‘A galvanising moment’: a conference last month on contemporary opera saw the frustrations of women creators boil over. Alison Croggon reports
Perception matters. It is not simply that we have to show that what we perceive as sexism or racism is sexism or racism. It is not simply that we have to work on perception. Rather, sexism and racism works through perceptions: they are about how bodies are perceived in the first place; how words stick to bodies, a yes, a no; they are about whose way is cleared, who is cleared; whose way is impeded, who is impeded. And indeed: what is often not perceived teaches us how perception matters.
Sarah Ahmed, Evidence
It’s no secret that the opera world has a Woman Problem. Notoriously, until 2016, when it produced L’Amour de Loin by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the New York Metropolitan Opera had programmed only one opera by a woman in its 136-year history – and that was in 1903.
As Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks once said, “Everything I’ve ever wanted to do would’ve been easier had I been a boy.” The structural barriers facing female composers worldwide is formidable. Last year, statistics compiled by the Women in Music project found that of 1445 classical music concerts around the world, only 76 – 5 per cent – included at least one work by a woman.
Worse, when the figures were broken down, they found that of the total of 3524 musical works performed at those concerts, 3442 – 97.6 per cent – were written by men and only 82 – 2.3 per cent – were by women. As Matthew Dewey, ABC Classic’s music director, said in March this year: “Historically, classical music composition has been championed as a purely male artform, and modern programming reflects that absolutely.”
There’s been a lot of discussion of this problem over the years. Ideas have been mooted. Reviews have been launched. Conferences have been conferenced. As in so many other areas, in contemporary classical music the problems of exclusion often seem intractable. And although there are welcome moves towards inclusion, it seems that opera – perhaps because it remains the most high-status and culturally coveted of the classical music artforms – is peculiarly resistant to change.
Last month at the inaugural New Opera Workshop (NOW 2019), organised by Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University and Opera Queensland, the frustrations of female creators boiled over. Many women present described it as a “galvanising moment” comparable to the launch of Neil Armfield’s 2009 Belvoir St season, when a line up of 14 directors revealed only a single woman.
The Belvoir launch was a powerful visual cue that catalysed a furious debate about gender in Australian theatre. As Jane Howard reported last month, this ultimately led to concrete actions that over the past decade have radically changed gendered norms on our main stages.
Billed as a “deep dive into a series of open forums and presentations of original works to examine opera in the 21st Century”, NOW 2019 was described as “a space for ideas, conversation and exploration of opera now in contemporary culture”. It ran in parallel with a performance of Opera Queensland’s production of John Adams’ 2006 opera A Flowering Tree.
The talkfest, and the opera performance that accompanied it, have prompted calls from many women opera creators for leadership and change in Australian opera culture.
“We saw the extent of the systemic forces that hold back women’s participation in opera as composers, directors, designers and producers,” said Liza Lim, Professor of Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. “Yes, women are making opera and some have achieved notable success; yet we were dismayed to see many unthinking gestures of exclusion and the overall negative space of the artform for women. We are calling for focussed action to do better.”
Director Sally Blackwood said she was deeply angered by the conference, and equally shocked by her fear of speaking out. “I hope I won’t be hung out to dry or scapegoated by speaking up,” she said. “That’s always the fear. But by saying nothing, nothing changes.”
Blackwood said that instead of leaving the symposium inspired and excited by her artform, she was motivated by the urgent need to address the endemic prejudice faced by women. “NOW 2019 highlights the importance of curation and facilitation of open discussion. In 2019 it isn’t good enough, despite all the best intentions, to curate a one-voiced agenda. I expect better. Our female cohort deserves far better.
“What I experienced was a show of unconscionable white male privilege matched only by female solidarity in rage. I felt the room in the moment when a woman spoke up to call out the patriarchy – and was shocked when in response two of our male speakers seated behind me sniggered and belittled her statement.”
Young composer Georgia Scott said the conference had revealed profound problems in the industry, both on stage and in discussion. “Our much needed debriefs over coffee and hushed conversations in corridors were a lifeline,” she said. Another composer, Peggy Polias, also noted the crucial importance of female solidarity during the conference, saying that without it she would have been left seriously doubting the relevance and feasibility of her own work.
