Women face extraordinary odds of success in the opera world, from the conservatory to young artist apprenticeships to the mainstage to leadership roles in administration.
Middleclass Artist and the Empowered Musician, in an exhaustive analysis of the opera industry from top to bottom, through dozens of interviews and decades of publicly available census and industry data, will show systemic discrimination against women in the opera industry at every level:
- An opera canon that skews so heavily towards men that male opera singers are three and a half times as likely to be cast as women opera singers.
- Women, particularly sopranos, receive fewer scholarships and take on more debt, in part due to this lopsided gender balance in the mainstage canon and universities;
- Fewer opportunities for women to audition and win star-making training apprenticeships, and once they are there, to perform in secondary roles;
- When they graduate from young artist apprenticeships, women performers are paid significantly less and offered fewer opportunities to build their careers;
- When it comes to decisions about their bodies onstage and off, women in opera are excluded, harassed, and in some cases, attacked. Women are severely penalized in the industry for middle-age and motherhood;
- And women leaders in opera show a significant pay gap based on the company’s size they are allowed to lead. Women are largely excluded from the top opera company administrative jobs that pay hundreds of thousands or, in the case of the Met, millions a year.
We also examine the critical importance of women in positions of power and active intention of composers and librettists to center marginalized voices in their work.
In the final section, we highlight eight essential action items for industry gatekeepers and performers to provide a more equitable, inclusive, and safe work environment for women.
A note on systemic racism and the absence of gender diversity in opera
Before looking at gender parity, we must first acknowledge the additional challenges presented by systemic racism in the opera world. All the challenges raised in this article are amplified for singers of color, especially Black singers. The research presented only provides one lens of experience, in its examination of gender disparity.
We must also acknowledge the absence of gender diversity. The classification of voice types in opera is strongly gendered. Historically, those in positions of power regarded (and still regard) sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and contraltos as ‘female’ voices, with tenors, baritones, and basses as ‘male.’ Most of the time, the higher voice parts perform female characters, and the lower voices portray male characters.
We consider this classification deeply flawed for considering gender-diverse people. We think that the old classification methods deserve an overhaul to better gender balance in casts and promote more diverse stories in contemporary opera.
However, operas that allowed for fluid voice type, sung by any voice part, or that provided options to cross-cast soprano or tenor, mezzo or baritone proved exceedingly rare. Nearly all operas today portray female characters by sopranos, mezzos, and contraltos, and male characters as countertenors, tenors, baritones, and basses, warranting classification in these terms.
I. Role Distribution in Opera
The opera canon, those works most frequently performed on the world stage, skews performing jobs towards men over women. There are far more entry-level and leading roles on stage for men.
Mezzo-soprano Mathilda Bryngelsson examined the global top 50 operas and operettas performed between 2010-2019 by gender and voice part and found that adult women perform only 35% of onstage roles. Adult men perform more than 6-in-10 (62%) of available leading roles.
A look at job opportunities by voice part shows why: there are about half as many roles for mezzo/contralto (13%) as there are for soprano (23%), tenor (23%), baritone (18%), and bass-baritone/bass (21%).
High voices (tenor and soprano) are roughly at parity by gender (1-1), but a significant division emerges on gender between low voices. Forty percent of roles (39%) go to lower-voiced men, while only 13% go to lower-voiced women.
In an elegant proof, mezzo-soprano Mathilda Bryngelsson summarizes the gender disparity as follows: based on the likely number of women and men at auditions and the job opportunities available, men opera singers are 3.5 times as likely to be cast than women opera singers.
Another study by mezzo-soprano Brooke Larimer examined the breakdown by voice type of the top 25 performed operas in the world and found a similar breakdown of roles:
Six out of 10 (61%) jobs as a principal singer went to tenors, baritones, or basses, while just 39% went to voice parts traditionally associated with women.
Composers of canon and even contemporary operas wrote most supporting or comprimario parts for men, based on a standard division of voice parts: one soprano, one tenor, one baritone, and one mezzo, with a comprimario bass.
