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Study on 11 Major U.S. Opera Companies Shows Gender Disparity

Data collected over 16 years show that women have been largely underrepresented in opera’s creative roles including directing and design

 

In their peer-reviewed publication, “Unequal Opera-tunities: Gender Inequality and Non-Standard Work in US Opera Production,” Australian researchers Caitlin Vincent and Amanda Coles describe the gender disparity in opera companies’ creative roles. 

Dr. Vincent is a senior lecturer in creative industries at the University of Melbourne, and Dr. Coles serves as a senior lecturer in arts and cultural management at Deakin University.

Their research examined 1,500 staged productions by companies all with operating budgets of more than $15 million — the Metropolitan Opera, and companies in Santa Fe, Seattle, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas, Detroit, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. 

It was found that between 2005 and 2021, men accounted for 95% of the conducting credits, 85% of directing credits, 88% of set-designer credits, 85% of lighting-designer credits, 59% of costume-designer credits, and 70% of video/projection designer credits. 

As analyzed in the study, 838 individual practitioners were credited in the design category over the 16 seasons: 560 men and 257 women. 

“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,” Vincent told The New York Times. “These [companies] are the heaviest hitters. They have clout. So what they do matters significantly more.”

“For companies aiming to increase women’s representation as designers, the role of stage director is critical, as the gender profile of directors has a snowball effect on the gender breakdown of creative teams,” Vincent and Coles explained. 

“By hiring more women directors, companies are likely to see an increase in women designers across productions,” they added. “Companies could also consider contractual measures to address homophilic hiring tendencies among directors, such as requirements for non-homogenous designer selections. 

 

Among the study sample, the Washington National Opera (WNO) is the only one with a female artistic director (Francesca Zambello, who has held the role for a decade), and outpaced the others in hiring female conductors, directors, and other members of its creative teams. 

The WNO saw the highest rates of representation for both women conductors and directors as well as across all creative roles combined, with women holding 26% of total production credits. 

Also a director of opera productions, Zambello explained that a previous role leading 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, the NY Times wrote.

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

Recent notable developments in increased opportunities for women include Eun Sun Kim being appointed the first female music director of the San Francisco Opera in 2021. 

As reported in Musical America, the number of women hired as conductors increased in 10 of 11 studied companies — directors in eight companies, set designers in nine, lighting designers in seven, costume designers in ten, and video/projection designers in five. 

For the Metropolitan Opera — where only one percent of the conductors during the study period were women — more than 20% of this season’s conductors are women, including Marin Alsop, Oksana Lyniv, and Xian Zhang. Additionally, five productions will be led by women.

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