Cognitive dissonance: feminism and opera

Can I be both an opera singer and a good feminist? How do we reconcile participating in a sexist art form while promoting equality in our personal and political lives?

Many opera singers have come forward in the #MeToo campaign to say that sexually predatory men are not just to be found in Hollywood. No surprise there: sadly it seems to occur throughout most if not all workplaces. Beyond this despicable real life behaviour, the art form itself is sexist, both in plot (damsel in distress needing rescue, wanton woman being punished, powerful women being depicted as evil, etc.) and in practice (fewer roles for women compared to roles for men in most of the opera repertoire, most women’s roles falling within a very narrow stereotype.) It could (and often is) argued that this is as a result of most of the ‘standard’ repertoire being written in a less enlightened time than our own: the 18th and 19th centuries weren’t exactly a golden age of feminism. But even in the 20th and 21st centuries, few operas were, or are being, written with balanced casting and storylines. And in 2018 we’re still talking about how few women are taken seriously as conductors and composers (there has been some progress in the number of female stage directors. Some.) 

My feelings of unease also stem from an uncomfortable suspicion that many opera fans – my audience, the people I’m supposed to be doing all this hard work for – are supporting these attitudes. Or at least they don’t notice, or don’t care about, the sexism endemic to the artform. It’s a bit disconcerting to think that someone applauding my singing may at the same time not believe in my rights as an individual.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Opera is meant to be about telling stories in the most heightened, passionate, and virtuosic means possible. Taking the human voice to its extremes. What has gender got to do with that? Making art at the very highest level: that’s not sexist at it’s core. So opera doesn’t have to be sexist, but what can we do? 

As a start: Support other women as composers, librettists, directors, conductors, and impresarios; Treat other female singers as collaborators rather than competitors; ‘Come out’ as feminists and speak out when we see mistakes of the past being repeated and reinforced. 

So, can I be both an opera singer and a good feminist? 

I’m doing my best.

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