an all male endeavor. The Japanese Kabuki, less improvisational, is strictly a male preserve, passed on from father to son. The far more severe Japanese Noh drama is likewise for men. (Japanese culture did allow women to make music publicly in some limited circumstances: Geishas, for example, were trained musicians, but their sole function was to pleasure men.)

Joni Mitchell, THE Sound OF Women IN Music: TALENT USED AND ABUSED by Albert Innaurato

The story of Christ, with its archetypal patterns of suffering and redemption is exalting and inspiring. Naturally, women were driven to create music to dramatize it from the earliest times of the Christian movement. But for most of next two millennia, the fate of nun and composer Lucrezia Vizzana, in the early 17th century, was typical. Her texts are highly charged, and her music suggests an ecstatic dreamer. An innovator, she wrote in the then cutting-edge "stile secondo" - freer, more ecstatic than the chaster "stile antico" (old style). Vizzana enjoyed a brief vogue, then was silenced, presumably by her superiors, and wrote nothing for 40 years. She may have been driven mad or, far worse for a composer, into muteness. For more than 400 years, her music went unheard. Only recently has her complete repertoire been given its first recording (on a Linn Records CD).

THE THREAT OF FEMALE COMPOSERS

The outstanding exception to such repression is the 12th-century composer (also scientist, reformer, and mystic) Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). One of the geniuses of Western music, she was also virtually forgotten until recent interest in women's history unearthed her. Born to noble parents, she became the abbess of a convent, where she was in the rare position of doing pretty much what she pleased. Known as the "Sybil of the Rhine," she composed music that is amazing in its complexity and variety, and greatly extended the musical rhetoric of the day. (She is also recognized today as being the author of the first scientific treatise written by a woman.)

In Hildegard's case, it made all the difference that, as an abbess, she ran her own little empire within her convent's walls. "Music is above all a practical art," says Ellen Taaffe Zwilich (b. 1939), a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and one of the most esteemed creators and mentors in today's classical music. "You need to have the elements you are writing for available to you. Whether they are voices or instruments or both. You need to hear what you've written."

The history of Clara Schumann, the wife of the early 19th-century German composer Robert Schumann and sometime muse of Johannes Brahms, reflects the tendency to dismiss the music of women based on limited samples often recorded by less than transcendently talented musicians. It would be interesting, indeed stunning, to have the music of all these women given the passionate advocacy Leonard Bernstein gave to Mahler's.

A couple of early opera divas, notably Pauline Viardot (the lover of the 19thcentury Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev, and in his mind, his equal), composed. Today's current rage, soprano Cecilia Bartoli, sings some of Viardot's songs. But then as now, with very few exceptions, women who wanted to compose exclusively, especially in larger forms, and be taken seriously, failed. And then as now, with a few exceptions, women who wanted to control their own careers, to call the shots, were likely to be shot down instead.

Felix Mendelssohn had a sister, Fanny Hensel, who also composed, but he mocked her creative efforts incessantly. Yet Felix, in the immortal words of the composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, developed from "a genius to a [mere] talent." He was a teenager when he com- posed most of his famous works, while Fanny went in the opposite direction, finally composing a magnificent major work just before she collapsed and died at the age of 42, while rehearsing one of her brother's massive but minor pieces.

The circumstances of society forced Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps the greatest genius in Western music, to use boys and shrieking men in the magnificent arias of lament he wrote for women "characters" in his great Passions. Reportedly, he was not happy about this; it is notable that the compositions of his beloved second wife, Anna Magdalena, appear alongside his in his notebooks.

But more often than not, women in classical music were considered nonentities. Composition teachers even in this century commonly thought mathematical theories (such as those on which twelve-tone music is based), were the mescaline of musical creativity, which of course only men could metabolize. For a long time it was believed that women's brains were "weaker" on the mathematical side than men's, and therefore no woman could write symphonic music.

By sheer determination, Zwilich, for example, went freelance ("a nightmare for men, too," she says, laughing). She played in orchestras while learning how to play the political games necessary to get her work performed. "Once they hear you can write a large piece for 90 instruments, your gender really doesn't matter. But getting to that point is the problem!"

