The International Alliance for Women in Music (IAWM) Blog

Daring Divas: All for One and One for All!!!

Posted in Julie_Cross by iawmblog on March 12, 2010

A few weeks ago I ran into a male composer from out of state who, after grilling me on my choice of research on women composers, puffed out his chest and said with pride that he could not wait to start his own American Male Composers concert series.  He was gleeful at the thought that it would garner much press, considering the controversial nature of said series.  He then proceeded to generously inform me that singers were a unique breed…”not very bright” but interesting nonetheless.  I gave him two opportunities to redeem himself by gently and jovially saying “hey now”, but he did not jump at the opportunity to remove me from the “not very bright” category.  I bit my tongue and did not seek further dialogue with said composer.  Still, this is a well-known person who teaches at the university level and influences young minds.

I counter that attitude with an exceptionally well-written article by one of my dear mentors, George Shirley. In this article, Shirley discusses the subordination of the voice in the larger-than-life art form of opera “to the shallow realm of visual looks.”  While he is addressing the black singer in particular, his article mentions the universality of his concerns.  When African-American singers are not allowed to express themselves fully on the opera stage (particularly tenors as love interests), this is unfair.  At the heart of this inequality is racism, ageism, sizeism, sexism, etc.  If the black tenor cannot be the love interest, and the fat lady must be too large for anyone to consider her attractive, then the old woman could not possibly be the sassy maid, the large-bellied bass is destined for comedy only, and the Japanese woman must always play Madame Butterfly.  Instead of art defining life, life becomes compartmentalized and standardized and defines the unrealistic realm of opera.  The virtuoso requirements of operatic vocal writing then must submit to typecasting, to the detriment of all involved.

I return to the introductory questions of this blog series: What does it mean to be a woman who performs music by women?  What does it mean to be a woman performer in general?   The aforementioned composer was closed to all possibilities that felt threatening to his success within the status quo, to anything outside the “box”.  George Shirley, on the other hand, is able to look beyond his own individual concerns and see the universality of need for equality.  Those who view the fight for equality as threat against their turf are unable to see the larger picture…that we are all interconnected in a desire for high caliber artistry, plain and simple.  Are we true to our art form as musicians — whether composers, performers, or teachers — when we do not seek to challenge ourselves to our very limits, to the ultimate integrity of our artistry?

When we work to bring equality to one group through the medium of music, it assists other groups as well.  This is an interconnected process.  When we seek out the music of women composers, this is not to the detriment of male composers.  This is not an “us vs. them” world, unless we make it such through exclusionist attitudes.  No matter how many valuable artists and musicians are out there, the world always needs more.  By assuring that underrepresented groups get full attention in the arts community, we are setting the stage for future performing artists to move forward boldly.  If this were an artistically finite world, I could see the aforementioned composer’s concern.  Since nothing is threatening our individual artistry, his comments are without validity.   George Shirley says: “Barriers of one sort or another will always be players…given this verity, one must determine to destroy, go around, go over, or go through them in order to realize one’s potential and live the life one is given.”  In addition, as each barrier is knocked down, the way is paved for others to follow suit.  We work together for a world of equality, one step at a time.  We are truly interconnected.


Julie Cross, Treasurer of the IAWM, is a mezzo teaching voice, diction, and vocal literature at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. She blogs about how performers choose repertoire.


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  1. Linda Swope said, on March 12, 2010 at 9:57 am

    Julie – I enjoyed reading your essay. I agree with your last statement wholeheartedly – working for a world of equality one step at a time – one very slow and painful step at a time, I might add. I just played my recital of women’s music for oboe, voice, and piano last night. We had a small turnout (this is a rural area where bluegrass and folk music are the favored music) but those who came enjoyed the concert, the variety of music, the talent of the performers, and the food afterwards. For several months as I planned the recital, my husband kept reminding me that to program only women’s music was reverse discrimination, and what if he decided to have a concert of only men’s music? And what if he protested with a sign outside the hall? Etc. I am sure he was playing devil’s advocate here, but it took quite a while for him to accept that I had wanted to do this concert anyway. In the end, he was very helpful to me, but only after all of his arguments against this recital would not sway me. I persevered quietly. So in order to work toward equality, perseverance will serve one well. Again, playing devil’s advocate, my husband reminded me that I should not take performances so seriously at my age (57 and getting younger every year!) because the stage looks better with younger performers on it. I reminded him that true artists do not look at age, size, color or gender when making real art. He also reminded me that to seek a teaching position at my age (and gender) would be fruitless, because nobody wants to see a middle-age housewife conduct an orchestra. Instead of getting angry at these comments, we can learn from them. My husband, playing devil’s advocate, presented me with the sentiments of most of society. Is it any wonder then, that women or any minority group find themselves working harder and pushing more in order to overcome the socio-mental barrier that is rooted in our society? As anything becomes more prevalent, it will eventually become more acceptable, more commonplace, and more expected, until it plants itself right into our accepted ways of living. But it takes time to take root. Time is what life is made of. Press on, in love and understanding, and make a small contribution to the changes that are needed for true creation and expression to flow freely from every human being.

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