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Olga Neuwirth's bold gender-bending opera has won the Grawemeyer Award

Olga Neuwirth
Priska Ketterer
Courtesy of the University of Louisville
Olga Neuwirth

Olga Neuwirth, a groundbreaking Austrian composer and multimedia artist known for the technical virtuosity and elemental power of her work, is the newest recipient of one of classical music's most prestigious and lucrative honors. On Monday, Neuwirth was announced as the winner of the 2022 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, which includes $100,000. She was recognized for her opera Orlando, which had its world premiere at the Vienna State Opera in December 2019—the first opera composed by a woman ever to be mounted by that venerable company.

Neuwirth co-authored the opera's libretto with Catherine Filloux, inspired by Virginia Woolf's novel of the same title. The novel, concerning a young male poet in 16th-century England who mysteriously transforms into a woman, deals with gender fluidity in a prescient and timely way.

"I wanted to reflect the wonderful diversity of life and evoke a subtle form of sexual attraction that cannot be pigeonholed into a single gender," Neuwirth said in a press statement provided by the University of Louisville. "What's more, the main character refuses to be patronized and treated in a condescending manner, something that continually happens to women with no end in sight."

In fashioning the sound world for Orlando, Neuwirth called upon enormous forces for a polyglot score ranging from Tudor balladry to punk rock and electronic noise. As staged in Vienna, the opera also included a brassy tour de force spotlight number for the transgender cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond, billed as "Orlando's child."

"Orlando is an enormous, supremely ambitious work," Marc Satterwhite, who directs the Grawemeyer music award, said in a press statement. "The libretto and multifaceted score challenge our preconceptions of gender and sexual roles and test our ideas of what opera is and is not. It also seems appropriate that the first female-composed opera to be performed at the Vienna State Opera, a venue long regarded as a bastion of tradition, should take aim at these issues."

The prize was announced this morning by the University of Louisville, which sponsors the award. Former winners include Pierre Boulez, John Adams, Thomas Adès and Andrew Norman. Neuwirth is the fourth woman composer to claim the prize, previously awarded to Joan Tower, Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin.

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Steve Smith