Arts Blog

Heroines of Opera

Since the early days of opera, women composers have given us works with fascinating characters and unique perspectives. From Francesca Caccini’s 1625 opera, La liberazione di Ruggiero, to the latest installments of Shirley J. Thompson’s Heroines of Opera series, this list will explore just a few operas by women from throughout history. In these works, you’ll meet powerful sorceresses, conflicted goddesses, patient sisters, passionate mothers, and freedom fighters. You’ll also meet composers who are just as memorable as any character onstage. I hope these samples will encourage you to explore the vast world of operas by women.

Francesca Caccini: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina

Scene from Liberazione dir Ruggiero by Caccini A scene from the original 1625 production of Caccini's "Liberazione di Ruggiero"
A scene from the original 1625 production of Caccini’s Liberazione di Ruggiero

In 1607, the Florentine singer and composer Francesca Caccini (1587-after 1641) was appointed to the musical service of the Medici court. At the time, the court was under the regency of two powerful women: Christine of Lorraine, the mother of Cosimo II de Medici, and the Regent Archduchess Maria Maddalena of Austria, Cosimo’s widow. These women ruled for six years until Cosimo’s young heir came of age. The musical works commissioned during their regency frequently featured stories about powerful women in leadership, including Francesca Caccini’s Liberazione di Ruggiero, the first known opera composed by a woman.

La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina) was presented on February 3, 1625, during a state visit from a Polish prince. The opera impressed the royal guest so much that he arranged for the work to be reprised in Poland. The Prince also commissioned further operas by Caccini, which have since been lost.

In Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina, two powerful sorceresses battle for the soul of the kidnapped knight Ruggiero. The opera’s female characters possess agency and complexity, and the exploration of gender is woven deep into the harmonic fabric of Liberatione: Caccini associates flat keys with female characters, sharp keys with male characters, and the key of C Major with the androgynous sorceress Melissa.

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre: Céhpale et Procris

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre
Portrait of Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre by François de Troy

The Baroque harpsichordist Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet (1665-1729) began her career at the age of five, singing and playing the harpsichord at the court of Louis XIV. She remained one of the most highly-regarded musicians in France after her marriage to Marin de la Guerre and her relocation to Paris, where she maintained a prosperous teaching studio and a busy performance schedule.

Jacquet de la Guerre was an innovative composer, exploring both the French baroque styles associated with Lully and new genres from Italy, like the cantata and the sonata. She published virtuosic compositions to match her own skill at the harpsichord, as well as dramatic works like Céphale et Procris, her single surviving opera.

The Paris Opéra premiered Céphale et Procris on March 17, 1694, at an awkward time for French opera. Louis XIV had recently reduced his support for the genre, partly due to the influence of his wife, Madame de Maintenon, a devout Catholic who heeded the Church’s recent criticisms of opera as a debased art form. In a canny choice, Jacquet de la Guerre’s opera had a libretto by one of Madame de Maintenon’s favorite poets, François Duché de Vancy. Unfortunately, even Duché’s libretto didn’t succeed in garnering approval from the royals–and Duché’s weak poetry didn’t win any favors with the Parisian public.

Despite a disappointing run, Jacquet de la Guerre’s music was so strong that her opera’s prologue was revived two years later in Strasbourg. Jacquet de la Guerre soon found other applications for operatic expression: in 1708 and 1711, she published volumes of sacred solo cantatas depicting biblical stories and characters, combining the drama of operatic storytelling with plots to please the devout.

Céphale et Procris has enjoyed multiple modern revivals and full recordings. A critical edition with libretto was published in 1992, edited by Wanda Griffiths. The story, adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, follows the star-crossed love of Procris, an Athenian princess, and a military hero, Céphale. Their relationship is thwarted and ultimately meets a tragic end due to the interference of the gods, particularly that of L’Aurore (The Dawn), a complicated character who desires Céphale for herself, and who repents of her machinations too late.

Pauline Viardot-Garcia: Cendrillon

Pauline Viardot Garcia
Portrait of Pauline Viardot-García (1846) by Thomas Wright

The Spanish composer Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), born Pauline García, was one of the foremost bel canto singer of her time. She was a member of an impressive operatic dynasty: her father, Manuel García, was a tenor and a revered vocal pedagogue; her sister, Maria Malibran, was another great operatic diva. Viardot built a European career singing roles by Rossini, Bellini, and Meyerbeer. She collaborated with Chopin, inspired Ivan Turgenev.

