Infiltrating the Boys Club: How Are Funders Supporting Female Composers?

Earlier this year while surveying the sad state of gender parity across the opera world I asked, "Where are the Maestras?"

The numbers painted a bleak picture. According to a survey of the 22 largest American orchestras, women composers accounted for only 1.8 percent of the total pieces performed in the 2014-2015 concert season. To put this in starker perspective consider this: With the presentation of Kaija Saariaho’s "L’Amour de Loin”" in December of 2016, New York's Metropolitan Opera finally broke a 113-year streak of not performing any operas written by women.

Fortunately some deep-pocketed funders are on the case. My previous post looked at the League of American Orchestras' Women Composers Readings and Commissions program, which receives support from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. I also explored the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's efforts to cultivate female conductors in big city orchestras.

And if a recent piece in the New York Times is any indication, the momentum continues to build across three parallel tracks.

The first involves creating professional development networks for women composers. To that end, a handful of female composers, in collaboration with New York City's Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music youth orchestra, began the Luna Composition Lab. The lab is designed as a mentorship program to facilitate relationships between young women composers and more established figures.

The second track addresses the composition of new work. Ironically enough, the Times piece pointed to the previously mentioned Women Composers Readings and Commissions program.

The third track involves getting female-penned work into production, even if larger, more mainstream opera houses continue to drag their feet. For example, the Prototype: Opera/Theatre/Now festival has championed diversity in its presentation of new music theater. By the time its fifth season has concluded in January, it will have produced 10 works written by women. The festival receives financial support from funders like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Howard Gilman Foundation, and Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.

It's always fun to classify opera as an enigmatic and inpenetrable dark art. It also makes good copy. But it turns out this reputation is well-deserved, especially among aspiring female composers and conductors. "In many ways, the opera world is a mysterious, other world and it’s quite difficult to get access to," the composer Anna Clyne said in a recent interview.

"The more knowledge you can have," as well as "the support network within the community, the stronger the chance of really creating the best piece you can."