Two things became clear to me when I was researching this article. First, there are a lot of operas composed by women. Second, few of them are performed with any regularity and fewer still are recorded for posterity.
At one point I thought I was going to have to give up on finding 10. As it is, I’ve found nine recordings of fully staged operas and one reproduction of a CD. The latter is A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987) by Judith Weir – one of our best-known female composers. I did have a concert performance of her Blond Eckbert (1994), but this has since been removed by the original uploader.
To put this in perspective, when it comes to male composers there are 10 full-length operas by Puccini alone to be found on YouTube. This includes multiple versions of the most famous ones – Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), La bohème (1896), for example.
Those I did find were almost all 20th century or contemporary, with Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina) of 1625 the sole exception. This isn’t because older operas aren’t available; they are. But they’re either not performed or not to be found on YouTube or other free streaming services.
La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina (The Liberation of Ruggiero from the Island of Alcina, 1625) by Francesca Caccini
Conservatorio di Musica Antonio Vivaldi, Italy, 2019
Director: Marco Berrini
1 hour, 16 minutes
The earliest known opera by a woman, this production was for the Festival internazionale di opera e di teatro musicale di piccole dimensioni in Alessandria. It’s a very watchable, high-resolution recording. The sound production is excellent, while the sets and costumes beautifully reflect the fantastical nature of the story. It’s worth watching on a larger screen such as a TV if you can. There are no subtitles, though.
Cendrillon (Cinderella, 1904) by Pauline Viardot
Juan March Foundation
Music director: Aurelio Viribay
1 hour, 11 minutes
Viardot’s three-act work is described as a ‘drawing room operetta’ because it premiered in a Parisien drawing room in 1904. It tells the familiar Cinderella story, with the libretto also written by Viardot, based on Charles Perrault’s well-known fairytale. This production features some beautiful piano work, while the singing is clear and well produced. The sets are simple, but the costumes for the ball scenes are fittingly stunning. It’s sung in French with Spanish subtitles.
The Wreckers (1906) by Dame Ethel Smyth
Bard SummerScape Opera, 2015
Conductor: Leon Botstein
2 hours, 13 minutes
A powerful three-act opera about piracy, love and betrayal in a Cornish community. Unbelievably – and underlining my point above – this 2015 production marks the US premiere of Smyth’s opera, more than a century after it was written. That said, it looks fantastic; the set and costumes set the scene wonderfully. The recording is crisp and clear and the sound production good. It’s sung in English with English subtitles. But your viewing experience is somewhat marred by the ads.
A Christmas Carol (1979) by Thea Musgrave
Royal Opera House and Virginia Opera Association
Conductor: Peter Mark
1 hr, 48 minutes
This production was filmed back in 1982, it marks the European premiere of Scottish composer Musgrave’s opera, based on the famous story by Charles Dickens. It was directed by Dr David Farrar, who at the time became the first African American to direct an opera at the Royal Opera House. The resolution isn’t great but that’s a consequence of its age – high definition didn’t exist back then! The sound reproduction is high quality – as is the singing – and as you’d imagine sets and costumes are excellent. There are no subtitles, but it’s sung in English and incredibly clear.
A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987) by Judith Weir CBE
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Conductor: Andrew Parrott
2 hours, 32 minutes
Weir’s first full-length opera takes the form of a play within a play, and is set in 14th-century China. It tells the story of a loyal subject of the emperor falsely accused of treason by a wicked general; he commits suicide and his child is, unbeknown to both, adopted by the accuser; the child grows up, discovers the truth and exacts revenge. This is a studio recording by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The whole CD is reproduced here. There’s nothing to watch, but the sound production is spot on.
L’amour de loin (Love from Afar, 2000) by Kaija Saariaho
Finnish National Opera
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
2 hours, 19 minutes
Finnish composer Saariaho’s opera is based on the lyric poem La vida breve by 12th century troubadour and prince Blaye of Jaufré Rudel. It tells the story of the prince’s obsessive search for idealised love. The recording’s resolution is fine for smaller screens, but the sound production isn’t perfect. It’s sung in Spanish with Spanish subtitles.
The Little Prince (2003) by Rachel Portman
Houston Grand Opera
Conductor: Rebecca Turner
1 hour, 30 minutes
This short opera is based on the 1943 book of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The film was produced by the BBC, in a co-production with Houston Grand Opera. It stars such well-known names as soprano Lesley Garrett CBE and bass-baritone Sir Willard White. The roles of the Prince, the Rose and a chorus of 36 child singers were cast following a UK-wide talent search which was documented on TV show Blue Peter. The recording’s resolution isn’t great, but sound production is good. It’s sung in English; there are no subtitles.
Alice in Wonderland (2007) by Unsuk Chin
Bavarian State Opera
Conductor: Kent Nagano
2 hours, 2 minutes
This is South Korean composer Chin’s first opera. It is based on Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s novels Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. It is admittedly a somewhat bizarre affair. The sets and costumes are weird and wonderful. The resolution of this recording isn’t great, but the sound reproduction is clear.
As One (2014) by Laura Kaminsky
The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
Music director: JoAnn Kulesza
1 hour, 13 minutes
A chamber opera in which two voices – Hannah after and Hannah before – share the part of a transgender protagonist in a poignant coming-of-age story with universal themes of identity, authenticity and compassion. This is a student performance and the two singers are very good. The sets and costumes are basic and the resolution isn’t high. But the sound again is great.
The Listeners (2022) by Missy Mazzoli
Den Norske Opera & Ballet
Conductor: Ilan Volkov
2 hours, 8 minutes
This new opera by Grammy-nominated Mazzoli is a thriller about social rejection, the abuse of power and echo chambers. Maths teacher Claire hears a mysterious low-frequency noise. The constant hum drives her away from her family and towards others who also hear the same all-consuming sound. This is a recording of the world premiere on 12 November 2022. It’s quite dark, but the sound production is good. It’s sung in English and has English subtitles.