This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
Today, women and opera have largely made their peace, but remnants of opera’s male-dominated history persist. In honor of International Women’s Day, and the three women who founded OGR, we shine a light on three of our favorite women from opera history.
Women and opera have a complicated history. As characters, they are often objects of desire, around which dark machinations stir. As tragic heroines, they rarely make it through the plot unscathed, or even alive, and the titles bear their names. As performers, women were some of the first opera superstars, on the same stages that had earlier forbade their presence, whether by custom or papal edict.
Today, women and opera have largely made their peace, but remnants of opera’s male-dominated history persist: a broad survey of the art reveals relatively few women in composer, librettist, and managerial roles. (Two years ago, The Metropolitan Opera performed its first opera written by a woman since 1903.)
Having been founded by three women—Joan Gillett, Muriel Burger, and Lois Poppen—Opera Grand Rapids has always been a place where women could feel at home in the opera house. Our current staff is composed of almost entirely women. While this composition was not intentional, we are proud to be a beacon for women who aspire to a career in the arts.
In honor of International Women’s Day, and the three women who founded OGR, we’ll shine a light on three of our favorite women from opera history. Worth noting is the fact that these women’s achievements are singular, but countless women applied themselves to music in each of these eras without success. Some courts and companies during opera’s early days were tolerant, and even nurturing, of female opera singers. But European high societies were far less amenable to including women who wrote music and lyrics in the opera—a sensibility prevalent across other art forms of the day. The very notion of “notable women” from opera’s history stands in the shadow of these facts.
When she was fifteen years old, this Florentine sang for the Medicis, with her family. The year was 1602. The precocious child showed a natural talent for music, which was encouraged by her father. She became a favorite of the Medici court in the coming years and was widely known as a virtuoso. At the age of thirty-five, she composed what is likely the oldest extant opera by a female composer: La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina. While a prolific composer, almost all of her works are lost to the ages. Luckily, her opera survives.
Born to a laundress and a chauffeur, Camilla Williams grew up in a poor neighborhood in a southwestern Virginia city. State law wouldn’t allow a black woman like Camilla to sit in white-designated seats inside the opera house for decades. Despite growing up in that oppressive milieu, Williams found success, pursuing music at every opportunity. After earning her degree at Virginia State College, she studied with a renowned private instructor. In 1946, she became the first African American woman to have a contract with a major opera company, the New York City Opera.
In 1963, Williams sang “The Star Spangled Banner” to a crowd of 250,000 in Washington D.C. Minutes later, Martin Luther King, Jr. would give one of history’s most celebrated speeches. Williams toured the world throughout her life, performing the canon of opera classics with most major companies. During her long career, Williams became a living legend and redefined what is possible for generations of singers after her.
Niece of a wealthy philanthropist, Baylis began her professional arts career as a manager at The Old Vic. While the company usually produced dramas on the Old Vic stage, they would offer condensed operas every so often. Soon, the popularity of the opera nights eclipsed their regular offerings.
Baylis was a passionate advocate of the working class and wanted the opera company she eventually inherited to be accessible to “regular people.” In addition to her self-appointed mission to popularize opera, Baylis was boundlessly ambitious in the world of theater generally; to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s First Folio, The Old Vic staged every single one of Shakespeare’s plays.
The company she founded eventually became the English National Opera—one of the world’s foremost.
Unsurprisingly, there are more female composers working now than ever before. Kamala Sankaram, Jennifer Higdon, Missy Mazzoli, Tania León, and many others are exploring new musical territory and breaking down barriers. The contemporary opera fan is more likely to encounter music composed by women than at any time in history. These amazing modern women stand on the shoulders of the legends above, and thousands like them, who fought for an opera open to everyone.
OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.
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As an integral part of our city’s artistic fabric, it’s our responsibility to see to its continual flourishing. Please consider donating to Opera Grand Rapids to ensure our artistic excellence for the next 50 years and beyond. You’ve already made us great. With your support, there’s no limits to the height our voices can reach together. Give today.