Art Works Blog

#WomanCrushWednesday, Opera Edition

More and more, women are cutting a wide swath across the opera landscape. It used to be that women in opera were mainly on-stage or in the costume shop, however now they are beginning to be involved in every aspect of the business of opera. Some are managing opera companies as general directors, curating seasons as artistic directors, and creating vibrant musical soundscapes as conductors. Others are adding to the canon as composers who are influencing the future of the art form, nurturing opportunities for emerging composers and librettists, coaching the next generation of performing singers, and bringing larger than life characters to the stage. There has been great progress, but there is room for much, much more!

In celebration of National Opera Week, today we are chatting with five remarkable women from the opera field: Martina Arroyo (NEA Opera honoree and president and artistic director of the Martina Arroyo Foundation); Unsuk Chin (composer, artistic advisor of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, and artistic director Philharmonia Orchestra's Music of Today series); Jessye Norman (National Medal of Arts honoree and operatic soprano); Libby Larsen (director of John Duffy Institute for New Opera and composer); and Francesca Zambello (artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival and artistic director of Washington National Opera). As you’ll read in what follows, these women have diverse perspectives on everything from what opera actually is to what the field can do to nurture more women leaders. What they have in common, however, is the courage to make a difference in opera today, and the tenacity to forge a path for those women who are sure to follow. Bring it on!

FINISH THE SENTENCE: OPERA TODAY IS…

MARTINA ARROYO: Opera in my opinion is the one form of entertainment that allows one to present an idea in various forms of music. That may include music for singing, dancing, recitation, and orchestra all in the service of character development toward the telling of a dramatic story. High quality in each area and the ability to communicate to the audience must be, or become, part of the basic training.

UNSUK CHIN: Opera today is facing a number of challenges: it looks like audiences are dwindling and aging, a number of opera companies have recently closed, short-sighted and dangerous arguments against opera subsidies are being presented, and so on. For my part, I do firmly believe that opera is a social and cultural necessity that can be globally enjoyed by very different age groups and social strata. But how to reach non-audiences? In terms of production quality, I am a value-conservative and I believe that opera, this complex and delicate entity, should remain true to itself—it cannot start competing with other media or pandering to the lowest common denominator. However, in terms of diversity and content, I feel that there often ought to be more experimentation. Pressures of commercialism, die-hard habits combined with lack of imagination, redundancy in terms of repertoire and costly tickets explain at least partly why people who are searching for intellectual and emotional challenges would rather look out for a challenging novel, an arthouse movie, or for a complex TV series. If we want something to change, children and teens have to have ample opportunities to encounter opera in all its glorious complexity.

LIBBY LARSEN: [Opera today is] a person’s opportunity to dwell in a world of abstract, essential human emotions, i.e. love, death, grief, greed, power, lust, sacrifice, taboo. In this world, music, costumes, sets, lighting, sound, and movement are distilled and focused on the consequence of emotion. This is true whether the opera is a micro-alternative space chamber opera or a full-scale grand opera. It’s how the world of universal emotion is created and explored in the piece that defines it as opera.

JESSYE NORMAN: [Opera today is] as exciting and inclusive an art form as ever, with directors and singer alike expanding what one has come to define as opera stage craft. This movement toward more poignant, totally involved and believable role portrayals on stage has taken wings and opera audiences applaud these efforts. The ability of families and friends to enjoy opera performances in a cinema has broadened the resonance of this high art making it accessible in ways that are truly important in these days of too much monitor watching for one's entertainment.

FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO: Opera today is searching how to be relevant in our lives.

WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED OPERA TO KNOW ABOUT IT?

ARROYO: I would like them to prepare themselves by listening to recordings and watching DVDs of operas to have knowledge of the stories and become more familiar with the style.

CHIN: Good opera is a "power plant of emotions" (Alexander Kluge) and an indispensable remedy against technocracy: it offers us something we cannot completely grasp with reason, and yet it stimulates reflection—so is not a mere escape from reality. At best, it can be more than a sum of its parts in its unique combination of music, literature, and visual arts. I firmly believe that a great opera written hundreds of years ago and staged in a creative way continues to tell us a lot about the human condition.

LARSEN: You are in for an adventure not like any you’ve had before! Be prepared to let your emotions free to go where the opera takes them and stay with those emotions until at least the day after the performance. You might find yourself revisiting these emotions many times more over the years. You may experience time in a way which might not be comfortable at first. It might feel as if that time is passing much more slowly than you experience it in your everyday life. Enjoy this feeling; it’s the feeling of dwelling. You also may experience a different kind of singing than you are used to. And you may not understand the words that are being sung. Opera singers train their voices to fill large performance halls without using amplification. To do this, they train their bodies and their voices in ways that are not really needed for other kinds of singing performance, like choirs, Broadway musicals, bands, club ensembles, and other styles which often use amplification. [Wear to the opera] anything you are comfortable wearing when you want to set your own stage for listening, feeling, and owning the experience.

NORMAN: I would ask them to try and come to this new experience with an open mind, to listen to the overture to say Carmen—not the whole opera right away—then read the libretto. Listen to the opera and then decide if there is anything there that might provoke a second listening. Another opera listening session, perhaps the whole opera? Carmen could serve as a great beginning! I would like the “never-experienced” to know that there is something for every listener in this vast and diverse musical treasure. and if [they are] willing to listen first then seek to see, there will be something that appeals. Of this I am certain. I have taught five-year olds to enjoy an “opera song,” as they call them. I have also had a fifteen-year-old New York City kid to relay the sad ending of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas to be one of his favorite pieces of music! What could give one more certainty of the power of music and the indelible imprint of music and words combined?

