Classical Singer: UC grad harnesses girl power

Stage director Jennifer Williams discusses how to create empowered portrayals of women in opera

Classical Singer Magazine profiled University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music graduate Jennifer Williams for her dynamic portrayals of women on the operatic stage.

As a stage director, Williams (AD Opera Stage Directing, '12) strives to "ditch the damsel in distress act" that female protagonists often carry and, instead, tap into the characters with a fresh approach while staying true to the context of the story.

A headshot of Jennifer Williams

Jennifer Williams.

“Opera has a lot of baggage," Williams told Classical Singer. "It carefully branded itself to be exclusive, and that’s still a seed that it carries. I think now in the 21st century, we’re starting to fight back against that and to change that narrative to try to make it more inclusive. That includes women and the multiplicity of what it means to be a woman."

“I would love to see more roles about and for women of color, transsexual women, women across socioeconomic positions and different stories about women,” she adds. “Frequently, there’s a tendency to portray women as an emotional vessel in opera and, obviously, women are far more than that. Why not have an opera about women scientists, women in political leadership positions, women doing all of the innovative things that women indeed do?” 

Acclaimed by The San Francisco Chronicle as an imaginative director of particular ingenuity, Williams was recently recognized for her experimental and innovative work by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. A Fulbright Scholar, she is known as an innovator in multimedia, immersive and site-specific approaches to opera.

She made her New York directorial debut in 2018, leading the stage production of Backwards from Winter during the New York Opera Fest. The operatic monodrama features music composed by CCM Norman Dinerstein Professor of Composition Scholar Douglas Knehans and a libretto by Juanita Rockwell. 

Backwards from Winter explores a single woman's reflection on love and grief after she loses her partner in an automobile crash. It uses live voice, live electronic/computer music and video streams to trace the unnamed woman's past year with her beloved. Other directors chose to invent a husband character as a looming presence in the opera, but Williams chose to focus on the woman's own grief rather than a conflict with her partner. She also didn't specify a husband character, so she could keep the story more inclusive.

Read more about Williams' work in Classical Singer Magazine.  

Feature image at the top: A production image of Backwards from Winter. Photo/

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