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Does Opera Australia have a problem with women?

Carmen Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour 2017 production still 02 feat Josè Maria Lo Monaco photographer credit Prudence Upton
Photograph: Prudence Upton Josè Maria Lo Monaco sings Carmen

When you think of opera, chances are you see a glorious woman on stage, arm dramatically outstretched, belting to high heaven. You probably think of strong-willed Carmen, the yearning Cio-Cio San or formidable Turandot. For many of us, opera and women’s voices are intrinsically linked.

But that’s not the whole story.

While women sing on stage – yes, gloriously and often with that arm reaching out towards the audience – they are generally singing roles created by men, and they’re usually directed to hit those notes, and raise that arm, by yet more men. 

"...there are more men named David (or Davide) than women directing opera in 2019"

Often, all women are allowed to do is sing. They rarely have the chance to tell the story or shape the music that lifts a woman’s voice and forms the face of the artform.

And at Opera Australia, the country’s national opera company that calls no less than the iconic Sydney Opera House home, there are more men named David (or Davide) than women directing opera in 2019.

There are some genuinely exciting things about Opera Australia’s 2019 season – a new Australian opera about artist Brett Whiteley, and a commitment to technology to move with the times – but the company, and by extension, the nation’s best example of any enduring power opera may have, remains dominated by the thoughts and ideas of men.

Only 17.5 per cent of creative roles at OA in 2019 will be filled by women. But in the positions of greatest artistic control and influence – director, composer and conductor – it drops to a mere 8.2 per cent.


 

Source: Opera Australia 2019 season brochures


But this gender inequity isn’t a new concern. Opera Australia has been favouring men’s voices for years. Last year just 16.6 per cent of creative roles were filled by women and the year prior the figure sat at 18.2 per cent. Other live performance sectors have been making significant efforts to address gender disparity. While dance in Australia fares about as well as opera, their close cousin, theatre, has upped its game of late: leading companies like Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir are now at gender parity in some fields – proving that there’s no shortage of talented Australian women who can fill these directorial and other creative roles. And when there are few opportunities at home, these women look further afield. Adena Jacobs is a visionary Australian director who works mostly in theatre, but has directed and created work for Sydney Chamber Opera. She is making her debut next month at English National Opera with a new production of Salome (bringing an Australian set designer and choreographer, both women, with her) but she has never been programmed at Opera Australia.

In 2019, Eleonora Gravagnola will serve as revival director (enacting the historical direction of Daniel Smith) for the Melbourne season of Il Viaggio a Reims; and there will be another season of Gale Edwards’ La Boheme, a jewel in the OA crown (though the revival will be directed by a man). Gale Edwards’ Salome makes a return, too, but again the revival director will be a man – Andy Morton, who changed the ending of Edwards’ Carmen when he re-staged it for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour in 2017, removing Carmen’s agency from a critical moment. Making something old old again.

And Francesca Zambello will direct West Side Story for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, but this is a decision that’s difficult to celebrate as an example of equality when the production is white-washing its casting, even after international controversy around a similar casting decision for the same role overseas. And the whiteness, and white-centric storytelling of much classic opera, remains a problem across the board; equality for women should never come at the expense of people of colour.

"Women are only permitted into certain spaces, and that should be acknowledged"

To Opera Australia’s credit, all newly commissioned works under the tenure of artistic director Lyndon Terracini have been written by women: Whiteley will be composed by Elena Kats-Chernin (the libretto will be by Justin Fleming); The Rabbits, the opera for children based on Shaun Tan’s book, was composed by Kate Miller-Heidke with a libretto by Lally Katz, and El Kid was created by Liesel and Michael Badorrek. The Divorce, a TV opera co-produced by the ABC and Opera Australia, too, was created by Kats-Chernin and Joanna Murray-Smith. To be commissioned to produce a new opera on this level is a rare and golden opportunity, and it matters that our forward-facing works are led by women.

But next year, there are still few women leaders in rehearsal rooms. Gravagnola and Zambello will be the only woman setting the tone of an Opera Australia creative workplace and making those big decisions. Traditionally male-led workplaces, especially in the arts, can suffer from power imbalances that lead to unsafe work practices and environments. With only one woman poised to conduct, the 2019 season will be another largely driven by men: of old ideas and old (often unconscious) biases.

You will find a few more women in the creative mix beyond directing and conducting, especially in costume design – an area in which women have traditionally been allowed a little more space to flourish, largely due to dated ideas about costume labour being seen as more feminine work. These women shouldn’t be discounted – costume and set design are critical elements of any production – but it’s important to note that the above numbers aren’t spread evenly across fields and fall along old lines. Women are only permitted into certain spaces, and that should be acknowledged. 

"Finding new audiences might mean reaching out to those voices habitually ignored by the opera canon..."

When talking through Opera Australia’s 2019 season with Time Out Sydney, Terracini acknowledged that opera is facing “a massive crisis.” Opera is slipping in popularity, and Opera Australia might need to face some difficult truths that can’t be mended with high-tech screens and international stars: that many classic operas are written with outdated views on gender and exoticised, othering views on race.

Finding new audiences might mean reaching out to those voices habitually ignored by the opera canon: women and people who aren’t white. Diversified storytelling matters, and in 2018 more than ever, audiences are tired of lining up to hear another round of same-same voices exploiting the voices of others for entertainment. Audiences are hungry for stories told in new ways, by people whose perspectives have been roundly and historically ignored.

And if Opera Australia doesn’t catch up, it might never find those new audiences it’s trying to chase.

Check out Time Out Sydney's latest theatre reviews and see Opera Australia's full 2019 Sydney season.

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