“Young soprano Elizabeth Gentner…has a supple, full-bodied voice perhaps better suited for a larger venue, but displayed a confidence and command of comedy unusual in a performer at such an early stage in her career.” ~Kathleen Whalen, Daily Republic Correspondent
The above interview with Jesse Norman has been making the rounds yesterday… The headline is “Why I Ignore My Critics.”
Honestly, that statement is the least interesting, least surprising thing said by one of the reigning masters of the operatic sphere. Far more interesting, however, were her statements about how women are treated differently than men in opera. Her remarks about fitting the costume to the singer rather than the singer to the costume were right on target. This is what was substantive in this interview, however the headline did not read: Jesse Norman Discusses Blatant Sexism and Discrimination in Opera.
This is a problem. Further it’s a problem that operatic circles are dismissing. Sexism in Opera, the now infamous Glyndebourne review is just the tip of the iceberg. The costume situation Mrs. Norman discusses references Deborah Voigt being dismissed for not fitting into a costume. However, that is not an isolated instance but rather a pervasive and growing attitude that female opera singers should look a certain way before their voice is considered. That sentiment is generally not applied to men, certainly not at the same scale.
It’s no secret that classical music has a problem with sexism but to look around at the orchestras in the United states and there are far more women than there used to be. No one is yelling victory yet but there has been some progress. Orchestras have started to fill some chairs with female instrumentalists, who face their own problems.
Opera doesn’t appear to have even tried to change for the better… Operatic educational programs fund male singers, starting in college with scholarships to universities then later to young artist programs. Every roadblock along the way, there is money directed specifically to male singers. Requirements for opera programs are far more stringent for female over male singers to the point of the age requirements being different by years. A woman with a better voice, work ethic, language, musicianship and acting skills will have a much harder time than an average male singer breaking into the industry in the first place and she will continue to find more competition and less funding as she proceeds.
The consistent and overwhelming number of female singers over male is not considered a problematic issue, it is regarded as a standing joke. Yet in an industry so overwhelmingly female, the positions of power are not even remotely balanced between the sexes. Though women hold a significant majority, they are treated as an unfortunate minority.
Who is doing the hiring? Mostly men. Who is conducting? Men. Who is directing? Mostly men. Who is composing opera? Men. Who is on stage (as leads)? Mostly men. Even in operas where the title character is female, men still make up the vast majority of the other characters on stage. The notable exception that has made it into the standard repertory is Suar Angelica, with an all female cast with a plot about a particularly “sinful” nun. This, sadly, doesn’t do much for equality. Opera is a historical art form and is as such a reflection of the times in which it was created. It is natural that some imbalance would remain. However, this trend persists in the new works that are being funded.
These new operas tend to favor men as well and are still written predominantly by men. Moby Dick by Jake Heggie has one role for a woman dressed as a man. Dr. Atomic by John Adams, has six male leads and two female. There are many more examples following this pattern. The stories that are being performed on the operatic stage require a large number of men because they are about men, being written and composed by…men.
The entertainment industry got the memo about sexism and the changing needs of the audience, not that they’ve quashed sexism in entertainment, however it is clear that an effort is being made. TV shows and movies provide a steady stream of female-centric programming see Scandal, Hunger Games, Frozen, and so many more. Even Downton Abbey has a more balanced cast than an average opera.
The problem isn’t that this phenomenon exists, because it has for some time. The baffling part is that no one is really doing anything about it. In the movement to generate a new audience, opera companies all over the world are using the “sex sells” formula. See Seattle Opera’s new Don Giovanni promo which is very bluntly selling sex, not opera. Sex is already everywhere. Sex is already on the cover of the magazines, movies, websites. Is opera the same? Shouldn’t the goal be to market Opera as something different?
Why isn’t opera taking the “All About That Bass” route? Opera doesn’t need the photo-shop, opera doesn’t need auto-tune. Opera is all natural, baby. Opera will show you how real women sing. Opera could make stars of big girls not because they look a certain way but because they can sing Lady Gaga under the table, unplugged. (Dear Marketing Department at Pick an Opera Company, please take this concept and run with it…)
As opera looks for it’s next “Big Thing” it would do well to look at an opera written by a woman, conducted by a woman, produced by a woman, directed by a woman, about women, starring a cast full of talented women. It would be a welcome change of pace. In the meantime, opera folks, it’s time to stop talking and DO something about it, unless we want opera to go the way of the Miss America Pageant.
Pervasive sexism at its core is that women are not judged on how good they are at something they’re judged by how sexually appealing they look to men while doing it. Opera has long been able to transcend these societal limitations and get to the underlying art. Taking a step back isn’t the right move here. This conflict is an issue that the world is grappling. Opera could be the perfect place to bring this international issue front and center. Opera can and should be the champion of women who are so much more than their physical appearance.