But Zwilich's mastery of the "game" - obtaining the right agent, schmoozing every possible contact, being available 24 hours a day for interviews, lecturing anywhere that would have her, developing her own mailing lists of sympathetic critics and arts editors - has brought its own critics. "She thinks she's Ludwiga van Beethoven" is how one press agent (a female) expressed it. Peter G. Davis, a brilliant and far from misogynistic critic says, "Zwilich proves if you annoy enough people enough of the time, enough of them who matter will take you seriously."

Zwilich's music is beautiful, lustrous, and accessible. But in a media culture, everyone must be sold. When the sale is clinched you can - with luck - get an orchestra or an opera company or at least a prominent chamber group to perform, and perhaps even record, your work. But not everyone has the gumption, the know-how, or the organizational skills to sell herself successfully in the male controlled music industry.

BANKRUPTING THE TALENT

Nowadays, it's tempting to forget the historic struggle women composers have faced, in part because there are many highly visible women in popular music, where it has been easier for them to achieve success as performers. But fame and riches are not the same as power, and women have been co-opted by commercial forces more commonly than men.

Though there is huge money to be made in pop music of all kinds, it doesn't invariably filter down to the performers. The great industry moguls, such as the billionaire David Geffen (now of DreamWorks, the studio he started and largely financed with Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg, who are merely multi-millionaires), have made fortunes while the female "talent" has frequently gone bankrupt.

Geffen was Joni Mitchell's roommate back in the '60s, and he almost single handedly discovered and promoted Laura Nyro. But there are those (including at times Mitchell and Nyro), who reportedly felt he wouldn't let them grow as artists, abandoned them when they didn't do as he said, and constructed contracts to their disadvantage. With some justice, he would claim that he was doing what everyone did and expected, and in the end the women went along with him.

Last year, at age 49, Nyro died of ovarian cancer in reduced circumstances and largely forgotten, or ignored, by the male deejays. But during the '60s, her songs were "covered" (sung by other talent) by more artists than any other songwriter in popular music except the Beatles.

Mitchell's bitterness toward Geffen has been pretty scorching in many interviews, and though she's not in financial straits, she has far less money than any of the men who had hits when she did.

There is a curious mentality in what the agents in L.A. call "this business of show." Women performers are trophies: owned, directed, "created." Men aren't necessarily well or fairly treated in all cases, but there is less invested in "possessing" them, and they get more respect.

Dreamworks paid George Michael more than $20 million before he laid down a single track for them; no woman has ever gotten that kind of deal.

Instead, the usual tactic is to pay female "talent" (the industry euphemism) huge advances, and then charge them for everything against those advances, a la the old Hollywood star machine system. This happens to men too, but women run up higher bills.They are expected to look spectacular and live like goddesses, so costly trunks of fragile designer gowns, vastly expensive plastic surgery, specially engineered make-up and hair-dos, the limo lifestyle, the secretaries, the "bodyguards" tend to inflate their expenses beyond those such as session time in studios (hugely costly), publicity, arrangers, and hotels that are typical in the industry regardless of the performer's gender. Even when an album earns an immense amount of money, there may be very little left over for the artist once all the "charges" have been deducted. It's also not unusual for the mogul in this situation to have a "managerial" position with respect to his female "talent." Typically, this position entitles him to 10 to 15 percent off the top of all the money that comes in, and higher percentages of revenues from "merchandising" or spin-offs.

Aretha Franklin

In this fashion, a female artist finds herself deep in debt to the record company and/or mogul or both. As her career cools off, she may end up broke and in the hole to her mentor, with few options for raising more money. Finally the IRS shows up, usually hitting the celeb for back taxes (penalties and interest added, of course) on money that often actually went to the producer, the studio, or an accountant, but was "credited" to the talent. The IRS invariably goes after the individual rather than a large company, probably because moguls have a habit of forming conglomerates to shelter their assets. Ruin is a very real possibility for many of the women musicians we've all known and loved. Diana Ross went through this. So did Joni Mitchell, who is such a fighter that she won her case with the IRS.

HAS GOSPEL BEEN GOOD TO WOMEN?

In America, one of the best outlets for women has been gospel, an ambiguous term first used in the '20s. It arose in the music of poor churches, white and black, but attained its greatest eloquence in African-American Pentecostal churches. Men, especially traveling male quartets, popularized the form (and contributed to jazz and to "doo-wop," the pop craze of the '50s and early '60s). But especially before the '50s, black men could not "cross over" to achieve "white success." It wasn't that easy for black women either.

