When Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and an occasional pianist, proposed teaming up for Franz Schubert’s 70-minute Winterreise (Winter Journey), the mezzo-soprano superstar Joyce DiDonato had her doubts. Each of the cycle’s 24 songs is in its own way a station on a jilted lover’s descent into alienation. Again and again, he finds his state of mind reflected in images of wintry desolation: a weathervane whipped around in the wind, one last leaf trembling on a branch, a crow winging overhead. Not once does the poet Wilhelm Müller—a minor romantic who but for Schubert would be forgotten—abandon the wayfarer’s point of view. But what went wrong with his love affair? The wanderer never says, nor does he describe the heartbreaker he’d hoped to marry.
“To get straight to the point, this is no material for a woman.” Yes, I wrote those words in The New York Times 29 years ago. In those days the assessment wasn’t especially controversial. Now, with culture wars raging over gender and diversity, representation and appropriation, it’s anathema. For the record, of the hundreds of interpretations currently available on CD or to stream, at least a dozen are by women—singers illustrious and unknown, long gone and contemporary. According to the research of the musicologist Janet I. Wasserman, that selection barely scratches the surface.