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Women in opera


As a man, it is wise to tread carefully when involved in debates about gender equality, especially when you are possibly considered part of the problem in the first place. I recently read a piece by Sophie Gilpin ( https://auditionoracle.com/we_need_to_talk_about_women/ ) of Head First Productions in which she charts the number of women heading up small-scale opera companies and then compares it to a list of larger scale opera companies. The difference is stark and only the trenchantly misogynistic or very stupid would dispute the significance of the obvious lack of women at the top of our mid to large scale opera companies. Is it entirely coincidental?

As so often happens, reading pieces like Sophie's gives one pause for thought and encourages you to look more closely at your organisation to see how you measure up in the context of the argument. Her piece was about the people leading companies and naturally, since she rightly points out that James and I are both men, there can be little dispute there. A look at our 2017 season paints a better picture. Two of our four productions had all female creative heads (conductor Sian Edwards and director Olivia Fuchs on Kat'a; director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings on Zaza). Our Young Artists director in 2017 was Roxanna Haines. Indeed, our Young Artists programme, still only six years old,  has featured several women; conductors Natalie Murray, Holly Mathieson, and directors Emma Rivlin, Deborah Cohen, Fiona Williams, Rosie Purdie and Roxanna Haines. 

Over the years, women directors, including Rodula Gaitanou, Annilise Miskimmon and Elaine Kidd have been regulars at OHP. Worth noting, I think, that Annilise went on to head Danish National Opera, has now taken up the reins in Oslo and both she and Olivia have been very influential at OHP, playing distinctive and important roles in our development as a company.

Our company manager and virtually the entire stage management team were women in 2017. As a company, our head of development and her team are all women, our events manager is a woman and all of James's production team and management are women. A third of our board are women. None of this is intended to be  a refutation of Sophie's argument by the way, because her point was principally about those leading companies, but it may give some encouragement with respect to those who are building careers. 

Further consideration of the issue leads me onto thinking about the influence women have had on both me personally and the industry in general. In my case, women have always featured prominently among those I admire or from whom I seek counsel and they range from journalists/critics and editors, management in other companies (not just opera), agents, artists and of course singers themselves. I think women do have quite a prominent and influential presence in the opera industry (certainly within my little corner of it) albeit not yet at the head of our principal companies.  It is likely to become of some potent relevance that the smaller companies that Sophie lists have women at the top, because there is a good chance these people will will provide a strong field of candidates for the future heads of major companies - there could be a shift on the way.

I wonder what the issue has been up to this point? I was the first general director of OHP and James the first director of opera, so I'm pleading that in our defence but that isn't the case elsewhere and in nearly thirty years in the business, I have met many women I could easily imagine leading companies. It is true to say that there are many women in senior management and artistic roles in major companies but clearly, the opportunity to step up to those top spots has been elusive which supports Gilpin's argument. It was notable that two artistic director jobs at our main companies have had new appointments in the past couple of years and neither was awarded to a woman. It is unlikely that there were no women applicants. What I do think  - and this might be a cause for optimism -  is that when I hang up my OHP boots, it is very likely that the majority of applicants to replace me will be women. Whether they will be afforded the opportunity to go on to rule the roost in Covent Garden remains to be seen.

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