A seat at the table: a talk with singer Sarah Moulton Faux

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A new production about eighteenth-century musical prodigy Marianna Martines brings to light the challenges facing female composers in contemporary opera


  • Sarah Moulton Faux as Violetta in "La Traviata," Regina Opera Company. Photo: Svetlana Didorenko

Marianna Martines, a late eighteenth-century Viennese composer, was producing operatic compositions by the time she was a teenager. As a young woman, she was admitted into the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, an elite society of composers and musical connoisseurs. Plenty of Martines’s friends and supporters became household names (Mozart and Haydn, for instance), but not so for Martines herself. Why didn’t history treat this musical prodigy with the same reverence as her talented peers? Because, of course: She was a she.

“Marianna Martines: A Legacy of Her Own,” is poised to change that. This theatrical concert brings her story to life, driven by a narrative between Marianna’s mentor Metastasio and her portrait artist Anton von Maron. The show spotlights Martines’ chamber music, along with works by Mozart, Haydn, and Hasse.

Opera singer Sarah Moulton Faux, who performs in the show and was a driving force behind it, discusses the rise of contemporary female composers, and how music is everywhere in the city, if you just know where to look.

What drew you to the work and life of Marianna Martines?

She was a very good composer. Not just a good female composer, but she had excellent training, and she certainly had access to a level of teacher [that most didn’t], neither women or men. Her compositions are of a caliber that they stand up next to the men that we uphold in the canon.

How did she, at least to some extent, break away from the pack?

Women composers in history — really the only women composers that we know about — were in musical families. That was the only way that a woman’s talent would be appreciated, or fostered. So Marianna benefited from the patronage and mentoring of a famous librettist, Metastasio. He wrote sort of all the librettos for the composers of the time, including “La Clemenza di Tito” and [other] operas by Mozart. He recognized her ability very young, and made sure she had the very best teachers ... Metastasio championed her career, otherwise it never would’ve happened.

Today, centuries later, how much do you think has really changed?

When I go into an audition, it’s mostly men at the table. There have been challenges for women composers to get commissions. All of that has just begun to change in the past five years.

How, exactly? Is it part of a larger reckoning we’re having as a culture about gender equality?

Opera companies are realizing that new works attract new audiences. A lot of the new opera being written is about contemporary issues, or issues of social justice, so this can resonate and bring in a younger crowd, or some people who haven’t gone to the opera before.

Is there one new opera that stands out?

I’m on the board of American Opera Projects, and an opera they commissioned and premiered at BAM Fisher two years ago was called “As One” by the composer Laura Kaminsky, with [co-librettists] Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. That opera followed the semi-autobiographical story of Kimberly Reed, who is transgender, and the protagonist was shared by a male and female singer. They were both on stage the whole time for the dual aspects [of the protagonist]. When you start, the baritone is more at the fore, revisiting her childhood, and then of course as she makes her transition, the mezzo comes more to the fore.

As a musician and performer living in Manhattan, how do you experience the city musically?

I live in Midtown East, though most of what I do is on the West Side, as far as rehearsal studios. I love the E train, I just get on and get right over to the West Side. I go out to Brooklyn a fair amount, I like what BAM is doing, I like Regina Opera Company, it has the feel of a regional opera house because it’s so far out of the city. I just did a production of “La Traviata” with them. I sort of love it because it is a throwback. They’re only doing a classical repertoire in a traditional style. Sometimes you just want see “La Boheme” in a classic, traditional production!

What are you listening to on repeat these days?

Truthfully, I had been listening to multiple versions of “La Traviata,” my favorite being the live recording of Maria Callas as Violetta from the 1955 La Scala production. It moves me to tears every time!

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