In the discussion leading to the National Opera Review, Lindy Hume called for “a more sustainable, flexible opera ecosystem in Australia, truly integrated into (and a genuine reflection of) our contemporary society”, in an article she wrote for The Guardian in 2014. On the eve of her departure from Opera Queensland in 2017 Hume stated in another article written for The Guardian: “Like others, I am troubled by opera’s gender imbalance, lack of diversity, the racism and misogyny of many classics.” She continued that “From behind the scenes to the stage, the misogyny and cruelty to women embedded in the opera repertoire has been written about often since Catherine Clément’s excellent Opera: the Undoing of Women in the 1970s. Yet still opera narratives of rape, murder and abuse, or stereotypes – from Carmen’s “bad girl” to Cinderella’s “good girl” – go unquestioned by creative teams.”

Sally Blackwood. Photo © Sam English/Louisville Ballet

I too have a personal love/hate relationship with opera. It’s an internal battle between my desire to participate in this extraordinary meeting of artforms with the potential to tell the grand narratives of our time through sonic and visual imagery in the epic and the intimate – contrasted with its opera gaze or myopic view that stifles opera’s own evolution. The ‘opera gaze’ refers to the entrenched hierarchical institutional strictures that presently affect the way opera is made and viewed; the acceptance of white male power and privilege as the norm; the defending of stories which perpetuate racist, sexist and damaging stereotypes glossed over by music; the maintenance of elitist perceptual and political biases; and the perpetuation of harmful objectification of women.

In April this year, these deep systemic issues within opera revealed themselves in a public forum at NOW2019. Alison Croggon’s Opera and the invisibility of women aired the grievances of women who had been in attendance and their critique of the entrenched bias and structural nature of sexism and other exclusionary forces that underpin many of the norms, expectations and practices of opera. The conference proved to be the catalyst needed to incite action for positive universal reform, or quite simply to shift the opera gaze to a more inclusive view of opera in contemporary Australia today. An opera ecology which embodies conversations around identity, representation and privilege. Composer Liza Lim says, “gender discrimination and unconscious bias are notoriously sticky problems that are hard to shift as shown in wider society and also, ironically, in the way our call to action echoes Lindy Hume’s call from five years ago. But art is a place for imagining new ways of being and it can connect us to alternative ways of knowing – how, with whom and why we make art absolutely has a role in shaping what kind of world we live in.” This is a time of tectonic societal change and the arts plays a crucial role in questioning and shaping cultural norms and attitudes around gender and diversity. Opera cannot avoid these questions, and despite its resistance to change, it’s no time for apathy.

Mary Finsterer’s Biographica

When it comes to opera in Australia, it’s complex. Weighed down by its own burden of European history, opera in Australia is an arcane colonial artform struggling to hold onto its own legitimacy in an ever-advancing contemporary world moving far beyond the post-colonial. So much of what counts as opera and is funded to be opera is at odds with its surroundings and so many questions arise as this artform tries to come to terms with itself, its relationship to our ancient land, our diverse population, and the 21st century.

As Roland Peelman, Artistic Director of the Canberra International Music Festival, said, “Opera as an artform is indeed a bastion of traditionalism, conservative value systems and ingrained gender bias – all this in spite of its long-standing internal liberal ethos. It is one of the great contradictions of the artform, born out of the historic compromise between art practitioners and the economic models that underpin the artform. It won’t easily change, but we’ve got to talk about it – loudly!”

Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits

It’s time to look and it’s time to listen. It’s time to reconsider what opera is or can be in the twenty-first century. Moreover, it’s time to acknowledge as vocalist Jessica Aszodi puts it, that “(when we) invite people into the room with a different perspective, the conversation changes… When there’s a critical mass of women in a room, empowered to contribute meaningfully to artistic decision-making, the tone, atmosphere, and collaborative practices just seem to change… If every key decision is made by a man, it’s very hard to imagine how female subjectivity could be represented in its nuances, or for female performers to feel included in deciding how their performances are framed. To make matters worse, in an environment like that, younger artists don’t get to access experiences that would give them the skills to do things differently.”

