South-African soprano Golda Schultz is a regular at the Met and at Bayerische Staatsoper. In 2020, she sang at the Last Night of the Proms; this season she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic. 

With this career stability, she’s confronting the luxurious challenge of “moving the needle” for women composers and women’s stories. Her first recording, titled “This Be Her Verse” (with pianist Jonathan Ware), features music exclusively by women composers. The album, which will be released on April 8, is an in-depth answer to why it is worth programming music by women. 

VAN: Why did you decide to record exclusively music by women composers for your first album?

Golda Schultz: People willingly do an entire program of Schubert; we came up with a program that focuses on women. I’m not here to judge people or make commentary about the state of the world. I’m not about shaking the cart in the worst way. I’ve had people ask me, “Are you a feminist?” and I want to respond, “Are you not?” I personally am not about extreme political disruption. My version of art-making is about leaving questions open for you to interpret. Like asking the question, What if a woman told her own story? 

Has it been difficult promoting a program without music by men?

Some presenters were like, “Oh that’s a little avant-garde. You’re doing Clara Schumann. Why not pair her songs with her husband’s? Wouldn’t it be sensible to include the man’s perspective?” I just remember thinking, No, no it wouldn’t. We’ve had enough of the men, thank you. With all due respect, if you like the idea, I need you to trust us as the creators. 

The strategy seems to be working given your recital tours in Europe and the U.S.

I’m really grateful to the promoters and presenters. They’re changing their minds. It’s a beautiful thing.

“The Seal Man,” recorded by Golda Schultz and Jonathan Ware

But why not integrate women composers with canon composers rather than separating them?

Having one woman composer is like being the only woman in the room. Women have a lot to say. They are thoughtful human beings who write thought-provoking music. I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface of what they have to say. This is just my little love letter to them, and we’re not even close to who these women really were. Everyone knows some woman in their family who is rich in history and stories, and we can happily sit at her feet. Some of them are larger than life. Some of them are quiet and humble. You just want to be around them and share their stories. 

What stories do you relate to of the composers you chose for the album?

Emilie Mayer was a genius on the level with Beethoven, but she was forgotten the day after she died. Mayer also suffered from anorexia and body dysmorphia. Her songs have never been recorded before; musicologist Stephanie Sadownik transcribed them from the manuscripts in the Berlin archive. 

Rebecca Clarke’s father cut her off financially, and she happened to get a scholarship to go to America. Nadia Boulanger believed her sister had much more talent as a composer than her and became one of the greatest pedagogues with a touch that defined American culture. 

Even when we forget these women, what they’ve done still remains. [In this program,] we let them be brilliant as they are—not in conversation with a man. There’s no need for them to be compared to anyone or even to each other. 

When did you start questioning the idea of singing songs only written by men?

A few years ago, I was singing Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” I love that judgment-free depiction of a joyful, restless young woman in love, but I thought, What if a woman told Gretchen’s story? How would it be different? 

Your collaboration with composer Kathleen Tagg and librettist Lila Palmer seems like the answer to that realization. How did it come about?

Venues offered to co-commission with us, but [pianist Jonathan] Ware and I chose to pay for it ourselves. We didn’t want it to be watered down by someone else. We wanted it to be the original creative exploration of how it would’ve been in the coffee shops of Vienna: ideas tossed around, influenced by someone else’s life experience. That’s the circle we wanted to recreate. Though it was often over Skype or the phone with a glass of wine.

We wanted 21st-century women writing about their 21st-century experiences, drawing on their personal lives. I want to give young women in conservatory music that really speaks to them without having to extrapolate so far to find commonality.

YouTube video
Golda Schultz sings “Nacht und Träume” with the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Monday Concert series

The first line of Tagg and Palmer’s first song, “After Philip Larkin,” goes “Women’s no island / (would she were).” How personal are these songs? 

In “After Phillip Larkin,” Palmer was writing about how we try to keep everybody at bay; but your friends want you, your family wants you, and they all get through your walls because of love. Love seeps through. 

For the second song, “Wedding,” I had told Lila and Kathy about a conversation with my mom about a discussion with my husband. But Lila elevated it by placing it at a wedding. At the last line, “You will always be waiting, waiting for him to catch up,” I always see women laughing in the audience and men nodding to themselves. 

It makes me think of Gretchen, waiting for her beloved at her spinning wheel. Are they related?

All these notions of waiting that get taught to women, we internalize them so much. It becomes a way of thinking and even [shapes] the way we converse with our partners. Palmer says it’s taught to us from childhood fairytales: princesses waiting for princes in towers. From Schubert and Goethe’s perspective, it’s the thinking that makes Gretchen insane. But it’s not: It’s the waiting. I would love a Gretchen written from a woman’s perspective, where she chooses to hunt her lover down rather than suffering at her spinning wheel.

That waiting is also present in the third song, “Single Bed.” 

I still struggle not to cry when I sing “Single Bed,” because it’s a snapshot of Palmer at 26 years old. I remember her during that time. She was trying to be brave and strong and worrying if she was ever going to have a husband or a family, or if she even wanted that. She was so scared about making the wrong choice, and so critical of every choice that she made. She was thinking,  “Am I more afraid of a man finding me or of being alone with my critical self?” 

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All the other songs on the program are settings of poems by men…

It’s not just about the words of women, it’s about their experiences and the female gaze. Schubert wrote songs on women’s poetry. Emilie Mayer wrote three settings of “Erlkönig.” The one we chose focuses on the wind and the Erlkönig calling the child away, rather than on the speed of the horse and the urgency to save the child in Schubert’s version. Some critics haven’t liked Emilie Mayer’s songs, and when Ware heard them, his first response was, “It’s no better than Schubert.” But if she’s on par with Schubert, then she’s damn good. 

We performed Rebecca Clarke’s  “Down by the Sally Gardens” in Dublin, Ireland, where many people are basically breastfed the poem from childhood. Most know the Benjamin Britten setting. After we performed Rebecca Clarke’s version, the audience burst into vigorous applause cheering, “Yes!” That shows how, even without putting the male composers in the room, they were in the room.

Would you say this album was a labor of love? 

It was DIY. The radio station said, “Instead of paying you for a radio recital we can give you two days in the studio.” I was like, “Well, I’ll take this.” The radio recital had presenters calling: “I think our audience would be interested.” We only engaged Alpha Classics after shopping the recording to multiple labels.  

Golda Schultz in “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017 (Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera)

Was this project a risk?

Yes, and not just financially. It’s very personal, with the intimate stories in the commission. On the cover,  I’m looking into the camera—no guile, no artifice. I’m unabashedly myself amid a rainfall of music and verse. I want to be an example for girls and women who look like me, as I am on the opera stage. 

You’ve exercised a lot of agency over this program yourself…  

I really thought Ware and I had a system where I would say, This is the thing that I want to do, and he would find the music.  This was the first time where I was also bringing stuff to him. He looked at me one day like, “You do realize you’re a programmer now, right?” And I said, “I don’t know enough repertoire to be a programmer.” He said, “But you’ve got a viewpoint, so you’re a programmer.”

Any plans for your next album? 

People keep asking me that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just going to be a John Cage silence album. Just…nothing. Maybe I’ll pull an Adele: Make the album, do the promotion, go hide. 

If I’m remembered for anything, let it be that we’ve helped move the needle even an inch. If I’m forgotten by history except for this—that’s OK. ¶

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Sarah Fritz is a music historian and advocate for women composers on social media. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times. She is writing a book about Clara Schumann.