Interview: ‘Leading Ladies Liberated’ Puts Focus On Groundbreaking Women From Opera’s Golden Age

By Greg Waxberg

“We want to make this music—these composers—part of the standard repertoire. Events like this shouldn’t be rare,” stated soprano Nicole Leone in a recent interview with OperaWire.

Leone’s simple statement refers to the challenge of increasing the prominence of female composers in music programming, and she is doing her part. Together with Randi Marrazzo, her voice teacher from Temple University, Leone co-founded the online resource A Modern Reveal because she and Marrazzo perceived that female composers were underrepresented in recitals and other programming at the university. Of course, this trend is also international: a recent survey of over 1,400 concerts around the world found that only about 70 included a piece by a woman.

“The thought was, if we provide information, it’s easier for people to access the music, so they’ll be more likely to program it,” Leone noted of the website. “We started with Italian composers because the book ‘Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’ has only men, so we created an ‘opposing’ online option with all women.”

Their research began two years ago, with Leone and Marrazzo discovering that information is available, but less than what exists about men who were composing at the same time. The title “A Modern Reveal: Songs and Stories of Women Composers” is intended to convey the notion of uncovering information, revealing these women’s stories, and sharing them in a modern way.

Leading Ladies Liberated

Now, A Modern Reveal is teaming up with New Camerata Opera for such an event. Entitled “Leading Ladies Liberated,” the concert will feature four sopranos channeling three singers who had successful opera careers and premiered much of what became core repertoire: Spanish sopranos Isabella Colbran (Rossini’s collaborator and wife) and María Malibrán, and French mezzo Pauline Viardot-García (Malibrán’s younger sister).

This three-part concert includes arias these women were famous for singing, art songs they composed, and excerpts from Viardot-García’s chamber operetta “Cendrillon.” To create the program, the four singers selected arias from a pre-determined list and then researched the art songs they were given . . . which means the concert proved to be a learning experience for everyone, since much of the material was new.

Leone, who will sing a Mozart aria and selections by Colbran and Viardot-García, is joined by Eugenia Forteza, Lily Arbisser, and Samina Aslam.

“I love to highlight new music, new operas, new productions, and women’s work in the opera world,” Forteza said. “What ‘A Modern Reveal’ is doing is very special, with creating this database. It’s a great resource. There were so many female composers writing similar songs at the same time as men, with the same purpose.”

Forteza, who will also be performing “O quante volte” from Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” is no stranger to this repertory, having performed music by Viardot-García earlier in her career.

“For my senior recital, I sang a program inspired by Spanish music and discovered her. I had been singing ‘Les Filles de Cadix’ by Delibes—based on a poem about a Spanish seductress, so I call it the ‘Carmen for sopranos’—and it turns out that the same poem was set by Pauline Viardot-García, so I decided to do both [in that recital],” she noted. “That led me to discover more of her music and the fact that we have so much in common. She was also French-Spanish and sang similar repertoire. I adore her music.”

Making New Discoveries

Arbisser has not actually sung a lot of repertory by female composers, making this experience all the more unique.

“I haven’t sung a lot of music by female composers—certainly not any who were well-known singers of their time period—so it’s nice to feel how easily they fit into the voice,” she explained of the two Isabella Colbran pieces she chose. “Isabella understood how her voice functions, and that’s reflected in the vocalism. These pieces feel ‘meaty’ and fun.”

Meanwhile, Aslam, who will sing an aria from “Maria Stuarda,” found the concert’s timing perfect for her.

“This invitation came along when I was being encouraged to explore bel canto repertoire, and these ladies not only specialized in it, but also created many bel canto roles. There is so much music out there by women that’s not really represented, so I love that we get to showcase some of it.”

Aslam is eager to perform Malibrán’s “Il Mattino,” which she describes as a pastoral love song in the form of a waltz, and an atmospheric song by Viardot-García, “Die Sterne.” “She was able to soak up what other composers were doing and make it her own. ‘Die Sterne’ is a romantic poem about a person’s connection to the stars, with beautiful word painting.”

The event is taking place as part of the New York Opera Festival 2019, which will ensure that the mission of the concert reaches a wider range of audience members.

“As female opera singers, we often end up presenting a myopic view of how women function in society, especially at that time,” Arbisser noted. “This is a great opportunity to celebrate a more well-rounded view of the people who were participating in the music making and music creation of that time.”

“New York Opera Fest is a special celebration of smaller companies and the people trying to be innovative in the opera world. This concert is special because it has a lot of layers of wonderful people and wonderful missions. It gives you an even bigger reason to perform,” concluded Forteza.


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