Speaking to Myf Warhurst on ABC Radio on March 22, 2019, Sandra Willis, Opera Queensland Executive Director, discussed the importance of women in senior decision-making roles in opera. “The majority of the people working in the performing arts are women, and the largest audience is women… we need to be considering who is making those decisions as to what goes on to our stages.” Willis added that it is important to question “who is making the decision as to who gets the next opportunity…what’s the enabler to get the next generation to come through.” Willis’s analysis of what needs to be done is crystal clear: “we have to respond to the demand to have their voices heard, their stories on our stages.” And in relation to presenting works of the opera canon Willis says “we have to look at the work we’re putting on our stages, who is reimagining those classics, and how are they being reimagined.” The role of women in leadership in opera is integral to making change happen, quietly (or sometimes loudly) advocating from the inside. Willis in her past role as Executive Producer (touring and outreach) for Opera Australia, spearheaded Kate Miller-Heidke’s commission for The Rabbits (2015), but this fact is rarely known; and the work of many women is rarely seen or brought to the fore as, for the most part, the opera gaze consigns their position to the unseen unheard associate of the male artistic director.

Women in opera need to be not only acknowledged for their work, their passion and dedication to the artform, but placed front and centre, asked for their opinion, introduced as a driving force in the industry. The championing of the representation of women in opera, inviting women in, making space, and creating opportunities, enriches the opera ecology exponentially. Women in all facets of the opera creative industry – composers, directors, designers, conductors, singers, writers, producers – need to be recognised, supported and seen. Respected and championed alongside their male counterparts. This open public discussion of women in opera is key to systemic change. In Australia the conversation has started and it’s time for leadership to lean in.

From the programme for Sweet Death, Merlyn Theatre Malthouse, 1991

In this moment, Australia has the chance to celebrate the past and present achievements of women in opera whilst simultaneously empowering new voices and opening up an exciting new inclusive future of opera. But for this to truly happen the opera gaze must shift – further than quotas (although that may be a good start), broader than ticking boxes of women as percentage markers, towards a true appreciation of women. Aszodi adds “If you’ve not had a chance to talk before, and you start talking, the conversation is going to change… I don’t want to knock down the houses (institutions), I just want them to leave the door unlocked and the windows open.”

Historically it has been a necessity for women artists to create their own structures, set up their own companies, and claim, subvert, reinvent, evolve what opera can be. In turn the female voice has proved a fundamental and invaluable part of the opera ecology in both innovation and design of the content and form of opera. Composer Andrée Greenwell addresses the economic and political realities of exclusion: “In Australia most composers and theatre artists do not have access to the resources of an opera company. Many artists have been inventing exciting new forms for some decades now that variously engage combinations of ritual, narrative (linear and non-linear) meaning … the work of women composers and vocalists extends into para-operatic, music theatre and then other creative vocal arts, in response to access to resources.” In regards to Greenwell’s own opportunities in opera she says: “I have had the privilege of composing a chamber opera when Melbourne Festival commissioned Sweet Death (1991), directed by Douglas Horton, produced by Chamber Made Opera, which subverted the role of the operatic heroine. Right now I am developing a multilingual chamber opera Three Marys which will be workshopped later this year with Opera Queensland.”

Howling Girls, Sydney Chamber OperaJane Sheldon in Sydney Chamber Opera’s The Howling Girls. Photo © Zan Wimberely

Two exceptional new opera works (re)claiming the artform and (re)shaping the operatic landscape through collaborative practice and through the use of a viscerally affecting sound-score, arresting imagery and technological innovation are Cat Hope’s Speechless which premiered at this year’s Perth Festival and featured an Indigenous music director, metal singer Karina Utomo, and a 40 piece ‘bass orchestra and community choirs’; and Adena Jacobs and Damien Ricketson’s Howling Girls (Sydney Chamber Opera, 2018) made in collaboration with Jane Sheldon and The House That Dan Built, which was awarded the Music Theatre Now at Operadagen Rotterdam 2019. Both these works delve deeply into the contemporary conversation of what opera can be, challenge the inherent boundaries of the artform, and engage with resonant issues of the social and political zeitgeist.

Hope joins Greenwell in stating that “opera in the contemporary era can be whatever we decide it is. Electronics, interactivity and community participation are all part of contemporary practice.” Hope continues saying that “It is important that opera pick up on what the music of our day is, and can be. It doesn’t need to be bound by traditional stories, singing or composition styles. New operas should reflect the stories and styles of our time…women and non-binary people are an important part of these stories and styles, which is why the inclusion of our ideas, stories, opinions and creative vision is so important to the operatic canon at this point in time. Our casting needs to reflect this too – who we are and want to be in a better world.”