For example, Larimer breaks down La Bohème, the fourth most frequently performed opera in the world. Of the 12 soloist roles in the opera, only two of those roles are for women:
Of these roles, four are leading for sopranos (2), a tenor, and a baritone; two, Colline and Schaunard, are featured and written for bass and baritone; two are supporting, both written for bass, and all four chorus bit roles are for tenors (2) and basses (2).
Leading roles in opera follow a different pay structure at union houses, with much higher minimum fees than featured, supporting, bit, or chorus bit roles. That means the lion’s share of the artist fees for a production of La Bohème goes to men.
With fewer women required for roles, there is less need to audition them. Martha Wade, President of Wade Artist Management, “often noticed the gap in the number of audition requests, with some hiring entities asking for more males to audition or ONLY males.”
With fewer auditions come fewer entry-level jobs for women in conservatory or training apprenticeships, as well as in paid lead roles, as mezzo-soprano Heather Jones states:
“I cringe at how many ‘entry-level’ roles there are for specific voices so young male singers can get in the door sooner and stay employed more often. Female roles are fewer and farther in between, with far less (if any) secondary soprano/mezzo roles, so you’re either the lead or nothing, making the barrier to entry much higher.”
II. The Pipeline: Conservatory, YAP, Mainstage, Admin
The Pipeline (Varga, October 2020) to success for classical singers, a system standardized by institutions and opera companies across North America, expects the following steps:
- “Obtain both an elite Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance
- Audition for Young Artist Programs (YAPs) and vocal competitions a few years into academic study
- Win as many prominent YAPs and competitions as an emerging artist in your 20s as possible
- Win management through private auditions based on performance at YAPs and competitions” (Varga)
- Audition for mainstage roles through an agent-based on performance experience and connections made as a young artist
- Build a successful performance career, and as it winds down, use those connections to transition into an elite job at a music festival, opera company, or on faculty at an academic institution”
We do not endorse The Pipeline. We consider it a flawed, outdated system that overvalues certain demographics such as white identity and youth and is statistically unlikely to lead to a full-time singing career for most professional singers.
In this flawed system, at every step of the process, women are excluded or marginalized.
In post-secondary training, inequality of opportunity is the norm, not the exception. Academia masks women’s exclusion by admitting so many of them, charging them more, and featuring them less.
Middleclass Artist reviewed nearly three decades of survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), focusing on completion of voice and opera programs by gender.
The data is clear and consistent since 1992: out of every ten voice and opera graduates, seven are women.
For example, Oberlin College has graduated 240 voice students from its undergraduate program over the past ten years. Of those, 69% (166) identified as women.
Unlike a marching band or orchestra, opera relies on a structure of voice parts stuck in a binary gender view. In an old-school, conservatory environment, this often means far less opportunity for women to perform on stage.
To give those women “a chance,” well-meaning academic institutions try to select operas with more roles for women. When you’re looking at the operatic canon, though, this drastically narrows the options. Frequently we see colleges drawing on the same works over and over again – Suor Angelica, Dialogues des Carmélites, and The Crucible come to mind. Great works? Absolutely – but hardly a diverse cross-section of female identity.
One mezzo-soprano interviewed voiced her frustrations at the odds of landing a role in her undergraduate degree, and the lack of attention paid to the imbalance in roles by gender:
“As an undergraduate in a music department where female singers easily outnumbered male singers by a ratio of at least 4-5 to 1, and in which an opera production mounted every other year, they chose to do an opera that had twice the number of male roles as female roles. They double-cast the women, but that still left many us to be used as glorified stage props in the performance. They didn’t even have enough men to fill the male roles and had to recruit non-majors. So the female props on stage were paying tuition for non-majors to get the experience of performing in an opera.”
The financial consequences of gender imbalance in education are devastating to women, resulting in significantly higher student debt levels on average than men.
As one West Coast mezzo-soprano put it bluntly, “Academia trains fewer men, for more role opportunities, and has the sopranos pay for it.” She added, “every tenor I went to school with had a full ride because they are ‘harder to come by’. Baritones and Basses were often in a similar boat, while the women – who made up a majority of every graduating class I was in – were paying a great deal more, if not full tuition.”
