New York's Metropolitan Opera has just announced its 2016-17 season, which includes the acclaimed opera L'Amour de Loin by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. How long, exactly, would you guess it's been since the Met staged and opera written by a woman?
The correct answer is 113 years. One hundred thirteen years. That's right, it was in 1903 that the Met last staged a work by a female composer. Now, here's the real genius-level question: which opera was that?
It was Der Wald, an opera by British composer Ethel Smyth. The Wagneresque one-act received mixed reviews ("It is quite lacking in dramatic expressiveness in characterization, in melodic ideas, in distinction of any kind," declared the New York Times), but was a box-office success.
This Met milestone might be the occasion for a reappraisal of Smyth, who was an author, an avid athlete, and a lover of live — as well as of several woman and at least one man. She was imprisoned for breaking the window of a politician who opposed suffrage, and — as her friend Sir Thomas Beecham discovered when he went to visit her in jail — used a toothbrush to conduct a choir of her fellow suffragettes in a performance of her song "The March of the Women."
Despite being the victim of undisguised sexism, Smyth gradually rose in the ranks of British composers, was awarded a DBE (Dame of the British Empire), and on her 75th birthday had her work celebrated at a festival including a Royal Albert Hall performance for Queen Mary herself — though by that point Smyth, in a development reminiscent of Beethoven, was too deaf to hear the crowd's cheers.
When Der Wald opened in New York, the Telegraph declared that "the cause of woman took an immense stride forward last night." Little did anyone know (though Dame Smyth might have guessed) just how long the next step would take.