"I thought if the white folk would let us into their big houses to clean them, they'd let us into their concert halls to move and sustain them," Marian Anderson remarked in the '60s. "I was half right." Anderson (along with her great male counterpart Roland Hayes) did eventually make a career in "art music" as well as singing "spirituals," of course. But she achieved her success slowly, cleaning houses for a long time to pay for voice lessons, then marrying a light-skinned black man who got decent-paying work by passing as white in an all-white firm (she pretended to be his maid when his colleagues came over for the occasional dinner), and who helped her pay for lessons in language and style. It took the championship of Eleanor Roosevelt to put her over the top in this country, after she had long been a star in Europe.

While her grand manner, though profoundly felt, was considered "highfalutin," Anderson suffered as much in her way as did the women down home who during the week tried (and usually failed) to keep their men at work and their kids fed, then spent the Lord's Day "testifying in tongues." Some, like Bessie Griffen, the illustrious Clara Ward, Jessie Mae Renfro, and Inez Andrews, "crossed over" to the point of making records and developing names in widespread and not always poor black communities. Some even eked out a decent to good living touring. But that was exhausting and dangerous in a segregated America. Bessie Smith bled to death from minor injuries while an ambulance, which had been slow to arrive in the first place, drove from hospital to hospital looking for one that would take a "colored woman" into the emergency room.

And some of the best talent was wooed away by that "evil" jazz, a pop movement where black women had an easier time becoming "stars" of a sort than black men. Sometimes women went back and forth from jazz (where they could earn) to gospel (where they'd have to crawl for forgiveness for a while). When Aretha Franklin sang at Clara Ward's funeral, a gospel diva was heard to yell, "Worst thing I've ever heard, a nightclub singer showin' off at a saint's funeral."

Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson
Jamila Wideman and Andy Hayt; Photo Courtesy of WNBA

The impinging of the commercial world on gospel music continued into the 70s and beyond. The most famous woman in gospel was probably Mahalia Jackson, who was successful financially. But the sole way to get her into a recording studio or in front of a mike at a commercial event (not that she needed a microphone) was to go hear her sing in her home church. Only after the mogul had done that would she consider signing any contract.

Even today, most black pop icons make a point of mentioning that they first sang in the church. Whitney Houston is the daughter of distinguished gospel singer Cissy Houston. Aretha began singing with her father, a traveling preacher. Brandy and Monica say they also started singing in church.

But gospel is being co-opted too. It is now being called "new Christian music" or "worship music."The Christian Right understands that popular music can be the best propaganda. Heidi Brown Lewis, an executive at Epic Records, explains: "America is a still a Christian country. The vast majority of people - out there, outside the big cities - organize their lives around the churches."

New Christian music is sold not only at Kmart and Wal-Mart stores,but out of churches and at "Christian" summer camps. The audience is huge. The recording companies, many of them in trouble from overspending into the early '90s, are rapidly jumping on this bandwagon. So are classical labels such as Sony and EMI. All are looking for new ways of distributing their wares.That is not only developing a more "middle brow" kind of worship music, but serving as a commercial boon to anything that can be labeled "Christian," even if it's the "favorite hits" of Handel and Bach.

Women Christian performers like CeCe Winans and Oleta Adams have gone along with this. Even a tough, true gospel veteran of the old days, like Shirley Caesar, a powerhouse who really does "slay in tongues," has modified her abandon in order to fit in, widen her commercial appeal, and prolong her career.

But new Christian music is a betrayal of its gospel roots. Not only does the music reflect conventional rock, R&B, ska, and rap, it also dilutes the cultural impact of gospel music, which was rooted in suffering and, often, in a woman's ability to transcend it or be redeemed by it.

Revlon, the cosmetics giant, is a sponsor of new Christian music. So is Integrity Incorporated, founded in 1987 with the stated intention of "helping people world wide experience the manifest presence of God," sells to the Christian Booksellers Association. Integrity has also developed the largest direct-to-consumer tape and CD division in the industry.

