Women’s History Month goes out like a lioness this year with Kay Krekow’s original show about extraordinary female classical composers through history. In “She is Music,” on Monday, March 25 at Twinbrook Baptist Church in Rockville, the soprano — acclaimed for her interpretations of Giacomo Puccini’s operatic heroines – presents a triple threat of her talents. She will sing the composers’ songs, narrate their stories along with projected short videos and accompany herself on keyboard.
While Krekow has more than two dozen of these composers in available repertoire, she limits her presentation to about an hour. “My job is to bring to a general audience an introduction to feminine creative musical genius across the ages, to pique their interest, to raise their awareness about the music and the women and perhaps to shed some stereotypes,” she said. “The program is always chatty, informal, fun, lively and very informative. I am so honored to be the Muse that introduces people to this music!”
Krekow answered CultureSpotMC.com’s questions about how “She is Music” came to be.
What prompted you to create this program?
I have been researching, singing, playing and teaching vocal music by women composers for more than 30 years, beginning with my award-winning program for the National Association of Teachers of Singing when I was in my 20s. On that recital program, I included the music of both Robert and Clara Schumann, quite the nouveau thing to do at the time, especially since it was so difficult to even obtain music by women composers! Nothing was available in the U.S. and I had to order her songs from Germany.
Music by women composers has always been my passion — not because it is music by women — but because it is great music. About 20 years ago, my husband, Dr. Harry Dunstan (Founding Artistic Director of the American Center for Puccini Studies) and our friend, opera scholar, the late Dr. William Ashbrook were discussing the great opera divas of the 19th century and their role and influence in the culture and society of their time. These women had a freedom and access to the arts that few people enjoyed, certainly very few women. In reality, the 19th century was not a great time to be a woman. If you got an education, it would be through tutors. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that women were allowed to study in co-ed institutions, let alone music conservatories.
But the opera business has always been different. Opera singers usually come from opera families and are trained as part of the family “industry.” Operas are also written with women as central characters, so first and foremost, they are critically essential to the art form. The opera divas were subsequently in the constant company of other singers, composers, orchestra players, actors, poets, writers, impresarios, and of course, the wealthy and the royalty. They were the first real “rock stars” and could travel alone, without a male chaperone. There are several delightful stories of the opera divas arriving at the train station or in a carriage and an ecstatic crowd of 60,000 people would be there to greet her or unhitch her horses and carry her through the streets.
So to return to the Dunstan/Ashbrook conversation, they wondered, since these women were in the absolute thick of the opera industry and had rare but complete access to cutting-edge musical ideas and practices and training, did any of them compose? Since I’d had this life-long interest in women’s music and am also an operatic soprano, I took up the mantel and decided to find an answer and basically discover my vocal heritage.
I also want to say that the creation of “She Is Music” came to pass with the enthusiastic support of two world-class male opera scholars, who revere the art form and artists as much as I do. I want to emphasize that this program is not really about women for women’s sake, but about creative genius, that eternal creative fire which has no gender, time, definition or limitation.
What do these women have in common?
All these women were two things: great singers and great composers. So you may ask, if they were such great composers, why haven’t I heard of them and why didn’t they write more? Because the practical reality is, a singer has historically always earned anywhere from five to 12 times more than a composer. Singing paid the bills, not writing music. What makes their songs extraordinary is that they were written by choice, written, really, for the sake of themselves. These busy working women took time — were compelled by their own artistic spirit — to create an individual voice, not by singing the music of others, but by writing their own songs. Also keep in mind, they were mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, lovers – human beings leading quotidian lives, yet able transcend the mundane through their art.
How long did it take to put the show together?
It took years to track down resources, and in fact this has become a never-ending project with me! My dear friend, the late Dr. Henry Grossi, Head of Reader Services for the Library of Congress Music Division, helped me locate libraries around the world that held music by these women. Since this project started before there was the Internet, I wrote letters to all the major libraries in Europe and the United States to ask for copies of their holdings of these women. It became quite the adventure!
How did you choose the women represented?
I had really only one criterion for selecting the music and the composers and that was, “Can this music stand on its own as a great composition?” Within that question is also the idea that the music should accurately reflect its cultural time, trend, influence, etc. After that selection, then I looked for women with compelling, inspirational stories, a significant body of work, and in truth, music and women with whom I felt empathy. Over the years, I have curated a collection of about two dozen women that represent not only great compositional skills, but whose life stories are compelling examples of their culture and time, and whose experiences are still an example to women of the 21st century.
Why are there no diva composers today?
The education these women received was from tutors, private teachers, mentors and, in many cases, family members or the nuns in the Catholic church. These women learned a comprehensive art – they read music, learned to play several instruments, studied compositional techniques, painted, drew, wrote poetry, read and spoke in several languages, studied history….a true liberal arts education in the fashion of the ancient Greeks. Individual instruction is still the best method to train an artist. However, at some point in the 20th century, we, as a culture, stopped doing that and sent everyone to college, which immediately homogenized learning and pigeon-holed students into categories — “composer,” “string player,” “pianist,” “singer,” etc. There are most assuredly still singer-songwriters out there, but they are almost exclusively in the pop industry, which still ascribes to the old method of teaching: private lessons, listening to the icons and masters in the field, and beginning the nurturing of an innate creative talent when they’re children. Lady Gaga did not learn her craft in a school! In the opera industry, we’ve lost that.
What do you want the audience to learn from the program?
What I want the audience to come away with is that women have been composing music for thousands of years and the music is beautiful, masterful, inspiring and inspired, and can stand on its own. We shouldn’t define it as “women’s” music, because it is so much more than that. It is the sound of the human voice, the expression of the human soul. It is music that transcends our definitions, our limitations, our expectations and our legislation.
To paraphrase the words of one of my favorite poets, Louise Glück, the purpose of art is to connect the great dead with the not-yet-born. Thus, it is in their songs that we find their true personality, the existential nature of these women. You can read their bios, but to understand who they were as people you must listen to their songs — you must share the sacred space of musical time with them and step into their experience.
Why did you choose the MD Coalition for the Homeless as the beneficiary?
The ultimate goal of art is to serve humanity and I believe that the way I can do that is through community service, with the emphasis on community, and local. I take as my inspiration the famous opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi, who was an extraordinary philanthropist. His great operatic successes enabled him to build bridges, nursery schools, roads, irrigation systems, hospitals, and even a retirement home for destitute musicians….all in his own community. If Verdi can build a place to protect the less fortunate, I can use the resources I have — my music, my voice and my passion — to inspire others to help.
“She is Music” will begin at 7 p.m. Monday, March 25 at Twinbrook Baptist Church, 1001 Twinbrook Parkway, Rockville. Admission is free, but donations will be collected for the various women’s programs at the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless. Visit www.SheIsMusic.com