One mid-career soprano’s training cost roughly $500,000 in the end:
“I did not receive a single cent from either Oberlin or Manhattan School of Music. I paid for the entire thing out of pocket. They wouldn’t allow me to have the first choice of on-campus jobs. so I ended up washing dishes all four years.”
Another soprano interviewed accumulated $227,000 in student debt, with only two supporting roles to show for it.
And another soprano described her conservatory experience as “going into debt for the rest of her life” while her tenor colleagues received a full scholarship with a stipend. Her student loan debt doubled since she graduated from her Master’s degree 19 years ago. When the conservatory accepted the soprano to a master’s degree, her mother called financial aid to see if they could help. Financial aid’s response, according to the soprano, was as follows: “Oh, she’s a soprano, be glad she even got in. We don’t give money to sopranos.”
Admissions officers have said the quiet part out loud when it comes to funding men over women. The former Director of Music Admissions and current Director of Academic Processes at Rice University, Bradley Blunt, outlined a laissez-faire approach to gender discrimination in a 2002 interview with Classical Singer magazine:
“Sometimes, students of specific instruments and certain voice types stand a better chance of being awarded merit scholarships at the Shepherd School, should the school need to fill that particular classification. Because of the need to achieve balance in its vocal groups, the school may be more inclined to award a tenor, bass, or mezzo scholarship money. This is not to say that sopranos don’t get aid, said Blunt, but the school needs to balance its ensembles.”
(Editor’s note, since 2019, Rice University has made considerable strides towards financial aid based on need, covering the $51,107 a year in undergraduate tuition for families earning up to $130,000 a year and half tuition paid for families earning between $130,000 and $200,000 a year. For those families earning under $65,000 it also covers all mandatory fees and room and board.)
The academy must be held accountable for decades-long gender disparity in both funding and performance opportunities. Title IX requires that schools provide girls with equal athletic opportunities, yet the same is not true for women in the arts.
In the next phase of the pipeline, young artist programs (YAP) and competitions widen the opportunity gap.
Women, particularly sopranos, are far less likely to win a spot in a prestigious young artist program and far less likely to perform leading roles when they arrive.
Wolf Trap Opera, one of the leading singer apprenticeships in the United States,
published an aria frequency list showing women outnumbering men roughly 2-1 at auditions. Nearly half of the singers granted auditions are sopranos (45%-46%).
A brief look at their 2020 roster shows a rebalancing of gender among artists, with only 29% attending listed as sopranos:
On the other hand, tenors represent about 15-16% of auditioned voices and 23% of hired artists. Baritones and basses show similar improvements in hired representation.
While artists are technically paid the same extraordinarily low rates, on average roughly $12 an hour for apprenticeship programs, the elite programs attached to opera houses provide additional incentives to artists to cover mainstage roles. Artist apprenticeships at union (AGMA) houses are required to pay a specific rate for mainstage parts, and because of the role distribution discussed in the first section that heavily favors low-voiced men, any basses or bass-baritones would expect to make more at the end of a season than high-voiced women. Both the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Program and the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center are exceptions and more likely to result in similar wages because they place a cap on total salary for roles performed. Still, even in those programs, there is a discrepancy in fees between those who perform nothing on the mainstage and those who sing or cover multiple roles. Low-voiced men are the most likely based on opera’s role distribution to receive additional funding.
In competitions, we see a similar over-representation of women, particularly sopranos, at auditions and rebalancing for winners favoring men.
For example, recent data from the 2020-2021 Metropolitan Opera National Council (MONC) Auditions showed 616 qualified singers and nearly half of them (47%) sopranos:
Looking at MONC winners since the Grand Finals live concerts began in 1999, we see sopranos represent only 38% of prize-winners:
Men represent only 36% of the applicant pool in 2020, but looking at historical numbers, there is nearly a 50/50 split by gender among prize money.