In the last two years Christian retail stores and mail order outlets have grown 22 percent, but mainstream sales in ordinary stores escalated 63 percent. In 1997, 44 gospel, worship or Christian music albums were certified platinum, multiplatinum, or gold. That, to put it mildly, means: Forget that early history of riding in the back of the bus. Your Rolls is rocking you to the bank!

TOP-40 MARIONETTES

In today's music industry, women continue to be viewed as marketable produce. Witness the handling of Jewel, one of today's young icons and huge sellers. With her rich voice and a folksy style with hints of gospel and R&B, the 24year-old from Payson, Utah, has composed and sings her hits: "Who Will Save Your Soul?" and "You Were Meant For Me." And yet, she is described by one music industry magnate as being "perfect" for today's market place because she has "big tits and buck teeth." Without shame, he adds, "Look, it worked for Monica Lewinsky."

Naturally, this being Hollywood, executives at Atlantic honed in on her like vampire bats. Nevertheless, her debut album, "Pieces of You", flopped. But strings were pulled in executive offices, and VH-1 was hammer-locked into giving "Who Will Save Your Soul?" a little play. Which is why pop performers need the male powers that be. Trade offs are made: a lower fee for your hot group in exchange for more air play for this young girl we're pushing; more advertising in the harder-to-sell time slots you have available if you feature our creature. It's a legal form of payola, and no individuals, certainly no women, have the industry clout to do it on their own.

With few exceptions, women in music today are viewed as objects, marketable produce-Jewel, Ani DiFranco

This worked for Jewel. As with most originals, it took a little while and more than average exposure for a large audience to feel comfortable with her. Now, her first single has made its mark on the Top 40, and "You Were Meant For Me" has had a steady stint in Billboard's #1 spot. Nonetheless, she's still at the level where you have to sell both your music and yourself to keep the big money coming. Though critics like her talent, her story is very similar to that of many other gifted singer/song writers of the past forty years who have ultimately been sucked dry, driven out, or destroyed by the industry's greed.

It is necessary to sell for the conglomerate behind you, and to be ahead of the trends, hints of which demographers are paid small fortunes to uncover. Co-option that kills spontaneous creativity has been not only the fear but also the reality for the vast number of women in today's music industry.

A lot of what female pop "super stars" are expected to do plays into the old stereotypes of women hooking in the suckers while the men behind them make the money. The newer names, like teenage pop singers Monica and Brandy (also the star of TV's "Moesha") are the "creations" of male Svengalis: the clever composer Baby Face and the driven businessman Puff Daddy, a rap entrepreneur. Monica and Brandy and a host of wannabes are in the worst tradition of women in pop: marionettes of men. There have been female rappers, but their biggest star, Queen Latifah, seems to have given up and settled into a sitcom. What has empowered the phenomenally successful K.D. Lang and Ani DiFranco is not only their huge talent but their insistence on handling their careers themselves, instead of entrusting them to men. Some others, like Lisa Loeb and Paula Cole, are trying to do the same thing, but without that core audience with a large disposable income. Cole, however, was helped enormously when one of her songs - a lesser one - was used as the theme song of the TV show "Dawson's Creek," a typical teenage male fantasy (of the '90s) involving sensitive, eccentric, but invaluable boys, and tough, over-sexed girls.

WOMEN IN THE WINGS

Just as things are changing in the popular music industry, so too are they changing in today's classical music world. Frequently, however, the situation can feel like one step forward, two steps back.

Union pressure in this country has finally made it imperative that auditions for symphony orchestra positions be held behind a screen. In the old days, the music director and a couple of trusted associates would pick whom they pleased. Replacements were often selected from whichever white male students were in a small pool available at the time of the auditions. The blind auditions screen has changed that, and made it easier for the "best" auditioner to get the job. Mainly it was hoped more nonwhites would make it into American orchestras as a result. The edgier reality is that more white women have - racial minorities remain under-represented.

One irony of our time is that more women now have powerful administrative positions in classical music. But truth to tell, their paths are still rocky. Deborah Borda, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, has clashed over seemingly everything with the orchestra's artistic director, Kurt Masur, a German martinet of the old school. Their feuding has made news, since the formidable Borda has won fairly often. It is even reported that some 50 percent of the orchestra like her - and this from a group credited with destroying conductors and administrators alike.

