Composing Artemisia: creating alternative female archetypes in new opera

Most female characters in new operas rarely pass the Bechdel test (to comply, two women must talk about something other than a love interest). The composer Susannah Self advocates for ‘an alternative operatic paradigm in which female characters are defined by their actions rather than their gendered identity’. Here, she explains how this approach informed the process of her composition of the opera Artemisia, inspired by the story of the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Last September, I submitted my PhD portfolio and commentary titled ‘Quiltsong: Quilting as a model of new operatic compositional practice’. The momentum of three years of research inspired an immediate next step to create another opera while I waited for my viva examination. As an experiment I decided to replicate Benjamin Britten’s three-and-a-half month time frame in which he composed The Turn of the Screw. I managed to complete the rough version of my new opera as I passed my viva with minor corrections. For the subject, I chose the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, whose work is featured at the National Gallery in London in the spring of 2020.

Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Art by Artemisia Gentileschi
Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Art by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia’s inspiring story is of becoming a successful painter in the face of adversity after a #MeToo situation she encountered when she was 16.

Artemisia’s character reflects my commitment as a composer to move away from presenting female stereotypes that Catherine Clément refers to in Opera, or, The Undoing of Women as ‘the role of jewel, a decorative object… on the opera stage women perpetually sing their eternal undoing’.

My chosen focus is to address the way in which 50% of the earth’s population is under-represented

Surprisingly, the majority of female characters in new operas rarely pass the Bechdel test as established by Alison Bechdel in Dykes to Watch Out For (1986). To comply, two women must talk about something other than a love interest. I believe that the 21st century needs an alternative operatic paradigm in which female characters are defined by their actions rather than their gendered identity. This shift will in turn help contribute to developing the dramatic scope of male and non-binary roles. However, my chosen focus is to address the way in which 50% of the earth’s population is under-represented.

I seek to transform Christopher Small’s observation in Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening that ‘it is rare on the opera stage to meet a heroine who is permitted to be strong and independent, which means not depending on male support, and get away with it’ (Small, 1998).

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) was one of the foremost painters of the early 1600s. She created intensely powerful interpretations of biblical stories such as Susanna and the Elders.

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi
Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia moved in the courts of Rome, Naples, Florence and Venice. The opera takes a fictional perspective informed by historical research.

In particular, Artemisia’s residence in Venice coincides with the rise of convents as documented in Jonathan Glixon in Mirrors of Heaven or Worldly Theaters? Venetian Nunneries and their Music (2018).

Convents re-invented themselves as refuges from the patriarchy

Even though Artemisia was subsequently forgotten by art history, she was admired in her time and her gender was no bar to her acceptance as an artist.

This may have been aided by the situation in which many cultured women in Venice were forced by circumstances to become nuns. Convents re-invented themselves as refuges from the patriarchy so that women embraced an unprecedented freedom. They dressed in their own clothes, commissioned artists and created operas which were accompanied by lavish feasts.

In Artemisia, the artist receives a commission from St Catherine’s Convent to create a portrait. The National Gallery has just purchased Artemisia’s painting of St Catherine as a self-portrait.

St Catherine as a self-portait by Artemisia Gentileschi
St Catherine as a self-portait by Artemisia Gentileschi

As the opera develops, the nuns devise an opera within an opera based on the historically documented rape trial heard by the Pope in which Tassi, Artemisia’s fiancé, was convicted of rape. History shows that Artemisia’s response to this attack was to literally roll up her sleeves and become the artist that she was destined to be.

Running parallel to Artemisia’s story is that of Artless, a modern painter. Artless struggles with her practice that seeks to convey art with no meaning. She falters in confidence until she discovers Artemisia’s work. Courageously she re-names herself from Alice to Artless by re-ordering the syllables of Artemisia Gentileschi, which reflect ‘less gentle art’, as in Artemisia’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes which was painted in three versions after the trial.

Judith Decapitating Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
Judith Decapitating Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

Opera director Phyllida Lloyd says there is a conversation ‘that is being had amongst women in the theatre, about the dearth of great roles for women over a certain age, and also [how] job opportunities are much narrower for women who are of unconventional size, shape, accent, ethnic origin, whatever.’ (Saner, 2016: The Guardian).