The next phase of the pipeline, after young artist programs, finds singers with an agent, working at progressively larger and larger houses with larger and larger fees, topping out at $17,000 a performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
In the first section, we determined there are 3.5 times more jobs for men than women in mainstage opera.
Now we can add income to opportunity loss, dividing classical performers into three stages: emerging artists, those who have performed for 15 years or less; established artists, those who have performed for between 16 and 30 years; and older artists, who have been performing for 30 years or longer.
(Editor’s note: this data is not a perfect fit, as it includes instrumentalists, non-performance income, and dates back to 2011. Still, it is instructive to show as part of a larger trend. -ZF)
Overall, U.S. classical performers who are women make about $34,000 a year while their men counterparts make roughly $46,000- a pay gap of 29%. Emerging classical performers who are women make approximately $21,600 a year to men’s $30,500, and the gap increases over time.
Most singers interviewed for this study cited an example of pay discrimination based on their gender. Below are a select few testimonials:
- “I did a gig where I was one of four soloists, myself as a soprano and three men, and at the end of the gig, I learned that each of the men made three times what I did.”
- “I was paid half of the amount my baritone counterpart was paid even though he never even learned his music. I was asked to come to extra rehearsals on his behalf and even asked to cue him onstage in performances when he forgot his entrances or text.”
- “Men get paid more. Period. We’re told it’s because they are rarer in the industry, and are expected to just deal with it.”
As itinerant musicians age, they often move towards more stable administrative careers, with an eye on elite jobs at festivals, academic institutions, opera companies, and symphonies.
In 2015 OPERA America chartered the Women’s Opera Network, intended to “increase awareness of and discussion about diversity and gender parity in the field, create action plans to promote the advancement of talented women, [and] become a source of support for emerging female professionals.” The group examined data from 25 years of OPERA America’s annual reports, and showed meager (an average of 8%) female representation in general director positions at the companies with the largest budgets. Parity improved as the companies got smaller, reaching 38% on average and 49% in 2015 for organizations with annual budgets under $1 million. However, a study of women in all leadership positions at North American opera companies showed a consistent imbalance, averaging 33% in 2015.
Gender parity in top leadership at smaller companies masks a significant pay gap. For example, according to a recent 990 filing, the Executive Director of Baltimore Concert Opera makes $32,000 a year with an organizational budget of about $250,000 a year. In comparison, Level 1 companies like Lyric Opera of Chicago, with a budget of roughly $80 million, pays its General Director approximately $750,000 a year.
The top opera jobs, those that pay six figures or even millions, are earmarked for men, while women allowed to run the small companies earn a fraction of their Level 1 peers.
III. Exclusion, Harassment, and Assault
When it comes to decisions about their own bodies onstage and off, women in opera are excluded, penalized, harassed, and in some cases, attacked.
Women are excluded from significant career-building opportunities like international opera competitions based on their age, often in black-and-white in the competition rules.
For example, the recent 2020 Musical America Guide to Top Competitions showed at least three international competitions that held different age eligibility requirements for men and women:
- The Fourth International Éva Marton Singing Competition: “open to singers…born on or after September 6, 1988, for female candidates, and September 6, 1985, for male candidates”;
- The Neue Stimmen International Singing Competition: “Women up to 28 years of age, born on or after October 10, 1992, Men up to 30 years of age, born on or after October 10, 1990”;
- The Viotti International Music Competition, “open to opera singers of all nationalities. The age limit for the singers is 30 (women) and 32 (men)”.
The top prizes for each of these three competitions are €50,000 (approximately $56,670 USD).
(Editor’s note: Why a leading trade magazine allows for gender discrimination in its advertising is worth asking them directly: firstname.lastname@example.org. -ZF)
Women opera singers are given an expiration date on stage well before men, as mezzo-soprano Margaret O’Connell states:
“The first time I was told I was “a little old” to be pursuing this career was on my 29th birthday. That was the first of many age-related remarks I’ve received from people in power over the years. All women in this business live in well-founded fear of being dismissed for being over 30.”
