In mid-February the Metropolitan Opera announced its 2018/19 season. None of the programmed works are by women, and every conductor will be a man.
Therefore, I figured it was worth casting an eye back to a more progressive time – the 1920s – to resurrect the remarkable story of Emma Steiner, who conducted her own operatic compositions at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1925.
Emma Steiner was born on 26 February 1856 in Baltimore. Her paternal line was chock-full of military men, and her father Colonel Frederick Birely Steiner had served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. After his retirement from the military, he worked (quite successfully) as an importer of fruit.
Emma’s invalid mother Catharine was a gifted amateur pianist, and she would often prop her young daughter up in a chair to play for her. Emma grew to become an unusually quiet and observant child who never cried, mesmerized by music.
Emma later claimed that the entirety of her musical training consisted of Catharine showing her where middle C was on the keyboard. But she quickly learned to teach herself, assigning every key on the piano a number.
By seven she was composing. By nine she wrote a piano duet. And by eleven she had composed a grand opera called Aminaide. “Her father was opposed to opera on principle and refused to look at the score,” a newspaper later reported. “A musical friend, however, pronounced it correctly written.” (x) A scene from Aminaide was actually produced at the Peabody Conservatory and garnered praise from the school director. Dazzled Baltimoreans urged Frederick to send Emma to Europe to study, but he refused.
Emma chafed at his disapproval. In a 1926 interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, she recalls defying him as a teenager, leaving the house while he was away to conduct an opera in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, at the behest of a family friend who knew of her musical ability and therefore had recommended her for the job. Frederick was mortified and forbid her to perform in public again. Needless to say, she didn’t listen.
In Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, author Christina Ammer states that “It is not known exactly when or how Steiner managed to break away from her family and pursue a career in music.” It may have had something to do with dual tragedies that struck the Steiners in 1876, when both Catharine and Emma’s older brother Charles died. The only immediate family left was Emma and Frederick, and their relationship was clearly rocky.
A bewildering array of stories exist explaining Emma’s unlikely entrance to the world of conducting. One suggests that her first job ever was assistant music director to Edward Everett Rice at his Rice and Collier Opera Company. Another says her singing garnered Rice’s attention. Yet another claims that she started composing light music out of economic necessity and then secured the notice of various operatic managers. In any case, she began working as a conductor with E. E. Rice, as he was known. Rice seems to have been a relatively open-minded figure. In addition to hiring a woman as his assistant music director, he also booked the operetta Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cake Walk with music by Will Marion Cook and libretto by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It became a hit, and the first Broadway musical to star an all-black cast.
So Emma began touring the country as a conductor, specializing in light opera. (She later claimed she gave thousands of performances of over fifty operas, including 700 Mikados.) She worked for George Baker, Maurice Grau, Julius Howe, and others, but her best-known boss was no doubt Heinrich Conried, who later served as director of the Metropolitan Opera from 1903-8. Reportedly Conried gave serious thought to granting Emma her Met Opera debut, but finally decided against it because she was a woman.
To be fair, Emma was not a particularly pliable employee. While touring in Pennsylvania with the New York Standard Opera Company in 1885, she publicly horsewhipped a man after he came on too strongly to one of her 16-year-old chorus girls. (The whip was a prop from the opera they were presenting.) And on January 31, 1894, a front page headline of the New York World blared that Emma had nearly started a brawl. Apparently she’d been hired to conduct an all-female orchestra for a unique woman-only performance of As You Like It, put on by the Professional Woman’s League. However, at the last minute the venue was changed to the Garden Theatre, which had an orchestra and a conductor of its own. (Both male, of course.) Mrs. Macauley, chairman of the PWL executive committee, gave Emma the bad news that she and the ladies’ orchestra would no longer be needed. According to the World, Emma then clenched her fist and moved to attack, but Mrs. Fernandez – “a lady of heroic figure and weight” – inserted herself into the kerfuffle as human shield, and eventually Emma calmed down. The second half of the article is full of denials that such an encounter ever happened. Mrs. Macauley had a ready explanation for the confusion: “all the trouble women have in getting business ideas in their heads.” (x)
Intriguingly, while digging through vintage newspapers, I ran across several advertisements for the Emma R. Steiner Gaiety Opera Company, active in 1896, and referenced in exactly none of the books in which Emma is mentioned. These ads raise a variety of compelling questions. Was the Gaiety Opera Company the only woman-led opera company in America in the 1890s? Or were there others we’ve forgotten about, too?