ZAMBELLO: Opera can be primal. It can tell big stories about our lives through words and music like nothing else.

ARE YOU DOING THINGS TO ENCOURAGE EMERGING LEADERS IN OPERA? WHAT DO YOU THINK COULD BE DONE TO HELP MORE WOMEN ASSUME LEADERSHIP POSITIONS IN OPERA?

ARROYO: I created a program, Prelude to Performance, for young developing artists, which, of course, includes female characters, as well as hiring many young women in non-singing positions. I am often asked to speak in schools to encourage young talented people. We have our own outreach program for very young audiences that engages directly with underserved populations in the New York City Public School system. I am always aware of talent, especially young women, and try to encourage them.

CHIN: I don't have a recipe for this, but obviously role models play an important role—due to them, a career option that might not have been widely considered viable for a given demographic becomes just that. As a composer, I have not much thought about gender issues, even though I do belong to a minority in my profession (some people still think that classical music has been exclusively written by dead European males): I have just tried to do my own job as well as I can and not ponder what other people might be thinking. But when I organize concerts and when I'm involved in the casting of an opera of mine, I feel responsible and try to remain as curious as possible, look out for characters, promote emerging talents, and not content myself with mere “names.” Curiosity, after all, is like a muscle and has to be trained—and it is easier to contribute to breaking down of glass ceilings if one is aware how easy it is to fall into lazy habits and stereotypes. The star system in the opera business is this kind of habit. I’ve nothing against “stars” per se, but ideally, the production should be the main thing and the whole production team rather than a single person should be the star as it were.

LARSEN: I mentor opera composers in both the composition and the business of opera and I make connections for them wherever possible. Whenever I’m connected with a person who is passionate about becoming involved in opera—production/administration/potential board member—I spend as much time as they will give discussing the intricacies of producing opera in light of American culture. [To help more women achieve leadership positions, we need to] actively identify them and put them in positions of significant lasting power.

NORMAN: I work privately with lovely young singers who are making their way quite beautifully in the profession. The school for middle school children in my hometown of Augusta, Georgia, which bears my name is indeed a wonderful place to see eleven to fifteen year-olds learning, participating in, and enjoying their artistic discoveries, including opera. They experience live opera performances and tell their friends about it all. There are several opera houses where women are the general intendants and it would fine to see more women on the conductor's podium. The problem here is the same as in many other professions: opportunity and access. Pure and simple. More opera trustee boards would do well to consider the make-up of the administrative divisions, as well as a gentle coaxing of the musical directors to think more clearly of a collective that looks more like the audiences they wish to serve. That inclusiveness in the arts that we wish the public to embrace should be embraced in the opera house itself.

ZAMBELLO: At Glimmerglass we have a large group of interns every season who work in every aspect of production and administration. We then try to help place them in companies or further their education with real connections to professionals. We are proud to have placed people in many companies in their various admin departments. To encourage more female leadership it has to come from the top levels, meaning general directors and trustees need to hire women and place them in the top positions.

WHAT’S COMING UP ON THE OPERA HORIZON THAT YOU’RE LOOKING FORWARD TO?

ARROYO: There's so much I have to look forward to on the opera horizon. First, we have our gala coming up with my foundation on November 7 to help raise money for our Prelude To Performance (PTP) training program next summer. It's undoubtedly one of our most ambitious to date: we're doing Carmen and a double bill with Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. We also have several weekends of auditions coming up for PTP and we'll hear well over 400 singers. We also have our Role Preparation Class that I'll be teaching for 12 weeks and that begins in January. I'm also very excited about our outreach program! With our incredible volunteers and young artists, we're taking opera into the schools. So you can see, there's so much for me to be excited about and we're very grateful to have these opportunities to further training for young artists and to bring opera to our community.

CHIN: To name but a very few highlights that come spontaneously into my mind, I am looking forward to Händel's oratorio Jephtha staged by the extraordinary director Claus Guth in Amsterdam next week, to Alberto Ginastera's Bomarzo, a mysteriously neglected 20th-century masterwork in Madrid next year, and to a new opera by George Benjamin at the Covent Garden. I very dearly hope that the outstanding film director Michael Haneke will return to opera—his staging of Cosi fan tutte was a revelation, and it is great to hear about eminent stage director Graham Vick's important and ambitious community projects. 

LARSEN: I am looking forward to the opera world understanding its emotionally relevant past with an eye toward generating and producing new opera which connects more deeply with our emotionally relevant present.

NORMAN: I am looking forward to witnessing the new production at the Met of Tristan, the most sublime of music, drama, redemption and spiritual ascension, and all the rest.

ZAMBELLO: I am most excited by the volume of new works being done by such a broad range of companies—large and small. We forget every opera was a new opera, a world premiere once. When Mozart wrote Figaro it was new and a social slam, when Verdi wrote Traviata it spoke to behavior of the aristocracy on his time and class mores, when Puccini wrote Boheme he was writing about the starving artists and society. The operas had an immediacy. Traditional operas were new works and produced in a climate of new things. I am seeing a shift to people producing either the most standards or new works. I do not want to lose our past, but we must champion new works of all sizes. We must take the music of talented composers and librettists and promote it whenever possible. Opera, like theater, is able to go inside to a place where the headlines aren’t going.

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out our podcast interview with Martina Arroyo. 

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