Blog: Women in Opera – Is it all skimpy nighties or what?

I recently dreamt that I was being interviewed about my work as a composer of contemporary opera. Nothing unusual, only that this time I was asked a single question over and over again: What is it like to be a woman composer?

To be honest, most interviewers will bring up my lack of stubble and Y-chromosomes at least once during a conversation. Here, I was thinking we had progressed past the mark of women being seen as pioneers in jobs like these, but in the context of opera, both traditional and contemporary, women on the creative team are still the exception to the norm. In fact, women composers, directors, librettists, scenographers, designers and conductors are often viewed with somewhat untrusting eyes and even perceived as a “measured risk”, as I have been told by people in power. Time and again, the fact that we are women is seen as novel enough to make our gender the headline: Woman Composer Presents New Large-Scale Work. How undomestic! Do women even want to write large-scale pieces? How does she still have time to compose? These are just a few of the fusty comments and questions I have hurdled. 

So then, what is it like to be a woman composer opera-ting, as it were, in this fanciful bubble, where improbable stories make perfect sense through high-pitched, musical renditions in which squealing women, (un)dressed in skimpy nighties, rarely make it out alive? 

While I point fingers at all sorts of underlying issues here, I will concentrate on my personal experience: 

1) As a composer of opera (Yes, I do compose staged works), I divide my time between rehearsal periods, funding applications, outreach workshops, social and other media, research and, of course, putting the dots on the page – much like my male partner, I dare say.

2) As a woman (Yes, I am a woman), I balance career, children, friends, home, food, pets (actually only battery-operated soft toy animals to date) – much like my Swedish enlightened feminist husband then. I promise, I haven’t made him up.

3) As a woman composer (Yes – if you put numbers 1 and 2 together, you get number 3), I combine all of the above in one big mega-juggle, hands and feet! It’s acrobatic, often crazy, mostly fun and occasionally makes grown men cry. Giving up what I love doing for a more settled, regular, predictable, and, let’s face it, better paid job, would be the death of me and I hope we can all agree that we should not allow the opera ripper to do away with women off stage too.

However, encouraging anecdotes from male colleagues confirm a shift in gender roles, making taking turns and see-saw-systems of caring and sharing better suited models for allowing women to continue their work in motherhood. My bearded confrères share tales of early-night emails sent off from the floor of dark rooms full of huddled cuddly toys, bedtime routines getting in the way of Skype meetings and flight schedules needing to fit with school pickup times. I guess being a professional, pro-active, prolific parent is not an easy feat, no matter the gender or the job, but exciting childcare initiatives such as Procreate’s ‘The Mother House’ help freelance creative mothers get on with it.    

Of course, many women don’t have a bullerby of kids or a fesnyng of ferrets to worry about and still, women are outnumbered in our field. The introduction of more gender quotas would go a long way to address the under-representation of women working within opera, both in the short and the long term, as we desperately need more female top level role models to feed and inspire the grassroots and make women part of the norm. I am lucky that I am of a generation to have had in Judith Weir, Kaija Saariaho, Errollyn Wallen or Caroline Wilkins, a handful of models of female composers that I could relate to. But we want more women at the top of the game to pave the way for the next generations as the traces on this path are still fresh and fragile. The contemporary opera festival Tête à Tête, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this summer, stands as a beacon of hope for equality and diversity with its almost 50:50 split between male and female producers, as well as commissioning from transgender composers. 

Call them faults or shortcomings, I have come to see all these issues as a great opportunity to create a new sort of opera, which can be of women, with women and for everyman! I don’t mean there to be competition between genders nor should this result in ‘reverse sexism’. I see it rather as a chance to rethink the kind of work environment that we as women want; to tell stories we find relevant while giving a voice to stronger female characters; to make room for ageing singers and increase diversity in casting; to offer a platform for different formats while encouraging collaborations, and, why not, reassess what opera is and can be! Perhaps a positive consequence of being labelled an outsider on account of my gender, is that it makes it easier for me to create whatever the hell I want. 

So, this is what it is like to be a woman composer, at least for me. It isn’t any different from my male colleagues, really, and yet I feel that I am often up against a glass ceiling in everyday encounters within the industry. However, with a sisterhood of women composers in my peripheral vision, who also like to think outside the box – Jennifer Walshe, Tansy Davies, Amber Priestley, Anna Hostman, Claudia Molitor, Rebecca Saunders, Cassandra Miller, Jane Dickson, to name but a few – the future of opera has perhaps never been this exciting! 

Image: Claire Shovelton