There has been increasing focus on gender inequality in the cultural and creative industries in recent years, and the role of women in opera has come under scrutiny. From composers and conductors to designers and directors, women are under-represented at all levels, artistically, technically and administratively, in opera. In fact, a recent study by Dr Caitlin Vincent, Amanda Coles and Dr Jordan Beth Vincent found that, over 15 seasons at the Royal Opera, 90% of all opera productions were credited to a male director.
That’s a pretty shocking statistic. But surely those 15 seasons were some time last century, and things have improved in the 21st? No, the study analysed the production credits of 325 operas staged between 2005-06 and 2019-20. The study also found that, of the male-directed productions, only a quarter had women in two or more key creative roles. By contrast, 81% of the female-led works featured women in two or more such roles.
The stage director is pretty much in charge of the whole production. They oversee all elements of the production to make sure they work together. They are one of the principal interpretive voices and decision makers alongside the musical director. The stage director approves costuming, lighting, sets, scenery, blocking and much more. So it’s very significant that the role is mainly taken by men.
In fairness to the Royal Opera, in 2019 it signed up to the Keychange 50/50 initiative, pledging that women would make up 50% of all creative roles on new opera productions by 2022. But as Dr Vincent’s research shows, there’s a lot to do. And it’s not just the Royal Opera, or confined to the role of stage director, either. Gender disparity exists across the board.
Similar research from equality organisation SWAP’ra – which stands for Supporting Women and Parents in Opera – looked at mainstage productions of 16 major UK companies over the 2018-19 season. It considered gender distribution across six roles: director, conductor, composer, librettist, designer and lighting designer.
Overall, just over 82% of all roles across all companies went to men. The difference was most stark in composers: only 1% of productions for all companies across the entire season were composed by women. Librettists were close behind: just under 9% of the operas were written by women. The most even parity was in designers, 46% were female. Interestingly, costume design is one area where women are well represented, according to Dr Vincent.
Why does this huge imbalance exist? A lot of it comes down to tradition: opera has historically been very male dominated. It’s a centuries-old artform from a time when women weren’t allowed to take up professional positions, control their own money, publish their own music, or even enter certain public spaces. At various points in history women were even banned from performing on stage.
In many ways it’s not surprising that there are so few female composers in history, it’s more impressive that there are any at all. Women wrote music against all the odds, but their compositions were rarely played outside of the parlour and remained unpublished – or published under a male relative’s name.
The women composers who did manage to publish their work under their own name are few and far between. Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn come to mind. But then there’s Anna Maria Mozart, older sister of the much more famous Wolfgang Amadeus. A child composer and performer just like her brother, she was banned from performing by her father when she turned 18. None of her works were published and all have been lost.
Female composers and musicians at least had the opportunity to perform their works in the safety of their own homes, but there was no outlet for potential women conductors, impresarios, directors and so on – women simply weren’t welcome.
But there’s really no excuse that this still happens in the 21st century. Something that exacerbates the situation is ‘the canon’. This is essentially the greatest hits of opera, repeated every season at opera houses around the world. The very existence of the canon is sexist – not to mention racist. It means that a limited number of works are prioritised over all others – works that are invariably written by white, Western men.
Let’s look at some statistics. In the 2016-17 season, the five most performed operas around the world were Carmen (1875, Bizet), La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896, Puccini), La traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853, Verdi), Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791, Mozart) and Tosca (1900, Puccini). The top five composers were Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, Rossini and Donizetti. In 2017-18, these were La traviata, Carmen, Die Zauberflöte, Tosca and La bohème, and Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, Rossini and Donizetti.
In 2018-19: La traviata, Carmen, Die Zauberflöte, La bohème and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904), and Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Rossini and Bizet. And 2019-20: La traviata, La bohème, Carmen, Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville, 1816, Rossini) and Die Zauberflöte; and Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti. I’m sure you can see the pattern emerging here …
I’m deliberately avoiding the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons because it can be argued that these were forced to concentrate on the big ticket productions due to limits on audience numbers and so on due to Covid-19 restrictions. But this neatly illustrates the problem – why are all those productions thought of as ‘big ticket’ by white, Western men? Dead white, Western men, for that matter.
