Opera’s Gender Problem: Diversity And The Battle For Relevance

The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London
The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London
qualtroughpic    By Edward Qualtrough

The Royal Opera House’s new season opens on September 14 on its main stage, with Juan Diego Florez starring in the lead role of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice alongside sopranos Lucy Crowe and Amanda Forsythe. By the time the Il Travatore cast take their final bow to close the 2016 season next July, 150 male soloists and 87 women will have performed in named singing roles from works by 20 male composers.

Excluding each chorus and beyond the 37% representation of female singers, women will make up 15% of directors (three of 20) while all 25 conductors will have been male at the most heavily-subsidised arts institution in the UK.

Down the road at the Coliseum, over the course of 2015-16 the slimmed down English National Opera season will see eight male directors produce works by eight male composers, something picked up on by the theatre and opera director Ella Marchment. Female singers will get the opportunity to perform 35% of solo roles on the biggest stage in the West End, while two of the eight conductors will be women.

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The situation is not much different from the 2014-15 season at London’s two premier opera houses; men accounted for 66% of singing roles, all 31 composers, 92% of directors and 93% of conductors.

The Bechdel Test – does opera have a gender problem?

Since 2010 I will have seen circa 50 operas; in that period I have only seen two female conductors and am yet to see a female composer’s work put on. Furthermore, only a handful of productions I have seen have a cast – excluding chorus – where female representation on stage is equal to that of men for solo singing roles; Xerxes, Il Travatore, Suor Angelica, and indeed Il Trittico as a whole. (N.B. I have seen far more overwhelmingly male choruses than gender balanced). And I dread to think how many of those operas pass film and theatre’s Bechdel Test, where two named women are featured talking to each other about something other than a man.

Singers who are female get to perform some of the greatest roles in the genre, but it seems in the numbers game female singers still get a bum deal when it comes to landing roles on the world’s biggest stages, with around two-thirds of parts written for the male voice. The Royal Opera House even seems to have recognised this implicitly in its latest crop of Jette Parker Young Artists – six of whom are men compared to four women – while with six women and five men making up the ENO Harewood Artists there is little acknowledgement that the four sopranos and two mezzos will be scrapping for a far smaller pool of parts than their male colleagues.

Lessons from the theatre industry

In 2013 Lucy Kerbel wrote 100 Great Plays for Women, a book which has been a top 10 National Theatre Bookshop bestseller ever since its publication. The director of Tonic Theatre, an organisation that supports the industry to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and repertoires, she was tired of hearing the trite responses of artistic directors at the UK’s biggest theatres that their programmes were so male-dominated because there ‘weren’t any good plays for women’.

But, Kerbel asked: has anybody bothered to check?

Starting with a goal of 20 plays which she considered great, the project soon escalated into the form which would eventually turn into a book and English language reference of works where women not only have half of the roles, but also take an equal or decisive role in driving the action on the stage – and is in some ways a reappraisal of and antidote to the traditional theatrical canon.

So, has anybody bothered to check?

Thankfully, yes they have – the sources are there to learn about work by female composers many of us haven’t been given the opportunity to discover at live music venues.

To coincide with International Women’s Day earlier this year, the Guardian’s Tom Service put together his list of 10 best operas by women. Providing an alternative journey through opera history, Service explains that it simply isn’t true that the operatic canon does not include work written by composers who happen to be female – many of which Service described as ‘shamefully unknown and underperformed’.

As evidence Service mentions the Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy’s list of 500 operas by women. You can see the full list here, a painstaking compilation which includes 59 operas by English composers in its 517-strong list. Not all of these will satisfy the likes of Service and budding Kerbels with their personal and subjective ‘greatness’ vetting, but it would be nice to think that somebody at the better-funded opera houses is investigating some of these.

What next?

Discussing the BBC Proms and Auntie’s decision to host an Ibiza Prom as part of a broader temple of music, Simon wrote on this blog at the start of September:

Its huge scale ensures it remains an overwhelmingly classical affair, and the fact that the BBC’s backing means it can afford to risk dabbling in new areas – with no guarantee it will pay off – undoubtedly means that it should. […] My personal ideal for the Proms is to have more risk, more diversity, more creativity about realising the potential of classical music to be relevant to everyone, while exploring interesting connections.

I can’t think of many good reasons why an interpretation of the above ‘strategy’ cannot be translated to diversity commitments of the Royal Opera House and English National Opera, perhaps sanitised against there being “no guarantee it will pay off” with caveats justifying that predominantly public money is being spent on the right things and for the right reasons. ROH alone is pulling in £75 million in Arts Council England funding for the next three years up to 2018, and, despite sitting in the arts equivalent of special measures, the oft-recalcitrant ENO is still one of the most heavily taxpayer-funded arts bodies in the UK, receiving £30.5 million over the next two years.

At risk of sounding like a feminist Rupert Christiansen, it’s unacceptable that on the whole the public are funding the programmes devised by middle-aged white men, who are generally commissioning white and male directors and conductors to put on the great works by white men, which predominantly feature male voices. Their combined 2015-16 numbers speak for themselves: 100% male composers, 96% male conductors, 89% male directors and 64% male singers. I refuse to believe these numbers are a meritocratic reflection of the talent in the industry.

Final thoughts – diversity as part of opera’s struggle for relevance

A narrative runs that opera has been engaged in a ubiquitous battle for relevance for some time. But if opera stands a chance of truly engaging those it claims to covet, it will be through diversity of ideas, diversity of leadership and diversity of repertoire. In many areas we should applaud ROH and ENO, and thank Arts Council England for supporting their work, in outreach programmes, social media engagement with younger audiences, live streams and ticket deals. But with opera competing with a host of other art forms for life-giving scraps of funding as public sector bodies across the board deal with savage cuts, these measures are really just applying lipstick to the pig.

Often it seems like opera houses are repeating the same experiments year after year and expecting different results and audiences. Real engagement is more than trotting out a quasi-hip young European director to throw some sexual violence into your latest production, before high-fiving the senior leadership team and crowing in the media about how much they have educated the public about the true horror of rape and introduced opera to a new audience.

Opera needs to have frank discussions about its repertoires, its audiences, and the diversity of those in the industry both on and off stage. It’s already happening in other sectors and as a largely subsidised body opera should not be immune; we should be asking why having a Y chromosome gives artists a significantly greater chance of employment. Opera’s problems won’t be solved by a group of over-priced management consultants conducting a SWOT analysis as the last of the ENO transition grant ebbs away, and it might even require a root-and-branch re-imagination. After all, there’s only so much lipstick you can use before you have to take a closer look at the pig.

Read more about opera on Corymbus:

A New Revolution In Music: Gossec’s Sabinus

Edward Qualtrough is a journalist and editor covering business and technology with a particular interest in diversity and organisational culture. A former sports journalist, Edward is also an opera enthusiast, musical gormandizer, and vinyl collector. He loves both the English National Opera and Royal Opera House, and tweets semi-regularly about opera and music. 

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