They Should Know Who Olga Neuwirth Is

The pandemic overshadowed and distracted us from a truly historic achievement. Well, Olga Neuwirth is an accomplished composer who has written many works including the operas: Lost Highway, American Lulu, and Orlando. I interviewed her on October 30th, 2020 at the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna. She “…grew up in a ’68 hippie family with only artists” and was born in 1968 in Graz, Austria. She called herself “a punk from the countryside.” The “punk” grew up playing mainly trumpet, before she had a car accident on the day she got her braces removed, causing a broken jaw and thus the end of her trumpet career. Olga also learned piano, but had a “… problem in [her] brain coordinating [her] left and right hand”. When she wanted to play a black key, she would play a white key. Thankfully, she was the drummer in her punk band, which helped correct the issue. In her punk band, she also played a little electric guitar.

I asked Olga who her biggest inspirations were growing up. She responded with the Beastie Boys, Patti Smith, Luigi Nono, and Miles Davis. The first two artists show her youth, punk, and rebellious side. Olga met Nono four times. The first time was in Vienna when he was the composer in residence at the Wiener Konzerthaus. She was a student and as a fan curious for knowledge walked up to him to ask him questions. The second time was while Olga was a student in Aix-en-Provence studying in a music program, which, she said, was Nono’s last workshop. Her main professor was Nono. The last two times were in Venice. The Miles Davis inspiration came from her father being a jazz musician and her passion for trumpet: “I wanted to be a female Miles Davis.”

Through her inspirations and circumstances, Olga found herself on the composer track almost accidentally. She originally wanted to be a trumpet player and in her punk band “…played drums like Eddie Funk, but more like Eddie Punk.” After her car accident, she was out of school for a while. When she returned, Hans Werner Henze, a German composer, came to her village looking for young musicians for his project he had at the time, to show the creativity in everyone. Olga did not want to join the project, but as a gifted musician who just lost her favorite instrument, her teacher made her join. This project started Olga’s path to become a composer. After the project, at age 16, she went to school in San Francisco for a year. At the time, she was not sure whether she wanted to go into film, composition, or painting. At San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she studied composition, but at the Art School of San Francisco Bay she studied film and painting. After life in San Francisco became too expensive, she returned to Austria having chosen composition.

Building on her musical inspirations, I asked Olga what inspired the opera Orlando musically, besides the book written by Virginia Wolf. She reiterated her diverse musical background. She studied and was around music and musicians of classical, jazz, and punk backgrounds. This instilled a way of thinking in her mind; “[I] was never about borders of what is the “right” music.” Her musical identity is made up of parts that together make a whole. In Orlando, the character is a male writer who becomes a woman overnight, but dresses like a man as well. “Orlando goes through these centuries: for [Orlando] it’s about the history of writing more, for me, also the history of music.” She remembered her talks with Nono and what she had learned from his music: “how to combine past and present.” Like Nono she wanted to never be in a box that is “why he went to other countries to hear other music… and see traditions from other cultures. He was always curious and open. There’s not one canon of what is the right music.”

Just like bringing genres together, Olga has brought people together with her choice of works. Today’s culture is becoming very inclusive, particularly with gender and sexual identities. This is a huge topic in Orlando and thus for Olga “the second interest” in her life; “if there are no boundaries in music, there are no boundaries [on] how you would like to live, who you consider yourself, who you are.” While living in San Francisco, Olga had many friends who did not identify as straight and many who had AIDS. She participated in many protests in the area, including one over the murder of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in Californian history. From a young age, she was always a proponent for diversity in life and gender decisions. Olga wanted to show the plight of a transgender person in Orlando, but also the struggle for a woman to be equal to a man in life, as a writer, and as an artist. Women have been degraded and dissuaded from pursuing their passions. The patriarchal society that we live in supports a man’s climb to the top, but not a woman’s fight. Orlando was written and chosen in small part due to its humor, but mainly to show a parallel from Olga’s hardships making it as a female composer/writer to Orlando’s story of adversity.

Even though Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando became the first opera created by a woman to be performed in the 150+ year history of the Wiener Staatsoper, she has still faced the troubles of the music industry. I asked her what she would continue to do for future women in future generations to help them overcome the patriarchal oppression she has endured: “There’s still a lot of things to do” she said, “but maybe it’s not for my generation anymore. The next generation has to fight. I was really going into desert land.” Olga has done so much for future women just by continuing her work. She has become a role model for young women who want to go into the arts. But her lack of knowledge on what to do next troubled me. It seemed as if the industry had worn her out, but mainly, there are still a blinding number of obstacles left to move out of the way, as evidenced by Olga’s publishers and the Wiener Staatsoper, who told her to rewrite Orlando due to the experimental music and subject matter. She, of course, refused. Usually an opera created by a composer of her stature would be asked to return for more performances before it is ever played. Olga was told “…we have to see if it is a success.”

Orlando went on to be a success. It was performed in December 2019 for five sold out nights. Afterwards, she was then again asked to rewrite the opera. She said, “if you write it the right way we might perform you,” mocking the patriarchal society, those who told her to rewrite the opera, and what they had told her. Even with these battles she still has been able to push boundaries and bring people together.

