The Royal Opera House (ROH) will once again be hosting its Engender Festival, a special programme of live and online events that looks at gender imbalance in opera, as well as highlighting the work of women and minority genders in the artform.

The week-long event takes place from 12-17 July 2021. It comprises talks and debates, operas in progress, concerts and workshops, with an unmissable line-up of artists, writers, composers, directors and more.

The centrepiece of the festival is a series of three operas-in-progress sessions taking place in Clore Studio. These will offer an insight into the very start of making an opera, with audiences hearing from the artists about how their ideas emerge and develop.

In the first session, on 12 July, interdisciplinary writer Maria Fusco will discuss History of the Present, a hybrid working-class opera that explores the resonances and legacies of the peacelines in Northern Ireland. With dramaturg Jude Christian, Fusco will explore how socio-political issues can act as compelling subject matter, while shaping the creation process of the opera itself from its earliest stages.

Writer Nadifa Mohamed and composer Nina Whiteman will present The Fortune Men on 14 July. Set in post-war, industrial Tiger Bay, Cardiff, in the 1950s, this is the true story of a mixed-race couple wrenched apart by unjust circumstances. Based on Mohamed’s novel of the same name, the narrative is told through a rich variety of musical influences covering calypso, sea shanties, Jewish cantors and Welsh male voice choirs. This opera in progress explores how to translate ideas from page to stage.

“Writing the lyrics to an opera was like leaping into a fast-flowing river. I’ve learned a lot, got overwhelmed a few times, but have found myself, happily, in new territory,” Mohamed commented. “Allowing The Fortune Men to take on a new form has given it a renewed life and it has been wonderful taking such a solitary novel into the collaborative and noisy world of opera. I can’t wait to reveal what Nina and I have developed to the audience at the Engender Festival.”

The final opera-in-progress session, taking place on 16 July, will look at Lambs – an opera that takes the form of a podcast, being developed by director Daisy Evans and composer Laura Bowler. Audiences will listen through headphones to a host processing the lives of three fictional women incarcerated for the murder of their children. Combining live performance with pre-recorded soundscape and electronics, this is the first time opera has been experienced or created in this way.

Headlining the festival on 16 and 17 July is Mami Wata. This special programme has been curated by Pegasus Opera, a company dedicated to providing opportunities for artists from diverse backgrounds.

Conceived by the company’s Artistic Director Alison Buchanan, who also performs in the show, Mami Wata comprises varied works from a range of established composers such as Bushra El-Turk and Errollyn Wallen, alongside music by Nkeiru Okoye, Lettie Beckon Alston, Dorothy Rudd Moore and Nahla Mattar. It includes UK premieres of previously unheard work, giving voice to new pieces from trailblazing composers.

Directed by T D Moyo, the works are performed by sopranos Buchanan and April Koyejo-Audiger and mezzo-sopranos Camille Maalawy and Simone Ibett-Brown.

Buchanan said: “Mami Wata is monumental and groundbreaking. It brings together female artists to celebrate the vocal works of diverse female composers. It is an introduction to a rich, varied, yet often unheard-of body of work. It reflects the huge shift in consciousness when it comes to diversity and inclusion. To have Mami Wata at ROH, world leaders in opera, is significant. Thirty years ago, I was the first Black British woman to give a solo recital in the ROH crush bar after winning the Maggie Teyte. This time I share the stage as I honour and celebrate amazing women composers.”

A series of digital events will also run throughout the week. Two Insights will be streamed for free on ROH’s YouTube channel. On 12 July classical music journalist Alexandra Coghlan, Alison Buchanan and soprano Kate Royal will explore the theme of ‘gatekeeping’ in opera and how it manifests.

The second, on 14 July, will study gender barriers through a different lens, as part of the Shubbak Festival, and supported by the British Council. The discussion is chaired by Theresa Ruth Howard, a dance teacher and journalist, former dancer and curator and founder of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. She is joined by artistic leaders from South Africa and Egypt to discuss gender equality.

Practical Zoom workshops will cover such topics as how to pitch yourself, led by Ilene Bergelson, founder of Empower Speak, and managing imposter syndrome, led by Lyndsey Oliver, coach and author of Why all Fish are Biased.

Tickets for the operas-in-progress sessions and Mami Wata are available from ROH’s website.



The Royal Opera House’s Engender Festival will celebrate women working in opera while shining a light on gender imbalances in the industry.