After she retired from the operatic stage, Viardot became a music salon hostess and a highly sought-after vocal teacher. Her home in Baden-Baden became a center of culture, with an art gallery in her garden and a small theatre for her students to perform operas.

Viardot composed six dramatic works for her students, several with librettos by Turgenev. However, Cendrillon (1904), her witty take on Perrault’s Cinderella tale, features both music and libretto by Viardot. With deft humor, zany reveals and plenty of characters in disguise, this charming opera tells the story of a Cinderella and a Prince who both long to be loved for who they truly are. You can watch a full performance here.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach: Cabildo, Op. 149

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach
Amy Marcy Beach, the composer of Cabildo

Amy Marcy Cheney (1867-1944) was a piano prodigy from New England who came to be counted among the (otherwise all-male) members of the Second New England School. In 1896, the Boston Symphony Orchestra premiered her Gaelic Symphony, which became the first symphony by an American woman to be played by a major orchestra. Amy Beach was also a prolific composer of art song, and in 1936, she composed her opera Cabildo during a visit to the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat founded by her colleague, composer Edward MacDowell.

Beach’s Cabildo is a one-act opera set in the eponymous historical building in New Orleans, where the 19th-century pirate Pierre LaFitte was held as a prisoner in 1814. The historical LaFitte transformed his reputation from pirate to hero when Andrew Jackson recruited him to serve in the War of 1812. In Beach’s reimagining of history, LaFitte redeems himself not through the ministrations of Jackson, but rather by the intervention of a woman: LaFitte’s lost beloved, Valerie. 

In an unabashedly romantic plot, the unjustly imprisoned LaFitte learns that Valerie has drowned, and in his despair he loses all motivation to clear his name and avoid the noose. Then, the ghost of Valerie appears, professing her love, encouraging him to find purpose in life again, and finally opening the prison door so that LaFitte can escape and transform himself into a military hero.

This recording of “Ah, Love is a Jasmine Vine,” the duet between LaFitte and the ghost of Valerie, comes from the premiere professional recording of Cabildo. You can access a synopsis and libretto of Cabildo here.

Zenobia Powell Perry: Tawawa House

Zenobia Powell Perry with Darius Milhaud and students
Zenobia Powell Perry (far left) with Darius Milhaud (center) and other students.

Zenobia Powell Perry (1908-2004) was an American pianist and composer of Native American and African-American heritage. A student of R. Nathaniel Dett and Darius Milhaud, she spent most of her career in academia, from her start as a student assistant to legendary Tuskegee Institute choir director William L. Dawson, to her position as Professor and Composer in Residence at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.

Perry’s opera Tawawa House was commissioned by the Ohio Arts Council and Ohio Humanities, and it is steeped in Ohio’s Black history. In 1851, a resort called Tawawa House opened near Wilberforce, Ohio. It became a favorite summer destination of Southern slaveholders visiting with their enslaved “mistresses.” Tawawa House was largely staffed by free African Americans, who used the resort as a safe house where escaped former slaves could easily blend in with staff or guests. By 1856, the building had been sold, and underwent a new transformation: it become home to America’s first Black-owned institution of higher learning, Wilberforce University.

Perry’s Tawawa House premiered in 1987, and has recently been revived thanks to the work of Perry scholar Jeannie Gayle Pool. The story focuses on the experiences of Black women who came to Tawawa House as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Perry’s score features several reimagined spirituals, including Up Over My Head, performed here in a 2014 production of Tawawa House by Townsend Opera in Modesto, California. You can learn more about this production, and about Tawawa House, in this documentary by Elliot Barker and Jeannie Gayle Pool. 

Deborah Cheetham: Pecan Summer

Deborah Cheetham
Portrait of Deborah Cheetham from Short Black Opera

In 2010, Deborah Cheetham AO (b. 1964) completed the first Australian Aboriginal opera, Pecan Summer. Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman, operatic soprano, and the artistic director of Short Black Opera, wrote the work’s music and libretto. Set in 1939, Pecan Summer depicts a historic protest by the Yorta Yorta people who were confined to the Cummeragunja mission in New South Wales. More than 200 people walked off the mission on February 3, 1939, carrying their few belongings, to protest the mission’s inhumane conditions.

