The Virtuosa Society: Interview with Founder Katie Harman—Part 1
By Elizabeth Gracen:
Katie Harman is an inquisitive creature, her lilting laugh and beauty-queen smile authentic, warm, and disarming. A blazing intellect and voracious curiosity have always fueled her pursuits in academics, music, performance, activism, and motherhood. A self-proclaimed "seeker," Harman's latest venture, The Virtuosa Society, is a creative vessel constructed to explore her interests in the history of female creativity while simultaneously offering support and encouragement to contemporary female artists around the world.
Raised in North Carolina, Harman returned to her native Oregon at an early age, where she studied ballet and voice, later receiving a degree in communications with an emphasis in bioethics. At the age of 21, Harman was crowned Miss Oregon 2001 and soon after won the title of Miss America 2002 just eleven days after the Twin Towers fell to a terrorist attack. Her professional singing career blossomed as she performed with international opera companies, musical theatre companies, and symphony orchestras. Amidst it all, she married a military pilot and raised a family in rural Oregon, juggling motherhood with an international career as an actress and singer.
Returning to graduate school for a masters in vocal performance with a concentration on vocal pedagogy, Harman soon became impassioned with the idea of uncovering the stories of forgotten female creatives in the world of classical composition. In her research she recognized a thread of common struggle strung through the stories of creative women throughout history, each stitch in time leading to the very real struggle of today's female creatives. The struggle continues, but Katie Harman is determined to do something about it through the Virtuosa Society.
I reached out to Katie to ask about her pursuits, passions, and hopes for the future of The Virtuosa Society!
Meet Katie Harman!
Elizabeth Gracen: Katie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your latest endeavor. Please tell our readers about the journey you’ve taken to uncover the hidden stories of female creatives in history and how it led you to create the Virtuosa Society.
Katie Harman: Thank you so much, Lizzie. It is an honor to be talking with you and the readers of Flapper Press. My journey to starting the Virtuosa Society was born in the library at the university I was attending during grad school. I had a ten-year gap between my undergraduate and my graduate studies because I gave birth to two children. I had a miscarriage during that time as well, I moved to a rural community—a farming community of 350 people. I was literally trying to figure out all of these next stages in my life as a military spouse, a wife, a mom, and a performer who was trying to figure out how to have a career in the classical community. It was not easy to do from a distance—especially from rural southern Oregon.
During those ten years, I was really searching for anything that remotely looked like the unusual circumstances of my own story. That was the fire that lit underneath me to go back to grad school, but then ultimately to ignite my search within classical music for stories about the female experience that were told by women, female composers, and performers. In grad school, my academic studies were entirely classical and opera, but I was auditioning and performing in various productions, for recitals, musical theatre, and opera. But within that vacuum, I discovered that I was not encountering any female composers. I wasn't encountering their names in anything. I wasn't encountering their stories. I wasn't encountering reference examples by these women. I knew they had to be out there, but they were not. They weren't to be found in the academic references and resources that I was being provided.
I distinctly remember the summer on the very last day of my first year of grad studies. It was as if a light switch was turned on in my brain. I was suddenly so curious to find these women, to find the composers, to find the performers, to find the stories of women written by women. So, throughout the summer, I started what I lovingly refer to as a musical archeological dig. I searched various websites and the university library system where you can search libraries all over the world for certain resources and then have it shipped to your own university.
When I returned back to classes for my second year of study, I was already fully immersed in this “dig.”
I was also starting a beautifully collaborative, enriching relationship with my professors, who were well-connected musicians themselves. One of my professors, Dr. Rhett Bender, was a colleague of the brilliant Grammy-winning composer Libby Larsen, who created the song cycle "Songs from Letters: Calamity Jane to Her Daughter Janey, 1800–1902." Rhett worked with Libby, and I performed the piece at my master's recital. That was my first encounter with music that I felt was a distinct mirror of the female experience.
From there, I found other pieces where the lyrics were written by women. The head of the graduate department, Terry Longshore, was also the head of the percussion department. He told me about a modern percussion composer named Andrew Beall, who had composed a percussion song cycle for marimba, vibraphone, and soprano based on the words from one of the 300 wives of King Solomon. It was all about love and loss and feeling unloved—which was something I could identify with from the female perspective. It was such an incredibly challenging piece because it was with percussion. I had always worked with stringed or wind instruments up until that experience, certainly not in a group environment where it was just my voice and percussion instruments. I worked alongside two other graduate students for that particular piece. I ended up putting together the songs from the letters, the percussion piece, and other pieces that I found that spoke to the female experiences, either penned by women or the lyrics written by women.
So, that was how the idea began for the Virtuosa Society. I wanted to go deeper. I wanted a richer experience. After I graduated in 2017, I just kept digging. I kept finding books and biographies, and the more that I dug for the names and stories of women in music, the more I found. One name led to another name.
I found a beautiful book by Dr. Anna Beer, who I have had the great pleasure of now interviewing for the Virtuosa Society podcast. Ironically, the same year that I graduated from grad school, I came upon her book Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music—a book about forgotten female composers. It could not have been a more perfect fit for what I was searching for. Dr. Beer documented the lives of eight different composers, and I poured over it—especially during the pandemic. I was basically homeschooling myself. I thought my life was totally going to change—and it did! During that phase, I had more time to explore and research, and I came back to that book. In it, I found things that I had missed the first time around about these women.
One of the most interesting women I read about was Francesca Caccini, who ironically had endured the plague of Florence and Luca, Italy, in 1630 and was quarantined for three years as a widow with two children. I remember when I reread that that the relevance had missed me the first time in 2017, because I really didn't know the horrors of what a plague was. I didn't know the horrors of quarantine, because we had never gone through anything like that! I remember just sitting there reading about her story again and just crying, having such empathy—really finally understanding her experience in 1630s Italy.
That summer in August 2020, I officially incorporated the name Virtuosa Society and planned my first concert, which I live-streamed in November 2020—wanting to connect with other women and wanting to tell these stories of collaboration. It was just this past year that my research led me to discover the stories of women who were hidden throughout the entire creative industry, not just in music. It prompted my decision to expand the vision of the Virtuosa Society and to tell the stories of women across the creative industry.
EG: This project has a handful of creative pillars to hold up a powerful mission to support and connect female artists across all mediums. Tell us more about the vital components that make the Virtuosa Society what you envision. What do you hope to accomplish with the endeavor? What are your biggest obstacles to bringing this beautiful, grand idea to fruition?
KH: The Virtuosa Society was founded to be a place for female creatives and entrepreneurs and thought leaders to develop community and connection at every stage of their career. And within that, there are three primary core values, or pillars, that the Virtuosa Society recognizes:
We recognize the unique, nonlinear journey of female creatives and feel strongly about highlighting the very specific challenges and opportunities that surround female creatives specifically.
We believe collaboration and access to community will help alleviate burnout, which is the number-one problem among female creatives. It will also help shift the perception paradigm surrounding creative life from being highly competitive and male driven and all or nothing to something so much more multifaceted, which we inherently know and experience as female creatives.
We believe that the output of female creatives is imperative for strengthening society.
These core values are centered within the product offerings in FOUR very distinct and unique ways: