Stark Gender Imbalance at U.S. Opera Companies Extends Beyond Podiums

Observers have long decried the lack of opportunities given to female conductors and composers at leading opera companies. A recent study found that women have been dramatically underrepresented in other crucial creative roles as well.

Men accounted for 95 percent of the conducting credits at the 11 largest American opera companies between 2005 and 2021, the researchers found. But men also dominated other major roles in opera, it found: they accounted for 85 percent of directoring credits, 88 percent of set-designer credits, 85 percent of lighting-designer credits and 59 percent of costume-designer credits.

The findings were included in “Unequal Opera-tunities: Gender Inequality and Non-Standard Work in US Opera Production” a research article that was published online last Tuesday in “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion,” a peer-reviewed journal.

“In 2023, these rates of representation for women are not OK and not necessary, because women are out there, they’re working in other fields and other performing arts,” one of the paper’s authors, Caitlin Vincent, a senior lecturer in creative industries at the University of Melbourne, said in an interview. She wrote the paper with Amanda Coles, a senior lecturer in arts and cultural management at Deakin University, also in Melbourne.

“These are the heaviest hitters,” Vincent added, referring to the companies they examined, which included the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “They have clout. So what they do matters significantly more.”

The paper found that “the gender profile of directors has a snowball effect on the gender breakdown of creative teams.”

“By hiring more women directors,” it said, “companies are likely to see an increase in women designers across productions.”

The paper singled out an outlier among the 11 companies: the Washington National Opera, which outpaced others when it came to hiring female conductors, directors and other members of its creative teams. That was even more pronounced in the five most recent seasons in the study period, when more than half of Washington’s directors and more than a third of its conductors were women.

The authors noted that it was the only company in the study sample whose artistic director was a woman: Francesca Zambello, who has held the post for a decade.

Zambello, who is also a director of opera productions, said in a phone interview that her earlier leadership of the Glimmerglass Festival, an annual summer event in upstate New York, had helped her establish a pipeline of female talent that she could draw on in Washington.

She said that she did not hire more women solely because she saw it as the right thing to do. “I was motivated by box office,” she said. “It’s important that women ticket-buyers and donors see representation.”

The paper found that the companies were increasing opportunities for women during the time frame studied. And there have been more notable developments in the years since.

In August of 2021, Eun Sun Kim became the musical director at the San Francisco Opera, making her the first woman to hold that title at a major company. And at the Metropolitan Opera, where only one percent of the conductors during the 16-season study period were women, more than 20 percent of this season’s conductors are women, with several prominent conductors making their company debuts, including Marin Alsop, Oksana Lyniv and Xian Zhang. Five productions will be directed or co-directed by women as well.

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