Supply and Demand : Gender Disparity in Opera: Part 1

According to data collected by Datausa.io, 8,133 music performance degrees were awarded in the United States in 2015. Taking a snapshot of the vocal performance degrees being awarded in the U.S. today, it becomes clear that the number of female singers far exceeds the number of male singers in colleges and conservatories.

According to the Development Resources department at Oberlin College, for classes 2006–2016 at the undergrad level, there were 156 female voice majors and 63 male voice majors. This means that over this recent 10-year period, 71 percent of the singers that graduated with voice degrees were female and 29 percent were male.

At the Boston Conservatory at Berklee during the 2016–2017 school year, the combined undergraduate and graduate vocal performance majors totaled 70 women and 27 men (72 percent female, 28 percent male).

These numbers are representative of the numbers you will find at the majority of conservatories and music programs within private colleges and public universities (with some exceptions, of course). Put simply, approximately three out of every four singers that graduate today with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in vocal performance are female.

So What’s the Big Deal?

The issue is most pressing for those singers specifically pursuing opera. An opera is considered to have good gender parity if the number of female roles is equal to or (preferably) greater than the number of male roles. The majority of operas from all time periods feature, at worst, a cast of primarily men or, at best, an equal number of male and female roles.

This can be seen perhaps most obviously in the Bel Canto operatic canon. Operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi feature one or two leading females and a barrage of men in the remaining roles. Rossini’s famous Il barbiere di Siviglia features two female roles and six male roles. Donizetti’s Don Pasquale features only one soprano (Norina) along with four male roles. Bellini’s I puritani features two female roles and five male roles (though it should be mentioned that Bellini’s operas feature more gender parity overall than his Bel Canto counterparts). In Verdi’s hit opera La traviata, there are three female roles, one of which is a “bit part” and the other a supporting role—there are nine male roles in the opera. The popular Puccini opera La bohème features two women and seven men.

Gender disparity in opera is real, and the issue continues to worsen as more and more women pursue careers in vocal performance. To further the problem, female singers as a whole take on far more school debt than their male colleagues. College voice programs end up in bidding wars with each other for the best male singers, and consequently most male singers are accustomed to much more significant scholarships than females. After school, the men are far more likely to find quality singing opportunities and paying work, whereas the women (who have more debt) have a much harder time finding opportunities—especially ones that pay. This is a vicious cycle that often ends with very talented female singers giving up their career dreams out of both frustration and financial necessity.

How Bad Is Gender Disparity in Opera?

Male singers are far more in demand than female singers and are, therefore, able to secure professional work in opera much more often. Due to this, male singers are additionally in a position to negotiate higher fees than their female counterparts, even if their part is smaller. There is also the undeniable fact that there simply are not as many men who want to sing opera for a living today. One could point to persistent cultural norms for an explanation: a “typical” male is expected to be the breadwinner (not the dreamer), has an image of machismo to sustain, and should do “a man’s work.” Perhaps as cultural norms continue to shift, we will see more men in the field of opera.

The saying “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good” (Charlotte Whitton) absolutely applies here. Due to the nature of gender proportions in professional opera, women must have immaculate technique, good looks, spotless diction, top-notch musicianship and preparation, and an absolutely winning personality in order to get anywhere in the opera business. While these are certainly sought-after qualities in male singers as well, men can lack in certain areas and still have very successful careers.

The financial challenges of keeping an opera company afloat often necessitate programming very popular operas such as Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Le nozze di Figaro, Bizet’s Carmen, and Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Fortunately, several of these operas have a significant number of female roles. Operas like Verdi’s Rigoletto, Puccini’s Tosca, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, however, are also popular choices among professional companies—all of which feature significantly more men than women.

For a more detailed look at the issue, consider the chart accessible at the QR code and link below, which provides a breakdown of female jobs and male principal jobs in the 25 most often performed operas in the world. This comprehensive chart was researched and created by Brooke Larimer, professional mezzo-soprano and business and operations manager and co-host of the wonderful Indie Opera Podcast (www.indieopera.com).

The total number of female principal roles in the chart is 96, and the total number of male principal roles is 152. Keeping in mind that approximately 75 percent of young singers entering the field of opera are female, these numbers are extremely problematic.

Young Artist Programs form a significant subset of the professional opera world and should be mentioned. There is great disparity in the number of applicants for Young Artist Programs with respect to gender (with proportions similar to those of the vocal performance degree graduates). Many companies that choose seasons with the interests of young artists in mind end up with rather good gender parity in casting. Middlebury Opera, for example, presented Puccini’s Il trittico (Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica, Il tabarro) in the summer of 2017 which, if you count the smallest roles, includes a total of 22 female roles and 15 male roles. Other companies simply fit the young artists into the regularly programmed season and, as a result, the female singers have fewer opportunities.

What Can Be Done about Gender Disparity in the Professional Opera World?

