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“Believed to be a witch”: An Examination of Female Agency in Smyth’s Der Wald

Amy Zigler
Professor Amy Zigler

“I feel I must fight for Der Wald … because I want women to turn their minds to big and difficult jobs.” Ethel Smyth wrote this in a 1902 letter to Henry Brewster as she was deciding to travel to the United States to oversee the production of Der Wald at the Met. It is a famous quote, foreshadowing her activism in the Suffrage movement. The strength and determination in this sentence are not only emblematic of Smyth herself but also of her female characters, and in particular the female characters in Der Wald [The Forest].

Der Wald has been less investigated than other Smyth works, perhaps in part because it only existed on paper; it has not been staged since 1904 and had not been heard for almost 120 years. In January 2023, I was invited to attend the world premiere recording of Der Wald at the BBC Studios in London, which was released in September. Hearing the work changed my perception of the characters; no longer were they good and evil, innocent heroine and malevolent witch; they were strong women with their own agency. Building upon the work of Wood, Lebiez, Gibbon, and Kertesz, and through an examination of the libretto situated in my experience of the music, I will discuss the ways in which Smyth created an opera that subverts traditional gender roles and that caused such a disconnect between critics’ expectations and their experiences that their only recourse was to declare it a failure. 


Dr. Amy Zigler serves as Associate Professor of Music at Salem College. Her research examines the socio-cultural implications of and (auto)biographical narratives in the music of the 19th and 20th centuries, with a focus on the life and music of Dame Ethel Smyth. Her publications include articles for The Opera Journal and the Journal of the International Alliance for Women in Music; chapters in the Nineteenth-Century Programme Music and Women Composers in New Perspectives, 1800-1950; forthcoming chapters with Boydell & Brewer and Cambridge University Press; and the biographical liner notes for the Grammy-winning recording of Smyth’s The Prison. Dr. Zigler has also been a guest blogger for the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, has served on the American Musicological Society’s Committee on Women and Gender, and helps maintain the website, Outside of the classroom and the archives, she can be found at the piano as a member of the Winnfield Quartet.