sarah grange, 9 June 2015

I called this session because we had a lot of people comment on the lack of a female signatory on the event invitation. I felt this probably said something bigger about the opera industry. I’m a relative newcomer to working in opera, but am very aware of gender imbalance in theatre, so I was curious to find out about similarities and differences.

I’ve set this report out in 2 main parts. The problems, as the identified by the group, and some ideas about possible solutions. Comments, ideas and amendments all welcome.

I think quite a lot of what we talked about would also apply to BAME and disabled practitioners, so I recommend you read this with general diversity in mind.


Presence. There is a scarcity of female conductors, composers, directors and artistic directors. The biggest gap seemed to be female conductors and artistic directors, with composers and directors suffering more from lack of exposure. Wrapped up in this is the lack of female role-models, so young girls don’t see the potential for them to become conductors etc. This stifles longer-term possibilities for change. (“ they were all dead with big beards”).

Protagonists. Whilst opera does much better than theatre in terms of numbers of stories with female protagonists, or at least key female roles, many of those roles are the same story of damaged youth. There is also an almost total lack of meaty parts for older female singers. It was pointed out that since the arrival of HRT, women’s voices break at a much older age than previously, but the parts in the canon and in new work do not provide them with anything interesting to do beyond the age of about 40. We also noticed that opera has it’s own unique trope of lots of the best women’s roles in the canon being nuns.

Plots. We talked about the much wider issue of tedious storylines for women. Reduced, when we get a plot, to what Ellan terms “Vagedy” - storylines that revolve around whether the woman can/can’t/does/doesn’t have children, or who they may or may not have had sex with. There is a general plea across all narrative artforms that people start writing plots for women where they get to be real, complex, multi-dimensional humans, rather than vessels for male desires, stereotyping or neuroses.

Being defined by gender above talent. Female composers tend to get billed, promoted and critiqued as Female Composers, instead of just composers. Bjork has talked recently about the assumption that any man she’s been working with is responsible for technical innovation in her work, whilst she is only credited as the sort of kooky dream-pixie singer. In reality, she is the inventor/innovator/tech genius behind her own work. This issue is connected to the visibility issue. Is it possible to be visible as a creative woman in the industry without that becoming one’s only defining detail?

Stereotypes / prejudice. This came up particularly in regard to conductors. There is apparently a perception that women “move wrong” and are therefore unsuitable to conduct. In terms of writing, we talked about parallels with the theatre industry and Nicholas Hytner’s assertions that women can’t write big state-of-the-nation plays. There are also problems around perceptions of what a woman’s singing voice is capable of, or scores that don’t help or support a wider female vocal range. We touched also on the lack of female répétiteurs and the root of this being to do with something intrinsic about the way women play the piano.

Leadership. A male-led system based on competition and hierarchy seemed to be universal problem. (“I felt over-stepped” “Men help men”). This issue also encompassed ‘masculine’ leadership styles and how those might be detrimental to women.

We defined masculine leadership as: 

Telling people what to do

Linear hierarchical structures

Competitive approach trumping collaboration

Never being (seeming) unsure or asking questions

Maintaining a dominant position being more important than getting the most out of a team.

Motherhood. The perennial issue of child-care and the career gap that occurs when a woman has a child came up as well. Freelancer practitioners are particularly vulnerable to interrupted careers when they have children, since they lack the wider support system of an institution.


Presence. Create female ambassadors - decide to BE a female ambassador. Alice Farnham is already doing a lot of work around this for young conductors, running education programmes encouraging girls to conduct. Big companies and houses have a responsibility to the industry and the future of opera to seek out opportunities for training, mentoring, developing and educating the next generation of young women to be ambitious and successful in all areas of the industry. Programming with diversity in mind is also really important. Someone said that a famous female conductor brings in just as big a crowd as a famous male conductor, so there’s not a gender bias in the minds of the audience.

Protagonists and plot-lines. There is much easy, do-able action to be taken here. If you are a writer or composer, here are two great and super-simple things you can do to improve the parts you write for women.

Apply the Bechdel Test. Does your libretto/piece contain 1. Two or more NAMED female characters 2. Who have a conversation with each other 3. That is not about a man?

2. Employ Geena Davis’ 2-step process to your script: 1.Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. 2. When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.”

If you find yourself writing a female character whose only dilemmas or conflicts are to do with children or sex, consider writing a male character instead, then changing the name to a woman’s once you’re finished.

Put even simpler, notice that women are humans too.

Solutions for pieces from the canon could be transposing some male parts to female voices, or trying out gender-blind casting then adapting scores to support women to sing some lower parts without being drowned out. It might mean some extra work, but maybe - just maybe - we’re worth the effort..!!

Commissioning bodies can help by spotting what stories are not getting told, and commissioning new pieces that have parts for older female singers, or more women writers/composers. When the group was asked if women wanted to make large-scale work, there was a resounding YES.

Being defined by gender. We had some debate about whether the need to highlight the imbalance is more important that the desire for gender to be irrelevant. We didn’t come to a conclusion on this, as it’s really down to the individual artist. I’d suggest the following: If you’re writing the marketing for a piece, or a review of a piece, or even just talking about a piece, notice if you’re defining the gender of members of the creative team. Ask yourself - is that relevant? Is that helpful? Maybe ask the person themselves - if they’re around - whether they want to be marketed on their gender above their talent? It may be that they do - they might really like to be a gender-ambassador - but don’t assume it’s the only interesting thing about their work.