Elliot Madore and Marisol Montalvo in Liza Lim’s Tree of Codes at Spoleto Festival © William Struhs

This crucial listening and enabling of new voices in opera is already resonant in the international arena where in 2016 Kaija Saariaho was the first woman composer to have her work programmed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York since Der Wald by Ethel M. Smyth in 1903. Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin was staged by Robert Lepage and conducted by Susanna Mälkki also in her company debut. This programming paved the way in 2018 for the Met to commission new works by female composers Jeanine Tesori and Missy Mazzoli. Simultaneously in Europe, Olga Neuwirth is the first woman commissioned by the Vienna State Opera in its 150 years. Neuwirth’s Orlando will premiere in December this year.

There are a multiplicity of voices to celebrate. Some of the women (re)claiming the operatic landscape in Australia are: Deborah Cheetham and her company Short Black Opera’s Pecan Summer (2010); Permission to Speak (2016) by Chamber Made’s artistic director Tamara Saulwick and composer Kate Neal featuring Gian Slater; Rhetorical Chorus created by performance maker Agatha Gothe-Snape and composed by Megan Alice Clune, commissioned for New York’s Performa Biennial (2015) presented by Performance Space, Carriageworks (2017); Mary Finsterer’s Biographica (2017) created with Tom Wright and Ensemble Offspring and directed by Janice Muller for Sydney Chamber Opera, described by The Australian as “Inventive, engaging, stimulating and moving, Biographica is an outstanding new opera. It deserves regular performances as well as a permanent place in the repertory”; Liza Lim’s fourth opera, Tree of Codes, commissioned by Cologne Opera which Ensemble musikFabrik premiered in 2016 and which received its second international staging at Spoleto Festival 2018; and finally world-renowned composer Elena Kats-Chernin begins rehearsals for Whiteley next week, her first Opera Australia commission.

Cat Hope’s Speechless. Photo © Rachel Barrett

In ‘Opera and the doing of women’ Liza Lim, Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk and I wrote an urgent and timely open letter and ‘call to action’ for systemic change in opera. Our article is an invitation for support and a call to those in leadership in opera to drive the change. We call on opera to step up and join the contemporary conversation on diversity. The co-signatories include important senior figures such as Deborah Cheetham AO, Professor Cat Hope, Emeritus Professor Anne Boyd AM, Esther Anatolitis Executive Director National Association for the Visual Arts, John Davis CEO Australian Music Centre, Andrée Greenwell composer and Artistic Director Green Room Music, Elaine Chia CEO City Recital Hall, Roland Peelman Artistic Director Canberra International Music Festival, Nicole Beyer Executive Director Theatre Network Australia, Vanessa Chapple Chair of the Australian Women Directors Alliance, and the world-renowned Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth; and also includes names of many younger composers, musicians, theatre directors, writers and designers who represent the next-generation wave of artists who will shape the arts in Australia in the years to come. There’s been a groundswell of support from the wider arts community who advocate for diversity and support the key objectives for fundamental change.

Just as there is diversity in our audiences, there is multiplicity of voices and diverse people working in opera, creating work and pushing boundaries of form and content through innovative technology and inclusive practice. These voices and more need to be heard, profiled, championed, respected and given space. Opera in Australia can only benefit from and be enriched by celebrating our diversity in the stories it tells, the creatives it nurtures and the voices it shares. The survival, sustainability and legacy of opera depends on it.

Sally Blackwood is an exceptional opera director producing new work internationally. A guest director and dramaturg at Opera Australia and Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and lecturer at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), Blackwood is an opera architect specialising in the creation of new operatic form. Blackwood is a directing graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), holds a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) from the University of New South Wales and is a current Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) candidate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and recipient of the George Henderson Scholarship of Merit. Blackwood’s most recent opera/ballet, Project Faust with Kentucky Opera & Louisville Ballet, described as ‘an antidote for our age of entitlement’ premiered in the USA March 2018. Blackwood is a passionate creator of new operatic work and her DMA research at Sydney Conservatorium of Music explores the resonance of opera in contemporary society. 

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