In Music

Missy Mazzoli, recently commissioned by The Met, received her first commission in 2007 from Present Music in Milwaukee. (PHOTO: Caroline Tompkins)

The Met hires first female composer who got her start in Milwaukee

For the first time in its 139-year history, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City commissioned a woman – actually two women – to compose an opera. Jeanine Tesori and Missy Mazzoli were both recently hired to blaze the path.

For her commission, Mazzoli is working with librettist Royce Vavrek on an adaptation of George Saunders' novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo." It will premiere in about 5 years.

Mazzoli's first commission took place in 2007 at Present Music in Milwaukee.

"It was one of the best things that even happened to me, and effectively launched my career," says Mazzoli. "It was the first time I had flown anywhere for a performance, my first commission out of grad school, and the first time I was paid to write a piece of music."

Mazzoli wrote a spring trio for a performance called "Premieres and Polkas" that took place at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

"Everyone danced, Guy Klucevsek played accordion and there was even a cake shaped like an accordion," says Mazzoli.

During the commission process and the performance, Mazzoli spent a fair share of time in Milwaukee. She still visits on occasion.

"I love Milwaukee," says Mazzoli. "Kevin Stalheim (artistic director of Present Music) took a bunch of us out to Art Altenburg's Concertina Bar, which I think is now called Kochanski's. Art Altenburg's son played concertina and sang, Altenburg himself played on the bottles behind the bar, and we all danced. It stands out in my memory as one of the best post-concert hangs of all time. I have been back now and again but I don't think anything will ever top that first trip."

Recently, Mazzoli was deemed "one of the more consistently inventive, surprising composers now working in New York" by The New York Times and "Brooklyn's post-millennial Mozart" by Time Out New York. Her music has been performed all over the world.

And yet, because of its history of excluding women composers, The Met's offer came as a complete surprise to Mazzoli.

"I had dreamed of this commission my whole life, but was still totally shocked," she says.

Tim McKeough, the press director for the Metropolitan Opera, was unable to comment as to why The Met did not hire female composers in the past, but did add that the premiere of Mazzoli's opera "Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt," at The Kitchen in New York in 2012, signaled that she was "a composer with a distinctive voice and highly developed understanding of the diverse musical skills necessary for the art form."

McKeough also referred to her as "a great collaborator" and as having "an essential characteristic for success in opera."

Of the 1,445 concerts performed across the world by the end of 2019, 95 percent of them will include music only composed by men.

"It's only in the last 20-30 years that women have been actively encouraged to write opera and participate in that field in even the smallest way," says Mazzoli. "Most women were not able to get their foot in the door of the opera world, and since women are usually hired on the basis of their past accomplishments, it was nearly impossible to garner enough of a portfolio or reputation to be hired at a prestigious place like the Met."

However, according to Mazzoli, young men are often hired on the basis of potential, even if they have limited or non-existent experience in opera.

"That's changing slowly thanks to independent producers like Beth Morrison and Melissa Smey, and thanks to forward thinking companies like Opera Philadelphia and Opera Omaha, who have a great track record of supporting young, female composers," says Mazzoli.

Mazzoli is also the founder of a mentorship program for young female composers ages 13-19 called Luna Composition Lab. It's open to young female-identifying composers around the country.

"I'm committed to making sure my commission and Jeanine Tesori's commission are not 'blips,' but are instead the beginning of a new, more equitable era at the Met," says Mazzoli.

Wanna support female composers locally? Present Music's upcoming concert, "In The New Chamber," features music entirely from women.

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