From Lincoln Center to the Kennedy (Space) Center (or, how I really wanted to be an astronaut instead of Astrofiammante)

I’ve always felt a bit of an odd one amongst my opera-singing colleagues. Of course, many singers can point to an earlier dream or vocation: there are famous examples of those who were on their way to becoming doctors, lawyers, and scientists when they were ‘discovered’ to have an amazing singing voice, or started out playing an instrument before deciding to pursue a vocal career. But the majority have wanted to be opera singers since early childhood. Not me. I didn’t decide I wanted to study singing until my late teens, and didn’t start to specialise as a classical singer until part way through my bachelor’s degree.

What I really wanted to be when I grew up was an astronaut. Star Trek reruns (I’m too young *ahem* to have watched the original series when it first aired) and the Space Shuttle programme fired my pre-adolescent imagination…wow, I want to go to outer space! 

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I was reminded of those old dreams recently, taking my youngest son to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We got to meet an actual astronaut, Anna Fisher, who was among the first American women (and the first mother) to go into space, and I remembered how exciting it was to learn that girls could grow up to be astronauts in real life, not just on TV.

Somehow music took over from studying the science or engineering I would have needed to apply to the space programme. I started aiming for the ‘star-flaming queen of night’ instead of for the stars. A few years ago, however, I did get to add a tiny contribution to NASA history, providing the solo vocal line in the background music (scored by British composer Richard Blair-Oliphant) for the documentary RocketMen, a joint BBC/Sony Pictures depiction of the first 50 years of the American space programme. The film had its initial cinematic release in Japan, and is now available on Netflix in the US. (Not, sadly, in the UK however.) 

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Perhaps that will be the closest I ever get to participating in the space programme; at least I’ve been able to wear some suspiciously Star Trekkish costumes over the years…

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RocketMen can be seen in the USA on Netflix.

A short preview is available here on YouTube: https://youtu.be/SUQPYockjf0

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.