Sexism is preventing women from forging careers in opera

Becca Marriott
Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Soprano Becca Marriott sheds light on the twin problems of ageism and sexism in the opera world

I am sitting, waiting for yet another audition. I look around the room. Women – young women, old women, women in the middle. A cocksure tenor walks in and there’s an almost audible exhale of relief. A couple of good-looking baritones drip through the doors as the clock ticks on…

Last month I took part in the first edition of the Concours International d’Art Lyrique, Namur. This competition offered cash prizes to the value of €8,500, a masterclass with Patrizia Ciofi and the opportunity to perform for industry professionals, accompanied by the Orchestra of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie at their home in Lièges – where Joyce DiDonato recently graced the stage. All in all, this was a pretty exciting event.

Of the 60 contestants invited to sing in the first round, seven were male. Of those seven, not one made it through to the final. As the winners took their prizes, I looked at the five victorious sopranos and thought: women give their hearts and souls to this industry, they are talented, dedicated and passionate. They enter competition, after competition – and win. Yet the industry is still skewed in favour of men, even those men who don’t bother to show up.

The most blinding example of this is age limits. Launched in 2017, the Dutch National Opera Young Artists’ programme calls for ‘female voices’ under 30 and ‘male voices’ under 32. Neue Stimmen, Europe’s leading competition for new voices specifies ‘Women up to 28 years of age… Men up to 30 years of age.’ The Bayerrische Staatsoper’s young artists’ studio states that ‘The age limit is 28 years for female and 30 years for male applicants.’ I have even seen competitions that allow mezzos a few extra years, but not sopranos – because who needs dramatic soprano voices anyway?

The age-old argument that male voices take longer to develop is short-sighted and easy to disprove. Perhaps a full-lyric tenor will have a longer road to walk to employability than a light lyric soprano, or soubrette. However, should a full-lyric or spinto soprano have the gall to audition for a German agency aged 29, she will be laughed at. I know, I’ve experienced it... 'How old are you?', '29'; '29! You can’t sing this repertoire on the stage at 29 here. You should be in education!' Chance would be a fine thing.

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The age-old argument that male voices take longer to develop is short-sighted and easy to disprove

The truth of the matter is, the industry still accepts that men do other things first. As supposed bread-winners, men alone do sensible, academic degrees which they can fall back on, before embarking upon a career in singing. If you attach an age limit of 28 for men, you may not attract any men at all. Arts-loving, risk-taking women are ten a penny.

Yet this traditionalism simply doesn’t fly. The idea that women can afford to study arts subjects is being quashed daily. Adverts attracting women into science, business and engineering pathways are both commonplace and persuasive. You are just as likely to meet a female singer who started her operatic journey late as you are to find a man who did so. When you consider that, traditionally male choral singing produces the boy-trebles who often become the tenors and baritones that walk the operatic boards of the United Kingdom, it actually appears more likely that it is women who would start singing later in life.

The gender bias persists when we consider ‘foot-in-the-door’ comprimario roles. It has long been the case that a good way to begin forging a career is to nab some coveted small roles with big opera companies. Most of the operas which are performed on a regular basis were written when all doctors, soldiers, messengers, sailors, judges etc. were men. This means that the vast majority of these roles were scored for male voices; one of two young-maid/old-nurse/young-boy roles aside. Yet if an opera house is putting on a modern production (as they increasingly do), is it strictly necessary to stick slavishly to the score? How much difference would it make to put a few of these small, inconsequential roles up an octave? These minor parts could then provide excellent female singers, of all ages and fachs, with experience and a real career boost besides – not to mention the fact that strong female singers might be less of a headache for casting agents to find.

And I haven’t even mentioned children yet. Women often take career breaks just a few years after completing their vocal training, aged 28-34, because this is the best time, biologically speaking, to start a family. If they want to return to the industry afterwards, perhaps by entering a competition, or an opera studio, they will find that very few doors remain open.

Perhaps it is not the disparity in the age-limits for men and women that is really the problem, but the age limits themselves. In no other field of endeavour is it assumed that age and experience are one and the same. Yet I cannot think of another industry in which physical development and maturity are so important. Those German agents are right, 29 is simply too young to tackle certain repertoire. A case in point: a few years ago, the Wagner Society of Great Britain introduced an age limit for their competition of – wait for it – 30. I had only just begun even thinking about singing Wagner and I was 32. To me, this age limit not only felt like a smack in the face, it seemed to be utter madness. Even 34, the age limit for the Elizabeth Connell competition for aspiring dramatic sopranos, seems unnecessary.

Ultimately, we need singers with varied life experiences to perform the challenging, and emotionally hefty roles that make opera such a phenomenal art form. The industry should be more open to singers with diverse backgrounds of both genders. If competition organisers and YAP directors want to deter over-experienced candidates from applying, a quick Google search and a glance at a CV will soon tell them much more than a birth certificate ever could.