Cheetham’s own family took part in the walk-off, as she discovered during her research for Pecan Summer. Cheetham had grown up in Sydney, adopted into a white family, as part of the “Stolen Generations,” Aboriginal children who had been taken from their families in the early to mid-20th century to be raised by white parents. In a 2017 interview with Sofija Stefanovic, Cheetham related meeting a Yorta Yorta elder who revealed Cheetham’s connection with the Cummeragunja Walk-Off:

[The elder] said, “…I need to know who your family is before I’ll share this story with you.” So I told her that it was difficult for me to know very much, but that my mother was Monica and her brother was Jimmy Little. And the elder just smiled and said, “This opera that you’re writing, your grandparents were part of that story. They walked off Cummeragunja mission in 1939 in protest of how they were treated on that mission station, and they carried Jimmy with them. He was 18 months old. I knew your grandparents—they were very dear friends of mine—and this story you’re writing, it’s your story.”

This scene from Pecan Summer portrays the pain of a mother being separated from her child. It is stunningly sung by Deborah Cheetham herself.

Shirley J. Thompson: Heroines of Opera

Shirley J. Thompson
Portrait of Shirley J. Thompson from Shirley Thompson Music

Heroines of Opera is a series that British composer Shirley J. Thompson, OBE (b. 1958) has been creating since 2006. Thompson discussed her chamber opera cycle in a July 2020 interview:

Over the last 10 years I have been concentrating on my Heroines of Opera series of chamber operas for solo singer/s, speaker/s, dance, video and orchestra that feature iconic women in history that have been mostly overlooked in mainstream historical narratives. This innovative series overturns the operatic convention of women in morally weaker roles or as femme fatales.”

In Heroines of Opera, Thompson has explored the lives of some truly remarkable women. One selection is Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons. This work portrays an 18th-century Jamaican military leader who led a community of formerly enslaved persons in their triumphant defense against re-enslavement by the invading British. Another is The Woman Who Refused to Dance, about a young woman immortalized in a 1792 print by Isaac Cruikshank, who was tortured after denying her enslavers’ demand that she dance for them.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray (C. 1778) by David Martin

Another heroine in Thompson’s series is Dido Elizabeth Belle, a British woman who was famously portrayed in a portrait by David Martin. Belle was born in 1761 to an enslaved mother and a father in the British Navy. She was raised in England by her relatives, the Earl and Countess of Mansfield, alongside her white cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray.

Though the two cousins were raised together, when guests came to the home, Dido Belle was disinvited from the dinner table. In Dido Elizabeth Belle, Thompson explores the complex double life of this intelligent young woman who was educated as a lady yet never treated as a full member of her own family.

Visit Shirley J. Thompson’s YouTube account to watch this opera.

For Further Reading

Barone, Joshua. “Review: The First Opera by a Woman Dances Out of Obscurity.” The New York Times. November 28, 2018.

Berman, Lauren Rebecca. “Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon and its Relevancy for the Developing Opera Singer.” DMA diss. Arizona State University, 2017.

Emerson, Isabelle Putnam. Five Centuries of Women Singers. United Kingdom: Praeger, 2005.

“Deborah Cheetham: Represented Artist.” Austrialian Music Center. 2019.

Grout, Donald J. A Short History of Opera. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Harris, Rachel Miller. “The Music Salon of Pauline Viardot: Featuring her Salon Opera Cendrillon.” DMA diss. Louisiana State University, 2005.

Jacquet de La Guerre, Elisabeth-Claude. Céphale et Procris. Wanda R. Griffiths, ed. Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1998.

“Pauine Viardot-Garcia.” A Modern Reveal: Songs and Stories of Women Composers.

Poole, Jeannie Gayle. “Zenobia Powell Perry: Biography.” 2014.

Porter, Cecilia Hopkins.. Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present. Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Powell, Mark. “Shirley J. Thompson: Spirit of Independence.” International Arts Manager. August 14, 2015.

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