As It Happens

1st woman to stage an opera at the 'rigid' Vienna State Opera is shaking things up

Olga Neuwirth is the first woman to stage an opera at the Vienna State Opera. It's a take on Virginia Woolf's playful novel, Orlando, which is about gender fluidity and trans identity.

Olga Neuwirth's opera is an adaptation of a Virginia Woolf novel about gender fluidity

Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth is the first woman to stage an opera at the Vienna State Opera in the venue's 150-year history. (Harald Hoffmann)


For 150 years, men have dominated the opera in Vienna. 

But now, for the first time, an opera written by a woman will be staged at the Vienna State Opera in Austria. It's called Orlando — and it's a take on Virginia Woolf's playful novel about gender fluidity and trans identity. 

It premieres on Dec. 8. 

Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth wrote the opera and spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off ahead of the premiere. 

Here is part of their conversation.

Why has it taken 150 years for the Vienna State Opera to put on a show written by a woman?

Well, I guess that classical music is the most patriarchal system.

So their norms are very stiff and maybe they didn't trust a female composer — that she has a brain to also be able to compose because this was their prejudice for many, many centuries.

Well, that was in past centuries. But why do you think that even in these past years there hasn't been? You're the first woman to do it. So what do you make of that?

I think the time was not ready because society, music society, classical music society, was not ready and they didn't trust female composers.

When I started 30 years ago as a female composer, I really had to fight and stick to my ideas because it was not very easy to stay to your dreams and your ideas as a female composer.

So what does it mean for you to be the first?

Well, in a way, it's an honour. But also it's very sad. But I hope after being the first, there will be a second, a third, and so on.

So you're doing Virginia Woolf's Orlando. For people who don't know the story, can you give us a background for it?

OK. This isn't easy because it's very complex book.

It's a haunting story, a very fast story, through many centuries ... with a main character who is striving for freedom of expression, originality in their fluid identity.

So it's a remarkable person who questions every kind of duality and experiences a sense of in-betweenness, in both life and art.

And it's full of gender bending, isn't it?

Yes. It's full of gender bending. And so, in questioning all norms of gender, so no duality in the gender norms and also against any stereotype in how society asks for gender norms.

So that's very fascinating that Virginia Woolf wrote about it already in 1928.

Neuwirth's opera is an adaptation of the novel Orlando, written by English author, critic and essayist, Virginia Woolf. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

And in the story that Virginia Woolf wrote, Orlando begins as a man and ends as a woman in the story. But your character, the people who will play these roles, are all women. Right?

Yes. Orlando is a mezzo soprano and sings first in a very lower register of mezzo soprano and then, as a woman, kind of gets in the higher parts of a mezzo soprano register.

Why did you want to make this into an opera? Why this story?

Because I think the story of Orlando is a quest for freedom. It's a quest for having your own opinion. It's against putting into any norms. So every human being is allowed to decide what kind of gender, what kind of life, he or she wants to lead.

Especially with the use of non-binary gender people and transgender people, we have to open up our minds that it's not only a duality and I think it's very important.

So that's why I wanted to give a statement with this book also because it's a statement in a very rigid house, an old traditional house, like the Vienna State Opera.

So you are you going to shake things up, aren't you?

I try a bit with the kind of genre bending and with the topic of Orlando. Because, you know, if you get the chance to make a statement as a first woman then I want to make a statement.

So are you getting any pushback at this point?

Well, yeah there are some kinds of pushback, of course. But we have to live that. We can't change anything if we don't dare anything.

Neuwirth says she has received some push back from the more traditional Vienna State Opera crowd but adds that "we can't change anything if we don't dare anything." (Hans Klaus Techt/The Associated Press)

Alright, so you're shaking things up, first of all, just by being a woman and having an opera in in Austria. Also, with the story itself. Why is opera, because people have often said that that opera is the most sexist, the most misogynist of the art forms, why is that?

I've never understood it because I didn't grow up like that and I didn't really go into opera. You know, I grew up with jazz and punk and other kinds of music and literature and arts. So I never understood the rigidity.

The female characters often in opera meet terrible fates, especially if they're a bit uppity. And so you're pushing back on that as well.

Yes. When I was collaborating with my friend Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian writer and Nobel Prize winner, we always had topics where it's that we didn't want that woman goes — what is it in English? Lunatic or becomes mad? Because, you know, men were always telling the stories that if love doesn't work out in relationships then they go mad.

I was always against that. So I always had women in the centre who are self-empowered.

OK. It's going to open on the 8th of December. What kind of reaction do you think you'll get from that very traditional Viennese opera audience?

Well, I don't know. I think the very conservative ones are not coming to the premiere.

The other ones maybe have not such petrified minds. Maybe they go into this opera house and come out like being annoyed, or maybe think oh, actually, it's not too bad. Maybe interesting. So that would be the best.

Written Sarah Jackson and John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.