NEW YORK (AP) — When the first notes of Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de Loin (Love from Afar)" are played at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night, it will mark only the second staged work by a woman composer in the company's history — and the first since 1903.
"It is staggering," said Jennifer Higdon, one of six women to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. "We're in the 21st century. There are a lot of women composers out there who are writing a lot of music, and some of it is fantastic stuff."
The Pulitzer Prize for Music was first awarded in 1943. In 1983, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich became the first female composer to win the award.
"I actually had someone say to me at one point that they wanted to do an orchestral piece of mine but they already had done a woman that year," Zwilich recalled this week. "There's still a bunch of stuff out there. But generally speaking, the door is open. It's not easy for any composer."
"L'Amour," with a libretto by Amin Maalouf, premiered at the 2000 Salzburg Festival in Austria. It is being shown at the Met in a striking new production by Canadian director Robert Lepage that features some 28,000 LED lights about 1 square millimeter each in 30 rows, including three over the orchestra pit.
Saariaho, a 64-year-old Finn who has long lived in Paris, also wrote "Adriana Mater," which debuted at the Opera de Paris' Bastille auditorium in 2005, and "Emilie," first seen at the Opera de Lyon in 2010. She considers herself a composer who is a woman, not a woman composer.
"I would not even like to speak about it," she said last week after a piano rehearsal at the Met. "It should be a shame."
Ethel M. Smyth's "Der Wald (The Forest)" was the first opera by a woman composer at the Met, receiving just two performances. It was paired with Verdi's "Il Trovatore" for its U.S. debut on March 11, 1903, and with Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment)" nine days later. And then it disappeared.
"I don't feel like I'm righting wrongs," Met general manager Peter Gelb said. "That Kaija's a female has absolutely nothing to do with my wanting to do this work. This is not part of a female quota system. In my history at the Met, I have no interest in the sex of the composer. My interest is in the quality of the composition."
"L'Amour" will be given eight performances through Dec. 29, and the Dec. 10 matinee will be televised to theaters around the world. Susanna Malkki, a highly regarded 47-year-old Finn who also lives in Paris, will be on the podium — just the fourth woman to conduct the Met following Sarah Caldwell (1976 debut), Simone Young (1996) and Jane Glover (2013).
"I think we have to look at the roots, the grassroot level," Malkki said. "It starts very early on, and there are sort of invisible stages which were not existent earlier. Girls were not being encouraged or taken seriously. So we already have a much smaller number of female composers compared to the men. ... I think it's something that is definitely changing now, and that is really positive. And hopefully at some point we are going to be in a situation where we don't need to talk about this anymore because, of course, the artwork in itself is what is important."
"L'Amour" is part of the Met's commitment to show a contemporary work each season. Thomas Ades' "The Exterminating Angel," based on the 1962 Luis Bunuel movie, will be staged next season. Nico Muhly's "Marnie" has been moved up a season to 2018-19 in place of Osvaldo Golijov's "Iphigenia in Aulis."
"Due to conflicting schedules, the Met and Osvaldo Golijov have decided to part ways in their plans for a new work," the Met said in a statement.
Gelb is also planning the company debut of "Akhnaten," a 1983 opera about the pharaoh by minimalist composer Philip Glass.
Higdon, whose "Cold Mountain" debuted at the 2015 Santa Fe Opera, had a sold-out run of the staging this year at Opera Philadelphia. That company premiered Missy Mazzoli's "Breaking the Waves," an adaptation of the 1996 Lars von Trier film, in September, and its composer in residence this season is Rene Orth.
But in many places, the gender gap in classical composition remains an issue.
"Women, I think they're hesitant to talk about it," Higdon said. "A lot of times administrators are just not as aware of all the women composers that are out there working."