This is significant for several, connected reasons. First, if a handful of (white, male) composers are considered worthy of repeat productions, then others (female, Black, Asian, and so on) won’t even get a look in. But also, going back to Dr Vincent’s research, those mostly male stage directors were mostly directing operas from the canon, which means their work is more likely to be revived, helping them to build a reputation. Female stage directors were more often asked to preside over contemporary repertoire – they were one-off oddities.
The problem is obvious: a small number of operas written by men are revived over and over again by a small number of male directors who tend to employ more men. How does any woman break into that? How does any woman even know that she can if she rarely sees herself represented?
I don’t think this is deliberate. Those men who only employ other men, or who give the only female role to a costume designer, aren’t aware of what they’re doing. They’re probably more surprised than I am that this is going on. It’s a consequence of unconscious bias and operating within an environment that unquestioningly prioritises men and hasn’t traditionally supported women. It’s only by addressing such issues that a change can be made.
I also don’t think the answer is to expand the canon to include more women composers (as well as people of colour). I would rather see the whole idea jettisoned. Instead let’s have more commissioning of, and better support for, new works, as well as more effort to find and promote lesser-known composers and compositions. There are companies that already do this which are well worth seeking out, but let’s see it from the big companies and houses too. There will always be a place for the old favourites, but that place should be on an equal footing with new and unknown works.
There are signs that things are starting to change, though. First of all there’s the previously mentioned Keychange. This global network seeks to support women and minority genders in the music industry. Each year the organisation recruits 74 people working in music from 12 countries to its programme of training, mentoring, promotion and work opportunities. It also encourages organisations to take a pledge for gender equality: the Keychange 50/50 initiative. More than 500 establishments have signed up so far; this includes opera companies and houses, orchestras, venues, festivals, record companies, conservatoires and more.
After being told ‘girls can’t do that’ and being rejected from conducting programmes, Marin Alsop in 1984 set up her own orchestra, Concordia Orchestra, with financial help from Tomio Taki. Alsop went on to become the first woman to be principal conductor of a British orchestra and music director of a major American orchestra. In 2013 she became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.
In 2002 she founded the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship, which was renamed the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship in 2018 to recognise her achievements. The fellowship is currently a two-year programme that includes intensive coaching and mentoring with Alsop and other music industry professionals, as well as providing financial support. Since its inception, 24 women have been chosen to participate; 19 now work as music directors or chief conductors of orchestras around the world.
Individual organisations are also putting in place initiatives to support women working in opera. Glyndebourne launched its Balancing the Score: Supporting Female Composers programme in 2018. This gave four women composers the opportunity to work with Glyndebourne for two years, starting in January 2019; they composed music, attended rehearsals and met professional opera makers and performers. They also received an annual bursary of £1,000 to cover costs. The participants in the inaugural placement were Anna Appleby, Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade, Cecilia Livingston and Ailie Robertson.
In July 2021, Opera North revealed its Female Conductor Traineeship, a 10-week traineeship for emerging female conductors. The first recipient is French-British conductor Kay Salomon; she will join Opera North at the end of 2021, where she will have the opportunity to work on several of the company’s forthcoming productions as well as receiving one-to-one training from Sian Edwards, head of conducting at the Royal Academy of Music.
The Royal Opera House is using its Jette Parker Young Artists Programme to particularly encourage female conductors, répétiteurs, directors, composers and librettists.
This is just a small snapshot of the available programmes, and there’s clearly a long way to go before Keychange’s goal of a 50/50 gender split is reached. To quote SWAP’ra: “The ultimate aim is to foster an environment in which a female CEO, music director, artistic director, conductor, composer or librettist is no longer noteworthy.” It’s going to take a lot of work to get there. But it’ll be worth the effort.
Marin Alsop has been something of a trailblazer for female conductors. In 2012 she became the first female principal conductor of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra (OSESP) (Governo do Estado de São Paulo via Wikimedia Commons).