Olga is very passionate about mixing genres, which she believes is the way for music to evolve. Opera is becoming much less popular for today’s youth. Younger people, in general, do not go to the opera. But Orlando got many people of the younger generations to go see the opera. It drew a non-traditional audience. The older and more classical-music-minded people did not like the second half very much, but that was the favorite of the “new-comers.” “This could be the future of opera,” Olga said about mixing genres. I pointed out how Arnold Schönberg held his Skandalkonzert, which debuted his atonal music in 1913. The concert resulted in tomatoes being thrown and subsequently a riot breaking out. “Whenever you start something you have obstacles. Just as Schönberg and Nono… you immediately run against the wall of 100+ years of petrified minds who think this is the right way to do something.” Olga kept hammering this sentiment to me: “You can’t go back!” This is something Olga Neuwirth has done her whole life and is a part of her identity: “it’s me. This is my life.” I asked her to elaborate on how she gained this attitude and stuck with it early in her career when most artists are pushed into becoming more mainstream. “I wasn’t taken seriously; I had to fight to be taken seriously,” she said. “I was considered the young fool, but I was freer to do things… I didn’t have a teacher and wasn’t in a school.” That second part surprised me, so I asked her to further explain: “I could try out more things than I can try out now, because I have this name or whatever. You get these stupid labels. I’m not interested in these labels.” Most artists when they start are pressured by the industry to be something they are not, so that the music is more easily listenable and commercially successful. “They try to put you in this drawer.” Olga’s journey is more unique, but not entirely bizarre. She had freedom to show her own style, but now that she has made it, she is asked to conform to the publishers and others (who are a part of the industry) who want her to continue to be successful for their own monetary gain. “Sometimes the fool is allowed to say even the worst things to the king. No one is allowed to say these things to the king or person in power, except for the fool.” Olga used such a great metaphor. The up-and-coming musician is very much like a jester to the rest of the industry. One that tries something different must be mistaken. However, the strongest part of the metaphor is that the industry thinks they can trick or manipulate the fool.

This brought up a similar situation with Dave Chappelle. Dave Chappelle turned down $50 million from Comedy Central because he thought that was below his value, but mainly because of the creative freedom he wanted. I mentioned to Olga how he “fled” to South Africa as a result, to which she responded “yah, clever.” “They try to put you in their drawer, which was never your life or why you started something” she continued. Dave Chappelle recently won this battle against the industry. His new video entitled Redemption Song depicted why he left Comedy Central and how after asking the public not to watch Chappelle’s Show, Comedy Central paid him millions of dollars and gave him the rights to his name and likeness back. “You have to have a lot of strength to fight against it, otherwise you are just captured and not who you are anymore.” Thankfully, Olga and Dave are strong.

Another lively topic in today’s world was, and is, artists owning their masters. Kanye West has been a huge activist in this field and Taylor Swift recently rerecorded an album (planning more) because her masters were sold without her being given a chance to match or beat the offer.[1] Artists in the United States earn 12% of the overall revenue made by the music industry.[2] That is the lowest percentage of any profession comparatively. I asked Olga if she owned her masters. She responded with the story of trying the get everyone’s contracts and shares correct for Orlando. The publishers, DVD companies and Wiener Staatsoper demanded most of the rights, but the musicians, stage hands, advertisement firms, etc. all demanded a piece. It took her months to get everything settled because there were too many people involved. “There’s too much pressure from different sides.” They all expect artists to agree to every demand because of the passion the artist has for their work. The artist wants to display their work, so they are more likely to compromise in order to get the art seen. The industry knows artists like Olga believe “corporations cannot be part of the creative process,” so they make absurd requests in ownership knowing the artist will compromise for this purpose. “[Artists] just want to compose, [they] have other things to worry about than contracts.” For an artist, the music is very personal: “Music is inside.” The artist wants control of what comes out of them and their emotions; “it’s in your brain and you have to bring it into a quantified system… in a way, it is artificial… and then you give it to someone else. Then you are dependent on if they like it, it is incredibly exhausting.”

Olga’s favorite operas of all time are all political pieces, which further solidifies her musical and social identity to fight for creative freedom and just movements. My final question for Olga was what her favorite operas of all time were. She responded with “Moses und Aron” by Arnold Schönberg, “Al gran sole carico d’amore” by Luigi Nono, “Die Soldaten” by Bernd Alois Zimmerman, and “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” by Helmut Lachenmann. All of these serve a political and social message. “Something I learned from Nono, but also a little from Henze, is to stand up for what’s right, speak up against what’s wrong.” Olga wanted to reiterate the importance of creative freedom. I brought up the Shut up and Dribble movement in the United States, which was started after Laura Ingraham, a Fox News TV host, told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” Olga had a similar situation: “a publisher once told me I should shut up otherwise they would kick me out. I used this line in Orlando.” After acknowledging my shocked face, she continued, “I haven’t become an artist to shut up!” One of her publishers wanted her to sign a contract that stipulates certain topics she was not allowed to discuss. “How can I sign a contract that says I’m not allowed to say anything?” She understood that the companies are scared of liability or a failed investment, but questioned the importance; “they want to be secure, I don’t know why they are so afraid!” One would think that a company would understand they are talking to a passionate artist. They ask for the artist to agree to things that compromise their integrity, out of leverage, but as Olga said, “they should know who I am.”

[1] Tsioulcas, Anastasia. “Look What They Made Her Do: Taylor Swift To Re-Record Her Catalog.” NPR, NPR, 22 Aug. 2019,

[2] Wang, Amy X. “Musicians Get Only 12 Percent of the Money the Music Industry Makes.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 8 Aug. 2018,