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Letzter, Jacqueline and Robert Adelson. Women Writing Opera: Creativity and Controversy in the Age of the French Revolution. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001. Pp. 341. ISBN 0-520-22653-4
Every time I have mentioned to friends that I am reading a book about women opera composers, I have met with the same response: "Are there any?" Disbelief so often accompanies the idea of women composers that the recovery of not just any compositions by women but operas - the most public and ambitious of musical genres - is cause for excitement in itself. What makes it even more exciting is that opera, for most of us, means opera in the manner of Verdi or Bizet or Puccini, defined by Catherine Clément as "a great masculine scheme . . . thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character." Might not operas by women reveal new and resistant ways of treating the genre, against the grain of the standard repertoire? Letzter and Adelson's book does, and does not, answer such prayers.
Notice, first of all, that its title is not "Women Opera Composers," which would imply female equivalents of the Verdis and Puccinis composing opera. Given the expense and demands of this most extravagant of dramatic genres, the very title of opera composer implies a measure of success - meaning not only composition but also rehearsals, production, and performance, all of which, in Paris, the composer was expected to oversee. Not all the "women writing opera" uncovered in this book made it so far. The feats of politics and diplomacy required - as the correspondence of Verdi or Berlioz can attest - were daunting, and for women often impossible. Yet the rewards were tantalizingly great: opera, for a French composer, was the royal road to success. Many of the women studied in this book turned to opera as the most profitable source of income for their families in hard times. And some of them did succeed.
As the subtitle of the book indicates, the hard times in question here are those of the French Revolutionary era, taken in its broadest sense to cover the years 1770-1820. Those five decades span the rise and fall of a stunning phenomenon: not just the exceptional woman composer surfacing occasionally in operatic history, but two generations of sustained operatic production by women. This book is the first to draw attention to this feminine and indeed feminist moment in music, during which women were able to offer each other, for a time, the rare support of a living tradition. Several factors produced the conditions for such a flowering. Among them were the material difficulties themselves of these "best of times, worst of times," since the pretext of necessity could help counter often violent intolerance against publicly active women. Educated and artistically gifted women also benefitted from La Harpe's landmark legislation of 1791 abolishing the exclusive privilege of the royal theaters. The resulting boom of new theaters (until Napoleon reinstated some of the privileges) meant a far greater chance for all authors, men and women, to have their works performed. Some of the new theaters were even managed by women. [End Page 152]
Perhaps the main factor encouraging women composers was the availability of genres to which they were particularly attuned: opéra-comique and (among others) the related genres of comédie mêlée d'ariettes and vaudevilles. (This last term is used in two distinct senses in the book, both unrelated to the American, but eventually clear from context). Rejecting the formality and artifice of the classical tragédie lyrique, these Enlightenment genres emphasized sentimentality and simplicity, in the vein of Rousseau's Devin du Village, and they all included spoken words, thereby further reducing the demands for sophisticated musical training - a special hurdle for Rousseau as for women. Like Rousseau, some women composers (such as Julie Candeille and Isabelle de Charrière) wrote both words and music to their operas. Because words, in French lyric theater, were of...