Women opera singers are also not included in critical decisions about their bodies on stage, and their perspectives on playing iconic female roles in opera are often ignored or excluded. For example, American soprano Megan Marie Hart’s “most performed” role is Donna Anna, and she feels excluded from the process of talking about Donna Anna’s roles and motivations, “especially where the issues at hand are something only women would understand”:
“There is always this desire on the part of directors and sometimes male colleagues to try and make Donna Anna not raped. I can’t tell you how many directors have decided that Donna Anna wants to be raped by Don Giovanni and is in love with him, even though she has never seen him before. Donna Anna must be some lying, manipulative bitch. I think it is easier than actually asking me what I think or how I see it as a woman.”
Companies severely penalize women opera singers for motherhood and pregnancy. Rachel Duval, self-described “YAP (young artist program) mom,” learned the hard way in her 20s “to leave my motherhood out of conversations until after signing the contracts.”
Lidiya Yankovskaya, Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater and “only one of two women to hold that title at a multimillion-dollar opera company in the US,” says that “the largest amount of discrimination I’ve encountered has been around views related to pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood.” The music director finds “the most sexist views, surprisingly, from women themselves and other parents. ‘She has a kid, so she probably won’t want to commit to long hours and travel. Let’s hire someone else for this project.’ Let the artist–male or female–assess their situation and decide for themselves.”
Maja Tremiszewska, a coach/pianist and mother of two young daughters, explained in a recent article that “motherhood is considered a burden in the opera world because children have to be accommodated. Mothers don’t have as much flexibility, and we are more expensive to hire. So we’re often passed on for someone who is not a mom.”
In another example, an administrator, after hearing of a mezzo-soprano’s new responsibilities as a step-mom, removed her from consideration:
“After a successful summer at a prestigious festival, I was encouraged to reapply for a second tenure. During that year, I met a man with kids, and we moved in together, and I became a step-mom. I auditioned for the summer program again, and after praising my progress and discussing possible roles for me, they asked how my personal life was going. I thought I was safe to share openly and told them about my new family.
They looked concerned and asked me if I thought another summer with them would even be a good idea considering my newfound responsibilities…
They never asked me back. I don’t think I know anyone with children who have worked there in recent years.”
Eve Summer, a stage director and mother of two sons aged 3 and 7, felt that “the first time when I disclosed my pregnancy, it cost me a few jobs. I wasn’t prepared for opera companies to not want to accommodate me bringing the baby, and the housing issues seemed daunting. Some offers disappeared, and I was talked into withdrawing from others.” (Varga, April 2018).
The outcomes can move beyond economic exclusion towards personal and dangerous. With the spread of the #MeToo movement in 2017, women in the performing arts shared stories of sexual harassment and assault and the lack of support and even retaliation when they reported these crimes. The classical music critic Anne Midgette and arts reporter Peggy McGlone revealed many of these stories in the classical music world, including opera singers. These women described their dilemma: choosing to suffer silently next to their abuser, or electing to leave, only never to be hired again by that company—even gaining a reputation as being “difficult to work with.” Mezzo-soprano Erin Elizabeth Smith, in the Washington Post article, expressed the shame and devaluation echoed by countless victims of sexual abuse: “I lost my confidence…the only reason I’m on his roster is that he wanted to sleep with me. It made me doubt my talent.”
One mid-career soprano opened up to us about her experience with harassment at a leading apprenticeship company:
“I wasn’t asked back after my first summer, even though I did an awesome job because a tenor was stalking me. The company decided to ask him back because they needed tenors, and it was too much drama, so they let him come back and left me in the lurch. I was devastated. I would have loved to come back, but I felt like a failure, and it hurt so much not to be protected.”
IV. A New Role Distribution and the Power of Composers/Librettists
The outlook for women isn’t always doom and gloom. Some industry players are stepping up to make gender parity a core part of their mission statement.
While the average North American company only offers up 44% of its roles to women, companies devoted to contemporary opera do a little better at 47%. A study of some of these companies revealed that the ones who use language like “innovative” or “adventurous” in their mission statement are more likely to have greater female representation in the casts of their commissioned works.