The solutions must occur at every level, starting with schools and continuing all the way up through A-level opera houses. In the next issue of Classical Singer, part two of this series will address what college vocal programs (both undergraduate and graduate) as well as summer pay-to-sing programs can and should do to alleviate gender disparity.

It is crucial that professional opera companies start taking more of an interest in gender parity. Very little responsibility for implementing change has been taken by the majority of professional opera companies (I will discuss exceptions later). It is easy for opera companies that offer decent pay and housing to find dozens of singer options for any given role, male or female. Therefore, the company will typically program a varied and interesting season as it sees fit, with little to no regard for the number of women’s roles being offered. Just because it is easy to find good men to cast does not mean that a company should not actively contribute to improving the field of opera for female singers by providing more job opportunities. Understand, however, that this is a very complicated issue.

The fact is that the gender disparity in roles in traditional operas makes sense given the time periods in which they were written. Since opera is one of the only arts entertainment fields that insists on presenting primarily historical works, little can be done to change casting in these works.

Some opera companies have taken to “gender bending”—which LOLA in Austin and MetroWest Opera (a small company that I am the founder/artistic director of) recently did with their productions of La Femme Bohème. Directors are constantly attempting to present a modern perspective on inherently male-dominated pieces. Yet there are few other solutions to the rigidity of casting traditional operas. This is where new works come in.

The shortest pathway to providing more performance opportunities to women is through new works. Many new and exciting operas have excellent gender parity. Some examples are Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon, Dolores Claiborne and Emmeline by Tobias Picker, L’Amour de loin by Kaija Saariaho, The Dangerous Liaisons by Conrad Susa, and Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov. More companies can program new works that are written by female composers/librettists, as well as new works that include many female roles.

Ideally, the stories being told in the libretti would feature more themes displaying female strength, struggle, and triumph over adversity. Librettists could consider new twists on old stories, asking themselves if the hero indeed has to be male or if setting the story in the present or future could allow certain roles to be female instead of male. Opera companies should choose works that represent a diverse range of women and cast them appropriately to avoid misrepresentations.

A Longer-Term Solution: More Diversity in Leadership

Women are severely underrepresented in the opera world, especially women of color. In addition to artists, this applies to general, executive and artistic directors, conductors, stage directors, coaches, stage managers, producers, and more. People in leadership positions at major opera companies around the world tend to be older (55+), white, and male. While there are, of course, examples of men in these positions and demographic who pay attention to gender parity, more diversity in leadership in the field of opera is essential in order to create a trickle-down effect and ensure future change.

When it comes to programming, it is not enough to change the demographic of administrators or to convince current administrators to program certain operas. The board of directors also must be considered. While the board typically takes an interest in the artistic integrity and message of the season, there is one primary bottom line, which is to keep the company afloat financially. This means ensuring donor contributions and good ticket sales. Many companies rely on donors that insist on having a direct or indirect say in choosing repertoire.

Opera companies must work with their boards and donors, have hard conversations, and together take a close look at their mission statements. More companies can choose to take an interest in gender parity and bringing unheard or marginalized voices to the public through new works or reimagined productions. When the board and leadership are on the same page, it is easier to make programming choices that align with their missions.

What Progress Has Been Made So Far?

Programs like the Dallas Opera Initiative are taking a stab at the issues of gender parity in the field of opera with their Hart Institute for Women Conductors and Administrators. These initiatives aim to help shape the future of the severely underrepresented female conductors and administrators in our industry. Programs like this help provide a necessary platform from which to challenge tradition and carve new paths by empowering women in the field.

The Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, a nonprofit organization with a mission to “level the playing field for women in classical music,” promotes work by women in the symphonic world and some in opera. Several prominent opera companies, including the Santa Fe Opera and San Francisco Opera, regularly premiere new works with adequate to good gender parity. And Chicago Opera Theater has hired its first female music director (Lidiya Yankovskaya) and now has more women than men in major leadership positions.

Progress is being made, slowly. I, for one, hope to see more companies start initiatives, like those at Dallas Opera as well as similar programs, for female stage directors and producers. Even the organizations at the forefront of this movement still have many changes and improvements to make, and not all opera companies are on the bandwagon. Hopefully, as better opportunities for women become a more and more prominent goal in our culture as a whole, we will see this reflected adequately in our field.

Look for part two of this article, which will tackle the issue of gender parity in college/conservatory vocal programs as well as pay-to-sings, in the January 2018 issue of CS.

Dana Lynne Varga

Dr. Dana Lynne Varga is a sought-after soprano, voice teacher and career coach, as well as the Founder and Artistic Director of MassOpera. She was the 2016 first place winner of the CS Competition; Emerging Professional division. Dana is currently on the Voice and Opera faculty of the Longy School of Music at Bard College in Cambridge, MA. She regularly presents vocal master classes as well as classes on business and entrepreneurship for singers all over the east coast. Please visit www.danavarga.com and www.theempoweredmusician.com.