A Feminist in Frills: Why Sexism Is a Problem In Opera

American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves performs the title role in the Franco Zeffirelli/Metropolitan Opera production of Carmen (by Georges Bizet) at the final dress rehearsal prior to its season premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on Oct. 4, 2002. (Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images)

As a chorus member in my last opera production, I watched our stage director (a man) lean toward the lead soprano (a woman) and say, “If you put some dark makeup between your breasts, it will make them show up more.”

I questioned whether I should stay in that environment of disrespect.

The rhythms, melodies and harmonies of this specific opera’s music had drawn me to participate in the chorus. The beautiful costumes—the shiny pink, purple and gold gowns with puff sleeves and lace frills—entranced me. Dancing waltzes and polkas in the ballroom scene made me giddy. But the stage director’s comment served as a wake-up call: The opera industry needs feminist change.

And sexism in opera extends far beyond small-town productions like mine. Dr. Dana Lynne Varga, founder and CEO of The Empowered Musician, spearheaded a comprehensive study that reveals the opera industry’s rampant discrimination against women.

  • Right out of the gate, there are 3.5 times more jobs for men than women in mainstage opera. This happens in part because in many operas, the number of roles of men far exceeds that for women. In one of the most popular shows, La Bohème, only two out of the 12 soloist roles in the opera are for women.
  • A 29 percent pay gap exists between women U.S. classical performers and their men counterparts.
  • Women opera singers also hold more debt and receive fewer scholarships.

The Problem With Opera’s Depiction of Women

Submissive damsels and manipulative schemers: These caricatures of women pervade in the plots of canonical operas. In Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), a love story opera by Richard Strauss, Princess Ariadne laments for about half the opera how her boyfriend Theseus abandoned her on an island. Jacques Offenbach’s fanciful sci-fi opera Les Contes d’Hoffman (1851) objectifies women with the story of a man who literally falls in love with a doll. In contrast, the power-hungry Queen of the Night in Wolfgang A. Mozart’s whimsical allegory Die Zauberflöte (1791) feigns benevolence while secretly plotting a murder.

Metropolitan Opera production stage manager Raymond Menard (far left) looks on as pianist/accompanist Bradley Moore winds up Metropolitan Opera soprano Erin Morley in the role of ‘Olympia, a mechanical doll’ as she sings ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’ (aka ‘The Doll Song,’ or ‘The birds in the hedges’) from Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, on July 16, 2012. (Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images)

Even when a woman character acts assertive, someone usually punishes her. In Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875)—a fiery romance between a cunning vagabond woman (Carmen) and a gullible soldier—her lover stabs her with a knife when she asserts her wish to end their affair.

These depictions of women encourage predatory behavior in men both on and off stage by reinforcing the belief that they should dominate women.

Sexism in the Opera Industry

Body policing—the discriminatory monitoring and critique of women’s bodies—also poses a significant problem in opera.

“It was drilled into us: If you weren’t thin, do not show your arms,” said Katherine Saik DeLugan, a specialist in opera and classical voice at Smith College, of her experience in vocal training.

Men administrators often leave women out of critical decisions about their bodies onstage, such as whether they should show rape.

“I can’t tell you how many directors have decided that Donna Anna wants to be raped by Don Giovanni and is in love with him, even though she has never seen him before,” said American soprano Megan Marie Hart. “I think it is easier than actually asking me what I think or how I see it as a woman.”

The first time I was told I was ‘a little old’ to be pursuing this career was on my 29th birthday.

Margaret O’Connell

Women in opera are also discriminated against for their age. The 2020 Musical America Guide to Top Competitions shows at least three international competitions (The Fourth International Éva Marton Singing Competition, The Neue Stimmen International Singing Competition, and The Viotti International Music Competition) had different age eligibility requirements for men and women, with stricter limits for women.

Mezzo-soprano Margaret O’Connell said, “The first time I was told I was ‘a little old’ to be pursuing this career was on my 29th birthday. That was the first of many age-related remarks I’ve received from people in power over the years.”

Mothers in the opera industry face discrimination, as well. “The largest amount of discrimination I’ve encountered has been around views related to pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood,” said Lidiya Yankovskaya, music director of Chicago Opera Theater. She is only one of two women to hold that title at a multimillion-dollar opera company in the U.S.

Women opera singers also face dangerous levels of sexual assault, on average. The Washington Post spoke to over 50 opera singers in a six-month period who reported “attempted assaults in dressing rooms or in the wings during performances.” Internationally renowned conductor Daniele Gatti has allegedly committed repeated sexual assaults against women vocalists. Soprano Alicia Berneche described to The Washington Post how Gatti offered her a vocal coaching session and asked her to meet him in his dressing room to set a date. When she came in, she said, she found “his hands on my rear end, and his tongue down my throat.”

Soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet described a similar experience with Gatti. “I pushed him off and ran out of the room,” Charbonnet said. That opera company never hired her again.

A Feminist Future in Opera

After the incident with the stage director, I reported his foul comment to the producer to hold him accountable for his sexism. The next week, he sent an apology letter to the cast.

But for opera to be an industry where women are respected, its leaders need to adopt more progressive practices that make women feel safe and comfortable. This can include prioritizing gender diversity when hiring opera company administrators, creating company policies to support mom singers, and putting on operas with more roles for women, such as Dialogues des Carmélites (1957), Suor Angelica (1918), Little Women (1998) and an all-women version of La Bohème (1895). Opera companies can also commission modernized translations for outdated, sexist opera lyrics. Most importantly, opera companies should always include women in discussions about important choices made in a production.

In general, DeLugan suggests we take authority away from large institutions like the Metropolitan Opera by investing energy in local opera companies. “We give them so much power by saying you are only ‘valid’ as an artist if you have been validated by people at these big institutions,” she said. With more local opportunities available, a singer can take her talents elsewhere when a larger company fails to treat her with respect.

Varga said composers hold the most power when it comes to creating more feminist opera: They have the authority to write operas with more women roles. “We as composers have the ultimate power in deciding the gender split on stage,” said Melissa Dunphy, a Philadelphia-based composer of political vocal music.

Opera deserves appreciation because of the beauty of its music and the power of its storytelling. But companies have to decide: Will they prioritize the old, sexist traditions or prioritize a safe environment for women? If they choose the latter, they can take a step forward in revolutionizing opera.

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Claire Kenny is a former editorial intern at Ms. and graduate of Smith College, where she studied world literature with an emphasis on the study of women and gender. Claire has worked as a peer writing tutor at the Smith College Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching & Learning and as an editor for Smith Writes. She also writes poetry, which has been published in literary magazines such as Meat for Tea and Third Wednesday Magazine.