With all the great women’s roles in opera, from Aida to Norma to Tosca, bringing up the issue of increasing women’s role in opera could seem like begging the question. Or like the setup for a punch line—how many sopranos do you need to put on an opera? But at the recent Opera America conference, held earlier this month in Washington D.C., a session on Women in Arts Leadership drew about 100 people, most of them women, for an energetic discussion prompted by questions like: Why are there so few women leading opera companies? Why are most of the new operas produced still written by men? If more women could make decisions, would the subjects of new operas change somehow—maybe featuring more parts for women?
The all-women panel, including three opera company directors, was eager to move past such questions and start acting on solutions. One panelist suggested a goal of reaching thirty percent participation in each category of opera production, from directors to composers, set designers and more—a level that’s considered a tipping point after which further changes can begin to take care of themselves.
Opera America has already begun one strategic initiative: offering commissioning grants to women composers, and to opera companies willing to help produce their work. I was there at the conference with one of the seven recent grant winners, Kitty Brazelton, a fantastic composer and an old friend from college. We’re working together on a new opera project, and the grant she received will make possible a workshop performance this fall, in New York. We’ve both worked on opera projects before, with collaborators who happened to be men—although the first music project Kitty and I worked on, playing in a four-piece folk-rock band she organized in our freshman year, was also an all-women venture.
Will our project, called Art of Memory, be flavored differently somehow because of our gender? Since the subject is the struggles of two male saints—St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, who knew each other in Milan in the 4th century—it wouldn’t seem to be nudging any gender shift in subject matter. But Kitty is writing both leading parts to be sung by women. In fact, she plans to sing St. Ambrose herself, contrasting her rock-mezzo vocals with more traditional opera vocal style. Very cool!
Women have traditionally played some male roles, called “trouser roles,” often when the male character is young. Our project’s cross-casting is meant as a way to shake up the audience’s encrusted ideas about two long-revered saints. In my last opera project, Judgment of Midas, Kamran Ince rewrote the part of the god Pan for a soprano. Another composer, Melissa Dunphy, used a similar approach in her 2009 piece, The Gonzales Cantata, with music set to the transcribed testimony of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dunphy neatly flipped the casting of the piece, so that the nearly all-male participants in the original hearings were all sung by sopranos; only Sen. Dianne Feinstein was sung by a man. In this case, the number of sopranos needed to put on an oratorio, at least, was fourteen.
Change is happening in opera, and we don’t know where it will lead. It’s exciting to be part of that.