Emma also continued composing. In 1877 she wrote the comic opera Fleurette, although it’s unclear whether it was actually staged at that time. We know it was given in San Francisco in 1889 and in New York in 1891. Before its New York premiere, a reporter for The Herald wrote:
Miss Steiner doesn’t wish to urge any woman’s privilege. She wants “Fleurette” to stand on its merits. She couldn’t get any of the managers to give it a hearing, so she went ahead on her own account and got together a syndicate of well known men, who are financial sponsors of the opera. Miss Steiner is tall and slender. Her face is full of character. Her features are straight, her eyes are gray blue, her eyebrows are dark, and her hair, which she wears short, is turning from dark brown to gray. She is proud of the fact that she is the first woman to lead a theatre orchestra in New York. (x)
According to Unsung, Fleurette was well-reviewed, despite “an unsympathetic orchestra and inferior company.” One reviewer savaged the libretto by Edgar Smith and opined “more Steiner is wanted, and less Smith.”
Emma’s career continued blossoming throughout the 1890s. Theodore Thomas chose four of her works to be showcased at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1894 she conducted the Anton Seidl Orchestra, one of the great American orchestras of the day, in Chickering Hall in New York. (Forever after, she would cite this as one of her life’s proudest moments.) In 1897 she announced a series of concerts with members of the New York Metropolitan Orchestra, in which she’d conduct works by Wagner, Liszt, and others. She also continued writing operas.
But by 1900, Emma found herself at a professional crossroads. Her eyesight was beginning to fail, and she was continuing to have difficulties financing her operas. As one newspaper later put it:
Miss Steiner’s sight failed from too close application to music, and it was then she conceived the idea of going to Nome, hoping to make money that she might be able to get some of her operas produced. It takes, of course, as everyone knows, several thousands of dollars to produce an opera, and though men are often able to manipulate loans on questionable security, it is not an easy matter for a woman to do so. (x)
So to fund the production of her operas, Emma Steiner set off for Alaska to pan for gold. (Like you do.)
She brought along a young “niece” named Florence Holly-Handy. (A woman named Florence Handy later appears in Emma’s household in the 1910 census listing; Emma declares her there a “cousin.” I haven’t been able to ascertain the veracity of either of those identities.) Emma and Florence claimed to be the first white women to travel to the Seward Peninsula, just south of the Arctic Circle.
Upon arriving in Nome, the first thing the two women did was organize a performance of Emma’s opera The Little Hussar. (Apparently there was a surprising number of talented performers in town for the Gold Rush and willing to lend their services.) The performance was financially successful and gave them the money they needed to make a go at prospecting.
Later a breathless reporter wrote of Emma’s Alaskan sojourn: “She endured great hardships on a trip of 130 miles from Nome, partly by canoe along the shallow coast and partly by pack train into a barren wilderness, to which even fuel had to be carried in from the coast on men’s backs.” (x)
Weeks of frantic, backbreaking labor passed. Predictably, there was no gold. But there was something else.
Emma later wrote:
Frequently after panning a shovel of dirt some curious, rather lustrous black sand that looked like iron remained at the bottom.
Weeks passed and little gold had been found. We were growing discouraged indeed. One day Sam, one of my men, panned out a particularly large lot of the shiny, black stuff.
“What is that, Sam?” I asked.
“I dunno, Miss Steiner, I never seed it before.”
“Better pan out a lot of it, Sam. We ought to find out about it.”
“I suppose it might be tin,” said he, doubtfully, as he poured it into his hand.