Later this season, Borda will bring the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina for a week's residency at the Philharmonic. But already a good many music critics are sneering about her choice, though many musicians, among them the great violinist Gideon Kremer, have championed Gubaillalina's work. It's hard to know whether this is the bile of misogyny rising up or not. Even more powerful is Judith Arron at Carnegie Hall, where she is both executive and artistic director. She has brought Zwilich in to mentor composers (of both sexes), and has worked to make the work of female composers of all kinds more available. Another woman executive is Sarah Billinghurst, second-in command to the all-powerful general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Joseph Volpe. But Billinghurst recently accepted the directorship of London's Royal Opera, only to read in the newspapers that at the last minute a man had been chosen instead.

These and other women have tried to smooth the road for female creators of classical music and performers, while being sensitive to accusations of reverse discrimination. They've endeavored to find female conductors who it is hoped will champion female composers. But no real stars have yet come along, and there have been many disappointments. And when they are disappointed, audience and industry alike are brutal.

THE WAY You LOOK TONIGHT

Conductor Simone Young survived three seasons at the Metropolitan Opera before being fired in 1998. She's now running the Australian Opera, and has been hired to do a new Ring cycle at the Vienna State Opera. She also made her debut with the New York Philharmonic last October. At the Met her performances were not always persuasive, but they were no worse than those of most of the men who conduct there; in fact they were often better. Nonetheless, she was a target for constant booing - in an opera house where booing for anyone other than directors is rare. The very sight of a woman in tails on a podium seems to bring out the blood lust of a certain segment of the opera audience. And at last season's "Tales of Hoffman," one had the impression the orchestra and chorus had simply decided to ignore her.

Jane Glover, a British-born freelance conductor, has made a good but less high-profile career in a larger range of music. But the most remarkable female conductor was the brilliant Bostonian Sarah Caldwell. In Boston into the '80s, she regularly performed miracles, producing huge operas on a dime. She exhumed important works, staged them brilliantly on a stage the size of a postage stamp, lured great artists to Boston to sing for next to nothing, and conducted with probity and insight.

Linda Brava, Sarah Caldwell, Mary Garden,  Geraldine Farrar

At her first appearance at the Met, however, the standees started yelling, "It's Madame Willie the Whale!" The audiences (including many women) would laugh during her curtain calls. The orchestra ignored her. Caldwell, at 5'4", weighed, conservatively, 400 pounds.

Opera lovers reportedly love fat women, but in fact, this is rarely the case. Rita Hunter, a leading Australian Wagnerian built along the same lines as Caldwell, was generally booed by standees screaming, "Go on the Water Diet!"

Caldwell, had some slightly better opportunities at New York City Opera, thanks to Beverly Sills. But eventually the derision of the "mainstream" and the vicious cutbacks in arts funding destroyed her in this country. She is now, believe it or not, in Siberia, leading a small, subsidized opera company, in a culture that doesn't mind big women.

Appearance, sadly, has always mattered in public performances. The notion that all opera singers are heavy is foolish and uninformed. No doubt notions of beauty were more expansive at the turn of the century than they are in our small screen era, but in fact some of the most beautiful women of that time were opera singers. Geraldine Farrar, the fabled lyric soprano dubbed the Yankee from Connecticut, was an idol among young women in the "Golden Age," and even starred in a few silent movies.

Another siren was the Scot Mary Garden, popular around the turn of the century (b. 1874) who was once asked by an older man at a dinner party, "What is keeping that very low-cut dress up, my dear?" Without missing a beat, Garden replied, "Your age and my discretion."

Maria Callas may have destroyed herself by taking amphetamines to lose weight rapidly. In her drive to match Audrey Hepburn, she became hooked on a variety of drugs, the combination of which probably killed her. (See "Callas: The Opera," on page 18.) And one of today's divas who won raves when fat, took phen-fen, became very thin, was cheered louder and praised for singing better, developed heart trouble, went off the pills, is healthier and fatter - and back to being giggled about again.

The way classical performers, particularly women, look has led to a trend in which sex is used, when possible, to sell music. Three years ago Vanessa-Mae made a career in England by playing her violin in a bikini in the waves. Here in the U.S., her record company put her in hot pants on top of a vintage auto, and had her play in Times Square. It didn't take. But one hardly knew which was more horrific, the sight of this poor young woman essentially hawking herself to mystified onlookers, or the notion that this such a spectacle had something to do with classical music.