New York’s Experiments in Opera and American Opera Projects, Montreal’s Chants Libres, and MassOpera all reflect better-than-average opportunities for women singers.
For example, MassOpera’s productions from 2008 to 2019 reflect their stated intention for gender parity. Through intentional programming and occasional double-casting, women made up 68% of their casts over the last twelve seasons. Works included Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Kamala Sankaram’s Taking Up Serpents, and an all-women version of La Bohème.
The BBC Proms, the world’s largest and longest-running music festival, shows significant improvement in programming women composers and employment of women conductors. Data acquired by the UK’s Women in Music shows an upward trend: women composers rose from 1% to 18%, while women conductors increased from 2% to 12%.
Some larger institutions offer programs targeted at repairing gender inequality. The Dallas Opera started the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors in 2015. In 2017, they expanded to include up-and-coming administrators. OPERA America’s Grants for Female Composers offers yearly awards to composers mounting their works, and houses commissioning female composers. They also provide an annual mentorship for administrators, though, as of publication, Opera America has not updated its website to indicate if the program happened this year or if it will happen again next year.
But it will still take a push on bigger houses for greater representation. The largest houses have a responsibility to lead. As an industry, we often look to these institutions as leaders—indeed, they receive the most public recognition. And smaller companies may feel compelled to make changes if they see it at the top. Visibility is essential—you can’t become what you can’t see.
Women in positions of power are the first step.
In the case of onstage gender parity, the greatest strength lies in composers and librettists’ hands:
“We as composers have the ultimate power in deciding the gender split on stage. We are more powerful than a playwright would be in deciding that gender split. We are more powerful than the director, or an artistic director of a company would be. It’s up to us. Right? Because once you set the tessitura of a musical theater piece, it is very difficult to cross-gender cast…especially if you start introducing instruments other than piano, transposing becomes very impractical…We have composers right now who are writing musical theater pieces or operas that are full of male voices—full of them! We have a situation in the vocal music world where women singers outnumber male singers at least three to one, and yet there are so many new pieces of musical theater and music coming to the stage where the men outnumber the women by that ratio or higher. This is an abuse of our power.” – Melissa Dunphy, New Music Box
Composers and librettists determine the make-up of an opera cast. As a creative team, they decide what story gets told and by whom:
“I think that new work is very important for creating gender parity, for those onstage and off. As the composer of the piece, I have a say in which stories are told, and which characters are at the center of them. It has been very important to me personally to create works that revolve around women – each of my full-length operas is helmed by a female character. I try to create pieces that will pass the Bechdel Test (do two female characters ever talk to each other about something other than a man). I think this is important because placing us at the center says that our experiences matter. But I think that this advocacy can extend backstage as well. I have tried, whenever possible, to request female directors and designers, with the goal of building visibility for their work in order to help support a pipeline of talent.” – Kamala Sankaram
There are several initiatives that started in recent years to open doors to more women composers and librettists. But how does that shake out on stage?
In Hillary LaBonte’s study of the OPERA America North American Works database (1991-2019), she examined whether having a female presence in the creative team made a difference in role equality. Operas with a female composer or librettist showed more equitable gender representation than the overall average, with 48% of roles cast to women. Operas with a female lead character had a greater change from the overall average, with 51% female roles.
Having a female lead character—something tied to the story being told—has a more significant effect on the gender balance of a cast than the gender identity of either major creator.
But the greatest effect on gender parity in opera casts came down to intention. Thirty of the operas analyzed in this study were intentionally feminist or female-focused, per the composer or librettist’s statements. In intentionally feminist operas, female roles made up 53% of the cast.
While no individual or single group can solve gender bias, composers and librettists are uniquely positioned to effect change. We’ve established the opera industry attaches voice types to character gender. But if a composer and librettist decide to tell a story with a majority male cast, and the composer elects to write those roles for men’s voices, women are effectively excluded from this work.
