Closing the Gender Gap

By Matthew Sigman

As vocal artists, women have always captured center stage, but out of the spotlight leading roles for women in opera have been limited. As composers, conductors and managers, their presence has been out of sync with that of their male counterparts. But a convergence of initiatives on behalf of women in opera is now generating what composer Laura Kaminsky calls a “watershed” moment. “There is increasing support for talented, hardworking women across all aspects of the field,” she says.

Among these initiatives are the Opera Grants for Female Composers, launched in 2014 by OPERA America with the support of The Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation; The Dallas Opera’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, which recently received a $500,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and OPERA America’s Women’s Opera Network, a grassroots initiative developed by leaders in the field to cultivate opportunities for women as artistic and general directors.

“The field has long been aware of the gender gap within the broader opera community,” says OPERA America President/CEO Marc A. Scorca. “The challenge has been finding sustainable solutions for long-term change, and we are beginning to see that now. We are delighted to have found the means and the partners to take action.”

Composer Sheila Silver (in red jacket) takes a bow following a performance of selections from her latest work, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” at OPERA America’s New Opera Showcase, which took place January 19 at Trinity Wall Street in Manhattan. Also pictured (l–r): mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano, soprano Vira Slywotzky, tenor Thor Arbjornsson, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and conductor Sara Jobin (photo: Jeff Reeder).

Data derived from OPERA America research has been fundamental for quantifying disparities and setting goals for each of these initiatives. When the Opera Grants for Female Composers program was established, it was estimated that of the $13 million awarded by OPERA America over 25 years in support of new American operas, fewer than five percent of those grants had been awarded to women. To remediate the imbalance, the Toulmin-funded program supports a dual strategy: Discovery Grants of up to $15,000 made directly to female composers to develop new works, and Commissioning Grants of up to $50,000 awarded to professional opera companies to support commissions of works by women. Fifteen Discovery Grants and six Commissioning Grants have been awarded so far. Additional granting cycles are in progress.

Kaminsky herself was the recipient of a Discovery Grant in 2014 in support of As One, a work developed by American Opera Projects that has since gone on to multiple productions, and will be featured next season at Opera Colorado. Two more operas are in the works. “I never thought I would write an opera or have entrée into the opera world,” says Kaminsky. She considers the Opera Grants for Female Composers program a “clarion call” of opportunity.

In December, The Dallas Opera launched the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, designed to advance the careers of women on the podium. In defining the need for the program, the company cited OPERA America data indicating that, although major North American opera companies (those with budgets over $10 million) will present more than 100 productions in the 2015–2016 season, only five percent of those performances will be led by women. The program includes master classes, coaching, lectures and podium time with The Dallas Opera Orchestra. Six fellows and four observers were selected from a global pool of applicants.

“The program is not only about the residency,” says Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny, who spearheaded the initiative. “It is also about building community and building visibility.” The company has made a five-year commitment to support alumni with follow-up gatherings and conference calls, as well as strategies for personal branding. “Talented women conductors are too often passed over for important positions and opportunities because they haven’t caught the attention of artist management agencies, board search committees and the people most involved in an opera company’s day-to-day hiring decisions,” Cerny says.

Master classes were led by Dallas Opera Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement, who is also founder and artistic director of Opera Parallèle. Paiement emphasizes that opening doors for women is not just a matter of gender parity. It has direct bearing on the artistic product available to the entire field. “The more variety on the podium, the more variety in musicality you will have,” she says.

Although her primary role at the institute is working on technique, Paiement empathizes with the career challenges that female conductors face, both the perceptual barriers (“Musicians and audiences expect men,” she says) and the institutional barriers: “Women are eager to go into the professional world, but how? By assisting another conductor? It’s hard to move up from that step.” One suggestion for crossing that barrier, she says, is to build an ensemble of one’s own. “Pay musicians and get on the podium and get some experience,” she says. “It’s an investment in your career.”

Initiated in response to a standing-room-only session at Opera Conference 2015 in Washington, D.C., the Women’s Opera Network was chartered “to increase awareness of and discussion about diversity and gender parity in the field, create action plans to promote the advancement of talented women, and become a source of support for emerging female professionals.” In January, the network launched a website (operaamerica.org/WON) that presents data on the history of women in the field, spotlights women leaders in opera and features news stories about women’s accomplishments in both the nonprofit and business worlds.

Data derived from OPERA America research served as the foundation for quantifying disparities and determining objectives for the network. A steering group analyzed OPERA America’s annual reports to establish a baseline by which to measure progress. Among their findings, going back 25 years, is the consistently low presence of female general directors at the largest American opera companies (8 percent). The presence increases at midsize companies (17 to 21 percent), with parity to men coming closest at the smallest companies, where 49 percent of general director positions are held by women.

Deborah Sandler, general director and CEO of Lyric Opera of Kansas City, co-chairs the Women’s Opera Network with Kaminsky and Kim Witman, senior director of Wolf Trap Opera. The program and its website are administered by OPERA America’s director of artistic services, Laura Lee Everett. Sandler is not surprised by the recent confluence of initiatives for composers, conductors and managers in opera: “There may be the appearance of ‘all of a sudden’ but the calls for solutions have been increasing,” she says. She notes that the opera field is mirroring trends in other arts disciplines, including film, theater and museums.

Sandler believes that disparities in the presence of women in artistic positions in opera are particularly ironic, considering the preponderance of female ticket buyers in opera audiences. “If women are buying the tickets, shouldn’t we be more sensitive as to how we tell our stories?” she says. The challenge, Sandler believes, is not simply a matter of advancing women today, but rather cultivating an environment that welcomes them in the future. “It’s a deterrent for most women to look at the field and not see people who look the same way they do,” says Sandler. “Things will change when there are more women sitting in chairs where the decisions are made.”

Sessions addressing opportunities for women are on the agenda for Opera Conference 2016, which will take place May 18 to 21 in Montreal. “Last year’s conference was the catalyst for the Women’s Opera Network,” says Laura Lee Everett. “It demonstrated that these individual initiatives for women in opera — supported by men as well as women, by artists, administrators, trustees and philanthropists — are not just isolated campaigns. They are, collectively, a true movement toward parity in leadership. We’re confident that as we raise the volume of awareness through the Women’s Opera Network, we will raise the volume of opportunity for women.”

Matthew Sigman is the former editor of Opera America Magazine. A frequent contributor to Opera News, American Theatre and Chorus America, he is a three-time winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. He received an M.B.A. form the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

This article was excerpted from the Spring 2016 issue of Opera America Magazine, the quarterly of the national nonprofit service organization for opera. Members of OPERA America receive the print and digital editions of Opera America Magazine as a benefit of membership. Join today.