Critics should be aware of the tendency for a man to be critiqued as an individual artist, whereas a women gets critiqued as representing all women. This is deeply unhelpful. A famous actress once said that when a man fails, he fails as an individual, but when a woman fails, she fails for all women.

Stereotypes & prejudice. Maybe the conductor doesn’t move wrong, maybe you read wrong? Maybe, instead of demanding they adapt to your expectations, try adapting to their direction? You might end up making some really good, fresh, music.

Look at how the skills are taught in the problem areas. The fault may well lie in the training methods or institutes. We talked about the blockage for female choreographers lying in the fact that female ballet dancers train/rehearse for far longer hours than male ballet dancers. This means the men have more time to practice choreography when away from production rehearsals and develop their own style.

There are fewer female choreographers because they simply don’t have the time to develop that skill. Identifying this imbalance means work is starting to happen around supporting female dancers to find time for personal practice. Are there similar issues for other female professionals? Is there something in the training of répétiteurs that favours men, and means they go on to conduct more easily? Can we collectively start to notice and address these areas?

We also talked about the need to get people to notice their unconscious bias. The culture of male-dominance is, well, dominant, so we have to keep our eyes open for when it’s getting in the way, spot it, and name it as a way of retraining ourselves. Men don’t see the barriers, because they don’t have to overcome them. It’s everyone’s problem - this culture is limiting for men as well.

We touched on what the audience can do to support women in the industry, and the fact that the opera audience is weighted in towards men, whilst the ballet audience is more female. What do audiences want or mind? Is there a way for these two groups to work together?

The big debate of the session was about QUOTAS. Alexia was firmly in favour of them as a way to start getting better equality - feeling that you have to force organisations to deal out opportunity equally to change the underlying culture. Once the concept is embedded, it should look after itself. She saw this work when growing up in South Africa, where university quotas were a fast and effective way of shifting culture towards equality. John saw quotas as unhelpful, risking artists being exposed before they were ready, and therefore causing more harm than good. He favours targets with KPIs attached as a better way to shift culture. I think we all agreed that whether targets or quotas were used, the important element was mentoring so that the artist is ready for the critical exposure and able to be creatively bold whilst feeling supported.

We noticed that for directors, there is a new generation of women working their way up already, and this will begin to make a real difference in the next 10 years or so. It’s not the same for conductors, but Alice Farnham will hopefully start to make a difference if properly supported. For performers, we noticed that, whilst men with big voices can join the chorus in spear-carrying roles and work their way up, women with big voices are deemed less desirable, and there aren’t so many good chorus roles for women, making it harder for female singers to get the same kind of apprenticeship and work towards principle roles.

This leads on to another general area where organisations can really help - platforms for new work. To get better, we have to be able to take creative risks, make mistakes and get constructive feedback without risking careers.The big houses and companies can really help us fail safely and usefully by providing scratch/ Work-in-progress arenas without financial risk. The Tete-a-Tete Festival is an amazing platform for new work and trying out early-stage ideas, but as a small company, they don’t have the means to cover some of the big costs of staging operatic work, which can make it difficult for new, unfunded artists to use the festival to best effect. Can bigger companies like ROH or ENO help to bridge that gap by providing scratch nights for collections of new shorts where, for example, musicians and tech are paid for, leaving writers/composers/directors/conductors free to experiment with staging, form and for singers to challenge themselves vocally? This will make it easier for emerging artists to build a CV, and therefore get funding to move up to show work at the Tete-a-Tete festival, and so on.

So, in brief!:

Organistations / Institutions:

Look at the make-up of your own teams/departments and productions and be aware of embedded bias.

Commission new work that creates the missing roles and tells women’s stories intelligently.

Regularly support, develop and employ women as writers, composers, conductors and directors.

Work with training bodies to encourage the next generation of female artists.

If you are a national organisation, receiving public subsidy, you have an even greater responsibility to produce work that speaks to the nation in all its diversity. Take that responsibility seriously and as a matter of priority. You are imagining the world we will live in.


Write real, interesting and complex women of all ages, races, creeds and colours.


Notice the barriers, if if they're not affecting you personally

Notice your own prejudices

Keep challenging the status quo.

Keep demanding more.

I’m going to carry on calling sessions on women's issues in the arts until I hold a session where more men than women turn up.

This is everyone’s problem, and everyone is part of the solution.


Gender, Women, gender, singing, Diversity, composers, Writers, writers, feminism, Opera, Composers, protagonists, women, Feminism, diversity, prejudice, men, conductors, opera

Comments: 3

sarah grange, 10 June 2015

Here's a timely article from Lyn Gardner on quotas in theatre:

Alexia A, 10 June 2015

Thanks Sarah. I have to say I was nonplussed (stunned actually) by this argument that quotas won't work for gender equality because women aren't ready (I'm paraphrasing, but essentially, that was how I read the argument). Really? There isn't any woman anywhere who would be ready to, say, develop work for the Linbury Studios, or direct, or conduct a production at ENO, etc? Seems very unlikely, but in any event you won't change the world without taking a few risks.

Just to add: I don't think quota's are a magic bullet, but an necessary part of the mix. (Sadly in South Africa, much work still to be done. But there is also much that would not have been achieved by just sitting around waiting for gatekeepers to evolve their thinking).

Catherine Kontz, 11 June 2015