And while we don’t have precise industry data yet on gender identities, including but not limited to agender, genderqueer, gender fluid, non-binary, and transgender people, we also understand how critical composer and librettist intention is to tell their stories, too.
Actress and transgender activist Shakina Nayfack points out the kinds of intentions that contribute to more balanced casting:
“I think the reason writers create gender-specific characters is the same reason they create racially-specific or age-specific characters: There is an experience and a history that the writer is hoping to capture, an experience and a history that is part of the larger story they are telling. That said, if we’re talking about smaller roles that don’t require specific experiences or histories to contribute to the storytelling, then yeah, why not say ‘this role is open to anyone who is quick-witted and snarky’ for example, or ‘we need someone grounded and wise,’ then let the actors do their work to bring those qualities, as opposed to using gender or racial identity as the marker.” – “Gender Diversity in the Professional World,” HuffPost
If creators can work with this kind of forethought and connect characters to singers with intention and care, operas will only be better for it.
The opera world has made some steps in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go. From the beginning of the “life-cycle” of a singer, every cog in the proverbial machine has to participate actively to make meaningful change. Below is a list of action items our industry must address to move forward:
1) Consider gender diversity when hiring for positions of power. Be transparent about the process. If you end up with a shortlist that’s uniform in gender or race, ask yourself why.
2) Vocal performance schools need to review the ethics governing admissions to their programs, where giving sopranos (read: women) fewer scholarships and opportunity is normalized. Telling more gender-diverse stories on stage would be one step in the right direction. Extra credit: bring in Blythely Oratonio (world-class mezzo Stephanie Blythe) for masterclasses to teach any gender how to sing tenor roles like Don Ottavio.
3) In academic and professional institutions, have all management-level employees complete bias training and establish a work environment where employees (at any level) feel supported and safe. Develop a method for reporting harassment and follow through with all reports.
4) Continue to reject bad behavior and encourage women and other marginalized groups to come forward. Show the world that the opera industry does not tolerate harassment and discrimination.
5) Program seasons with gender parity in mind. Does this mean we can never do Don Pasquale ever again? How about Bohème? No, but think carefully about balance. If you do a male-heavy show, ensure that the next several shows are more equitable. At the bare minimum, a season should have an equal number of female to male roles.
6) When commissioning new works, be intentional about the stories you are choosing to tell. If you find the cast skews toward men, ask yourself (1) is this the right story to tell, and (2) are there any opportunities for cross-gender casting.
7) Investigate intention—especially if you’re in a position of power. Why this singer over that one? Why this story, why this cast? Whether it’s in the audition room, the programming process, or any other decision-making event, question the intention behind significant decisions because “we’ve always done it this way” is never a good reason.
8) Support moms. Don’t make assumptions about a woman’s intentions around her career based on your perception of her personal life. When you hire artists with children, do everything possible to house families together. Normalize motherhood in the classical vocal industry.
As individual performers, we may feel powerless when speaking up in our industry, from the most powerful opera house to our local church choir. But there are small ways we can ignite change. The research featured in this article primarily came from singers who noticed disparities and sought concrete evidence to back up their instincts. Thanks to their efforts, institutions cannot deny the significant imbalance in today’s world of opera.
We must stand up for our colleagues, call on institutions to do better, and support the singers, composers, librettists, and companies making positive changes.
Opera is for everyone, and its future depends on normalizing it as a widespread common art form. The staggering debt carried by women and the lack of opportunity brings us to a breaking point. The barriers must come down.
Everyone will come to opera when we make opera for everyone.
Zach Finkelstein is a professional classical tenor soloist, a senior marketing manager at a public opinion research and strategy firm, and the editor and founder of Middleclassartist.com.
Dr. Dana Lynne Varga is a fierce advocate for singers. She regularly presents lectures and classes around the country about industry issues and the many paths to a career in singing. She is the Founder and CEO of The Empowered Musician, Founder and Co-Artistic Director of MassOpera, and an accomplished classical singer, voice teacher and career coach.