A nadir of sorts was reached in April of '98, when the Playgirl of the Month in Playboy magazine was the Finnish violinist Linda Brava. The feature created a sensation among music critics. As one misogynistic critic remarked, "She's not only a lousy fiddler, she's a dog, too." Julia Fischer, a German prodigy at 15, is quite stunning. Her father and her manager have followed Ms. Fischer's own orders to turn down anything remotely exploitive of her looks.

In classical music, as in pop, the less than-attractive have a hard time building their careers, no matter how talented. Even the basically sympathetic critic Hoelterhoff makes fun of the titanic soprano Jane Eaglen, whom she likens to a "Web potato" (a reference to Eaglen's on-line activity). However, as long as Eaglen can produce a loud noise, someone will hire her for Wagner, hoping to hide her bulk under a breastplate and horned helmet.

CAN A LADY WRITE OPERA?

Women who want to write large-scale "serious music" have a more difficult time than pop composers because, being dependent on a symphony orchestra, they have less autonomy. That's one reason seminal composers like Laurie Anderson and Pauline Oliveros work so extensively with electronic instruments, performing their own works with only a few collaborators (of necessity), but with remarkable imagination, and inventing an entirely new range of colors and sounds.

Electronic instruments give freedom to "serious" and creative composers like Laurie Anderson

One of the greatest classical composers in the world today is the Finn Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952). She has used the computer and a vast range of carefully controlled electronic "noises," as well as the conventional orchestra, to create music like none other ever written. Her massive works Du Cristal and a la fumee are staggering on records (Ondine) and overwhelming in live performance.

Female opera composers have it worse, needing a huge apparatus, including a big orchestra and chorus, and famous singers. Opera did, in fact, have its founding mother, Barbara Strozzi, at the start of the 17th century. For a long time her contribution was erased from the history books, however. Music historians (all male) could not bear the thought of a blindingly beautiful woman who was a brilliant theorist and a significantly gifted composer. Strozzi sang her own arias, to the delight of the Venetian Academy, where the whole notion of opera was being refined. Singing as a way of surviving for serious women composers still holds true, through Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro up to Ani DiFranco and Lisa Loeb.

Laurie Anderson, THE Sound OF Women IN Music: TALENT USED AND ABUSED by Albert Innaurato

Signora Strozzi, an heiress, became part of the circle of the first great opera composer, Monteverdi. She studied with the world-famous Francesco Cavalli (who worshiped her). Her wonderful and often daring settings of texts from operas demonstrate a big talent - far removed from the short dance forms favored by her male colleagues. However, even a privileged woman could be mocked, and discouraged from attempting complete operas. Vicious satires full of grotesque sexual innuendo were published by her male rivals, and ultimately, they silenced her.

Though few can whistle an aria or two from their works, many women have written opera. Ethel Smythe (18581944), allegedly an early Margaret Thatcher combined with Jack the Ripper, was a brilliantly trained, highly cosmopolitan musician. Her opera is called The Wreckers. In her diaries, Virginia Wolf makes very cruel sport of her grand manner, her aggressiveness, and her increasing deafness.

More recently, Thea Musgrave in the 70s and Judith Weir in the early '90s had successes of sorts with their operas. And this past summer, the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City presented Patience and Sarah, composed by Paula Kimper, with libretto by Wendy Persons. The two title characters are women who fall unabashedly and sexually in love. After the first act, young gay women went roaming through the lobby shrilling in falsetto, making fun of opera voices - they're apparently more at home with Melissa Etheridge, or perhaps Queen Latifah. And several of the men present were very uncomfortable - "feels a little like the Bacchae," said one.

Yet at the end of the third act, everyone was crying. There was a soaring affirmation in this music that had nothing to do with sexuality or gender, only with the transcendent beauty of being alive and in love. The audience jumped to their feet and applauded - the men too. That's not "women's composing." That's opera.


Albert Innaurato, playwright and sometime composer, is a frequent lecturer for the Metropolitan Opera. He writes on the arts for The New York Times, Vogue, Opera News, The Yale Review and Forbes Magazine.

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