Tin! I’d heard there was tin in Alaska, but never thought it worthy of much attention. I’d never heard of anybody getting excited over tin. But my curiosity was aroused, and, taking some of the black sand back to the tent, I got out a treasured textbook and a little case of chemicals brought all the way from New York, and in an hour had worked myself into a fine frenzy of excitement, and the rest of the party as well. (x)
So it was that Emma Steiner veered from a groundbreaking career in music to a groundbreaking career in mining. She returned to New York and took a course in mineralogy and metallurgy at Columbia University, then returned to Alaska every summer for several years afterward to prospect.
It remains unclear what this tin deposit meant for Emma financially (did it ever get any operas produced?). But her Alaskan experience proved to be a rich vein to mine in and of itself, as it inspired Emma to embark on a new career as a lecturer. By 1908 she was even illustrating her talks with technologically innovative “moving pictures.”
One of the most exciting scenes was a walrus hunt. The Esquimaux hunt these walrus for their tusks and it certainly is an exceeding hazardous occupation. This picture, the only one of its kind in existence, is insured for $6,000, it having cost over $3,000 to get the picture. It was, of course, a difficult matter to find one who combined the necessary courage to risk his life and the ability to work the photographic machine.” (x)
Emma’s new careers and deteriorating eyesight didn’t keep her from composing. In 1900, she wrote a two-act comic opera called The Man From Paris (featuring a libretto by author Margaret I. MacDonald, who by 1910 was Emma’s roommate, business partner, and potentially lover). In 1907/1908 The Burra Pundit, a three-act light opera, followed.
Two personal catastrophes occurred in the 1900s that held consequences for Emma’s professional life. In 1902, a New York warehouse fire destroyed some of her scores (including the copy of her childhood opera Aminaide) as well as many of her belongings. In 1907, her father died, and it was a messy business settling the estate. A widowed Frederick had remarried in 1891 and gained a stepdaughter. Initially he had planned to split his estate between Emma and his stepdaughter, but two years before his death, he added a codicil writing Emma out completely. Not surprisingly, after his death, Emma took the will to court, claiming that her stepsister had unduly influenced Frederick to change the will. The court disagreed and Emma emerged with nothing. (x) This was no small matter. She had originally stood to inherit something around $20,000 – $30,000, the modern equivalent to over half a million dollars. (x) It’s tempting to imagine that she would have used at least some of that money to stage her work.
Emma enjoyed a series of prestigious late-career appearances. In 1921 she presented a program of her own works at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The appearance garnered good reviews. But her crowning achievement was inarguably her appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1925, meant to mark her fifty years as a conductor. At that concert she led the overture to Fleurette, excerpts from The Burra Pundit and The Man From Paris, and a wartime work for orchestra called The Flag – Forever May It Wave, dedicated to her grandfather, among other pieces.
Income garnered from that appearance at the Met was funneled into Emma’s final passion project: caring for the downtrodden and disadvantaged. She and Margaret bought a rambling house together on Long Island with the aim of turning it into the first of a nationwide chain of homes for elderly and disabled musicians. She told The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1926:
It has been the inspiration of my life’s work to build a refuge for incapacitated musicians. Homes have been provided for the blind, for cripples, for Masons, for printers – for horses and dogs. But there is no place in the United States where poor, aged, or sick musicians may be comfortable and happy. My aim is such a home – and mind you, I mean home, not institution of charity – in every State in the Union. But it takes time – and money. But we have – art.
Emma Steiner passed away in February of 1929, having just turned 73. Her obituary in the New York Times suggests that the stress of founding the home had led to heart trouble.
It’s a damn shame that the Met Opera’s 2018/19 season features no work by women composers or conductors. It’s sad; it’s embarrassing; it’s frustrating. But until the programming changes, maybe we can look closer at the inspiring handful of women who have cracked the Met’s glass ceiling…and with gumption.
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If you want to learn more, here’s a list of sources:
“The Standard Operatics: Miss Steiner Horsewhips a Loch Haven Masher”, The Evening Leader, Wilkes Barre, PA; 27 June 1885
“Miss Steiner’s Happy New Year”, The Boston Post, Boston, MA; 29 December 1901
“Orchestra Leader 50 Years: Miss Steiner Starts First Building of Chain of Homes for Aged Musicians”, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Brooklyn, NY; 31 January 1926