“I want to see everyone in the industry who considers it their responsibility to innovate or transform the art world to accept their share of the burden of making change and educating themselves, not just relying on marginalised groups, or in this case women, to do it for them,” Polias said. “It’s not enough to say ‘we’re looking to the future’ and be completely oblivious to the conversations taking place around identity, representation and privilege.”
The creators who spoke to me wanted to emphasise that although NOW 2019 catalysed their anger, they wanted to focus on the structural biases underlying opera in Australia, rather than to point the finger at a single organisation. It’s certainly an endemic problem.
Opera Australia, as the most prominent and most lavishly funded performing arts company in Australia, copped criticism last year for its gender imbalance after launching its 2018 season. As Ben Neutze pointed out in Arts Review, in the key creative roles – composer, conductor and director – the percentage of women was 4.7 per cent. (In 2017, it was 10.6 per cent). 2019 is significantly better, with 15 per cent of women in leading creative roles in its main stage productions, plus the premiere of Whiteley, a new opera by Elena Kats-Chernin. But parity remains a distant dream.
The lack of change in the face of the hard evidence that shows massive systemic bias against women makes the more subtle or ephemeral symptoms of exclusion even more insidious. “It bothers me that so often it becomes about a complaint of particulars rather than the systemic forces,” Lim said. “The particulars just keep happening. Of course they do, because the systemic underpinning stays the same.”
Participants pointed out that the problem with NOW 2019 wasn’t that women were absent. In fact, five women (and 13 men) were invited to speak. The conference presented music by women – Laura Bowler and Megan Washington performed live, and in the showcase concert, organisers ensured a broad equity of male and female composers.
An all-male panel on the creation of the contemporary operas Fly Away Peter and the upcoming Oscar and Lucinda – which didn’t include Fly Away Peter director Imara Savage and designer Elizabeth Gadsby – was a particular sore point for many women. It highlighted what some said were other notable absences from the event. Names suggested included composer Cat Hope, for example, whose opera Speechless premiered at the Perth Festival this year, Indigenous composer Deborah Cheetham, director Adena Jacobs and artistic director of Chamber Made, Tamara Saulwick.
The staging of John Adams’ A Flowering Tree, an opera based on an Indian folk tale, proved to be a lightning rod at NOW 2019. Women I spoke to told me that the staging emphasised the white colonial gaze, and reproduced the tired operatic trope of violence against women. Many women felt that it pointed to the complexities of sexism and racism in opera culture, demonstrating particularly how the reproduction of privilege in a male-dominated field is embedded in the artform itself.
As Catherine Clément showed in her ground-breaking book of feminist music criticism, Opera: Or the Undoing of Women, the violated woman is a fundamental trope of the artform. The glamourised murder, suicide, rape or mutilation of women, and the “beautiful suffering” that follows, is widely considered to be synonymous with opera itself. Likewise, artistic appropriations of women from “exotic” cultures, reflecting the global depredations of colonial Europe, are rife: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Turandot are stellar examples of this kind of orientalist kitsch.
Lim said she was disheartened by the inability of many men to even perceive the problem. “It was obvious to all of us that violence towards some kinds of bodies (especially the female, non-Western ones) is the expected norm in the artform.” She said the idea that these are “appropriate” stories for opera was reinforced by other work by men shown during the weekend.
“The issue of even noticing that violence is happening, that exclusion is happening, that there are a myriad sexist micro-aggressions happening (in language, forms of address, body language and so on) is a huge one,” said Lim. “It felt that that was only tangible to the women. The men often can’t perceive the wall because they don’t come up against it.”
Ultimately, what these artists want is simple. As composer Bree van Reyk said: “I want the stories and creative work of women to resonate equally with that of men.”
Blackwood said that there’s a lot of good work on inclusivity going on at institutions, including Queensland Conservatorium and Griffith University, who were co-presenters of NOW 2019. “There are awesome women driving change,” she said. “Professor Brydie Leigh-Bartleet, and Professor Vanessa Tomlinson at Griffith, for example, are demonstrating great leadership.
“This is about privilege, power, respect, generosity, and leadership. It’s about valuing the female cohort and enriching the artform with a diversity of voices. I want to start an open conversation and make systemic change. Opera needs to step up and come to the party.”