Dr. Hillary LaBonte performs, produces, and starts conversations about exciting new opera. Recent productions include Amy Beth Kirsten’s Ophelia Forever and Kate Soper’s Here Be Sirens. Last year she won 1st Prize in the inaugural New Voices Essay Contest, writing about gender representation in new opera. Learn more at www.hillarylabonte.com.
2 thoughts on “Excluded, Penalized, Indebted, Harassed: Systemic discrimination against women in opera”
Well done, Zach, Dana and Hillary! I have a couple comments as a non-opera professional: 1) Isn’t much of the disparity you’ve described a result of supply and demand imbalance? If college and conservatory programs balanced their admissions, wouldn’t that solve some of the job opportunity imbalance (other than the fact that their are fewer repertoire opportunities for females)? Do these programs admit more women because they simply want the money? 2) Aren’t you trying to apply 21st century diversity/gender role enlightenment when looking at an art form that is mostly ancient, full of repertoire that portrays women as incomplete humans, and was written as a reflection of the dominant patriarchy? Of course, newly-written works need to reflect our more complex society and gender roles. As a jazz musician, where probably 95% of instrumentalists are male (and hetero), I’ve only recently seen significant improvement in opportunities for women and LGBTQ persons (i.e., Esperanza Spalding, Ingrid Jensen, Rene Rosnes). Anyway, your article was well-written, supported and reasoned, and I hope my comments are on-target.
So much to unpack here, both in its truths, and its fallacies.
In reverse order, regarding singing competition age limits, the reality is that the larynx of a 25 year old male is younger than that of a 25 year old female, whose larynx never went through the quantum shift males endure in puberty, which in many cases is still ongoing into college age. A woman in her 20s will have been singing with the same equipment for years longer–an unchanged piece of cartilage–than her male counterpart. The age limits are simply a reflection of this biological fact. It isn’t discriminatory. If anything, it aligns perfectly with many other progressive values that I know many of us agree with; that ‘equality’ doesn’t mean ‘equity’. A 25 year old coloratura, on average, is years ahead of her fledgling male colleague whose voice is barely a few years old and will need longer to settle. I know it seems like discrimination, but it isn’t. Perhaps the solution is male/female divisions in competitions, though that itself opens up arguments about fairness.
The other thing to consider is that, quite simply, more women are interested in pursuing singing careers than men, so they are over-represented, and there is very little to do about that math. For whatever reason, men are rarer, but opera needs more of them, due to the fair point you made about the number of leading roles in the standard repertoire. There is unquestionably work that needs to be done in the creation of new works that addresses this. But one can’t rewrite the classic repertoire, nor is there a quick fix for generating interest in more men showing interest in the art form, which would at the very least make the competition pool more equal.
Pay is a thorny issue as well–for equal work the pay should be equal, but in performing arts there is the reality of the market. A leading tenor, being more rare, can demand higher fees. Try finding a top level Don Jose or Radames at the last minute, vs. a Donna Anna. The market is speaking. Having a ‘name’ or being a draw also is currency in this business, or at least was. Perhaps less so now. Years of experience matters, as well as the manager’s negotiating skills. I don’t personally believe a leading tenor should make more than their talented soprano/mezzo counterpart, all things being equal. But sometimes you might be paying for someone being legitimately “better”. Or one of the few people out there who can sing a difficult role. Supply and demand is real.
Schools are not required to cast a student in a production, period. There are only so many roles, auditioning is part of the game, and the school is there to educate. I think this needs to be made clear. Unless it is explicitly spelled out that students are guaranteed roles as part of their tuition, it should be made clear that no such experience is promised. Colleges should try to provide opportunities, but if more women are paying for the education and are over represented, then that’s just the reality.
Lastly, from a financial perspective, in N America the reality is that the donor class is what allows opera to exist, period. It’s all well and good to want to change things, but unless the financial backing goes along with it, there will be less and less work, for less and less money. That innovative gender gender black box ‘taking opera back to the people’ production of Giovanni will never pay a living wage. There has to be an acceptance that unless those are *paying* for the art actually enjoy the product, large scale opera will cease to exist.