'75% of productions directed by men either had no women or only a single woman in creative roles': Gender imbalance in opera

Claire Jackson
Wednesday, September 15, 2021

A new report considers the gender inequalities behind the scenes in the UK's opera houses

The Royal Opera 'should priorities women directors for popular works'
The Royal Opera 'should priorities women directors for popular works'

While the Proms boldly committed to commission more female than male composers this year, a new study revealed that there is no guarantee any of the works will make it into the concert hall: the Donne Foundation found that only 747 out of the 14,747 compositions scheduled by the 100 orchestras throughout the 2020-2021 season were composed by women – a total of 5%. Out of 4,857 performances, 4,301 didn't represent female composers at all.

Issues of representation are not limited to orchestral music. When Wilton's Music Hall recently hosted a production of Amy Beach's opera Cabildo, composed in 1932, it was only the second run of performances ever held in London – the first having been at 2019's Grimeborn festival. But focussing on repertoire tells only half the story. As Classical Music readers are acutely aware, there are myriad roles within the industry and gender parity could be improved across the sector. One area where inequality is particularly pronounced is opera production, which is distinct for its reliance on collaborative creative team work. Recent research by Dr Caitlin Vincent, Amanda Coles and Jordan Beth Vincent has shown that not only is there a gender-based disadvantage for women in this field, but that there are negatively compounding effects – i.e. the disadvantage continues long after the curtain closes.

'It is well known that there problematic elements within historical operatic repertoire – such as racist narratives and gendered violence – and it's important to consider who is interpreting these stories on stage,' explains Dr Vincent, who is based at the University of Melbourne in Australia. After some initial exploration, Vincent and colleagues opted to use the Royal Opera as a case study in order to establish a baseline for understanding the gendered divisions of work in opera production. 'We examined 1342 roles over fifteen seasons – from 2005 to 2020,' says Dr Vincent. These roles were stage director, set designer, lighting designer, costume designer and video/projection designer. 'We found that there were far fewer women directors than men directors. But women directors were also more likely to be one-offs – credited on one production and not engaged again – whereas men were hired multiple times.' says Dr Vincent. 'Women were generally credited on riskier repertoire, while canonical works that are the big ticket sellers were led by men. Women directors were more likely to be involved in more obscure contemporary work that was not revived.'

" Women directors were more likely to be one-offs – credited on one production and not engaged again – whereas men were hired multiple times "

Most opera seasons feature multiple revivals, which are usually mainstream productions. Dr Vincent and her co-authors found that there was a strong relationship between the risk profile of an opera and the gender of the director – because women largely worked on contemporary repertoire, there was less chance that work would be revived and therefore fewer opportunities to accrue prestige. Out of 85 individual directors who were credited over the 15 years, just 15 were women. Vincent, who specialises in the analysis of creative labour, explains the situation is comparable with theatre and ballet, where male practitioners generally dominate in artistic leadership roles.

'In this study, 75% of all productions directed by men either had no women or only a single woman in any of the key creative roles. This has a negatively compounding effect on women's visibility within the company,' says Dr Vincent. 'Some of the most popular and prolific stage directors – who are men – repeatedly chose to work exclusively with all-men teams.'

'Opera-ting on inequality: gender representation in creative roles at The Royal Opera' defined the gender of creatives (he, she, they) based on the pronouns used in biographies on the Royal Opera's online production listings, cross-referred with individual professional websites. This clearly has limitations, which Dr Vincent's team acknowledges, in that it some people may not be in a position to accurately self-identify. (No featured practitioner explicitly employed non-binary pronouns in their professional biography.) The data scraping follows on from work completed by Supporting Women and Parents in Opera (SWAP'ra) to track female representation in creative roles at UK opera companies since 2018, and Georgia Snow's analysis of the programming of 15 opera companies in the UK for The Stage.

In the light of growing, indisputable evidence of deeply ingrained gender inequality, during 2018-19 many high-profile organisations signed up to Keychange, a global movement supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union to encourage a proactive restructure. Royal Opera pledged to achieve 50:50 gender balance in all new productions by 2022. On the face of it, this was a positive move. However, the quota is counted across the season rather than on individual shows and includes all creative roles involved in a production. As Vincent explains, ‘Not all creative roles have the same significance in terms of driving the artistic vision on stage.’ The pledge also does not consider the impact of different kinds of repertoire in terms of audience popularity or prestige. Experimental works like Current, Rising – the extraordinary virtual reality opera that premiered in the Linbury Theatre this year – that have an all-female creative team are of course worthwhile, but they do not address broad and inequitable working practices.

" To make any real difference, the Royal Opera would need to actively prioritise women directors for their most popular works "

'To make any real difference, the Royal Opera would need to actively prioritise women directors for their most popular works, which are most likely to enter the company's repertory and see subsequent revivals,' concludes Vincent, 'it will take a new organisational strategy to enact real change.'