Artemisia directly addresses this issue. As we rehearse the opera, I have observed how the singers at North Sea Opera are developing a growing sense of excitement as I present new scenes composed specifically for their individual voices.

In particular, the soprano Catherine Joule who plays Artemisia is sounding more vibrant than I have ever heard. When I asked her what had happened she said, ‘I think it’s the role. It addresses so many modern issues of being a woman that I feel empowered’. Another professional, Sarah Gallop, who sings Zelda, is clearly relishing the role of a young abbess who is also a composer and gourmet cook.

Artemisia is scored for nine singers and six instrumentalists and will be premièred by North Sea Opera in summer 2020.

I also hope that it will be also be taken up by other mid-scale companies since it promotes four dynamic contemporary issues in a way that traditional opera does not. They are:

  • Can a female character fashion her own destiny towards a positive outcome despite a traumatic event?
  • Do women artists now deserve parity of representation?
  • Does art always need to convey a meaning?
  • Ethically, do new operas need to feature a higher percentage of female parts than in traditional opera so as to reflect the current proportionality of singers in the profession?

To conclude, many elements of story-telling embodied in Artemisia reflect recent shifts in some opera companies especially in Scandinavia, North Germany and the Americas.

There is room for women of action to take centre stage

At Creation: Opera Europa’s 2019 conference in Antwerp, I could see that the tide is turning towards areas in which my research has led me. In particular, creating new work that relates to contemporary issues and that features empowered women.

However, in discussion with some of the main publishers and opera house intendants at Creation, I discovered that they remain invested in promoting new operas which often feature a proliferation of male protagonists such as in Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur (2008), George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (2012), Lessons in Love and Violence (2018), Hector Parra’s Les Bienveillantes (2019) and Wolfgang Rihm’s Jacob Lenz (2015).

Even if a new opera features a lead woman such as in Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole (2010), she is defined by her ability to ensnare a rich man with her sexuality, which again references the traditional model. While I personally enjoy these operas for their astounding compositional dexterity, my response as a composer is to suggest that there is also room for women of action to take centre stage.


  • You will be able to order the vocal score and hire the orchestral score of Artemisia and parts from the end of April 2020 here
  • Link to instrumental extracts of Artemisia played by The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group here


Highlights of the opera by Susannah Self.

Artemisia performances

Artemisia will be performed on:

  • 29 May and 30 May 2020 at 8.00pm, Boat House, Burnham Overy Staithe, Norfolk. Tickets £35, includes wine and dinner. Click here to book
  • 5 July 2020 at 3.30pm, July 5th 3.30pm, St Edmunds College, Cambridge. Tickets £50, includes refreshments. Click here to book
  • 18 July 2020 at 7.30pm, The Wells Maltings, Wells next the Sea, Norfolk. Tickets £12. Click here to book

About the author

Susannah Self is a composer of opera, an opera singer and music educator.

In 2020, commissions include Spitalfields Festival and Artemisia on tour in Norfolk. Other commissions include: Birmingham Royal Ballet 2019; Quilt Song: Birmingham Old Rep 2018; Slap: Birmingham Contemporary Music Group 2018, Birmingham Opera company 2017; The Butt: Musictheatertage, Vienna 2016, Kings College Cambridge 2013; Composer in Residence Tardebigge 2013; The Boy from Brazil: Tête a Tête 2012; and Heroic Women: Royal Opera House 1992.

She gained a PhD in composition on a STEAM scholarship at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in 2020, in 2014 an MPhil in composition at Cambridge University, in 1988 a scholarship from the Royal Society of Arts, in 1986 a scholarship to study with John Cage in Canada and in 1980 an ARCM in singing performance at the Royal College of Music.

Susannah has sung solo roles for the Vlaamse, Lyon, Salzburg, Strasbourg and Luxembourg opera companies. She has presented papers at Oxford, Durham, Cambridge, Birmingham and Huddersfield Universities, Trinity Laban and the Royal Northern College of Music. She is accredited by SEDA and taught composition (2018/19) at Nottingham University and was a research assistant (2019/20) at Birmingham City University. Currently Susannah teaches composition at Junior Guildhall.

She has been co-artistic director with Michael Christie at Selfmade Music for 25 years. The company has gained five Arts Council grants and toured internationally to USA, Taiwan and Europe.

Header photo: Susannah Self conducting © Roger Way Photography

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