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8 January 2020

Gender Equity and Diversity in Opera Summit: the listener’s account

Harriet Cunningham Image: Harriet Cunningham  

Harriet Cunningham reports on the Gender Equity and Diversity in Opera Summit, organised by the AMC, together with the Australia Council for the Arts and APRA AMCOS in early December. The list of participants in this summit included composers, singers, producers, and administrators representing a wide range of expertise and organisations. Read also Sonya Holowell's article on the Summit, and the summary of discussions (Resonate 12 December 2019).

First, the flashpoint. A panel discussion at a conference in Brisbane in April 2019, where four middle-age, middle-class, white males talked about their work in their chosen artform, opera.

Second, the provocation. Four women issue a statement calling out the conference and the wider industry for overlooking over 50 percent of the world's population in favour of middle-age, middle-class, white males, and identifying systemic discrimination impacting the workplace, the repertoire, artistic livelihoods and the future of the artform.

Third, the conversation begins.

On 2 December 2019, 29 representatives from the arts in general and opera in particular gathered for a meeting brokered by the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Music Centre and the Australasian Performing Rights Association. The meeting was about how to go forward. I was there to listen. To give an individual reflection on the day, and on a debate taking place under Chatham House rules1. This is what I heard.

Figure 1: word cloud generated from notes taken during the summit. Source: Harriet Cunningham

Many voices

One of the strengths of the crazy artform we call opera is its ability to have many characters, many different sounds, words, colours, textures, all happening at once. With spoken conversation, it's not so easy. The day began with introductions, with each individual talking briefly about why they were there, and what they hoped to achieve.

The group included singers, conductors, artistic directors, representatives from funding bodies and professional organisations, writers and composers. There were artists at different stages of their careers, working on different repertoires, in different places, from different cultural traditions. Not comprehensive representation, but a valiant tilt at inclusiveness.

Right from the start, it was clear this was a conversation not just about women in opera, but more broadly about diversity - of cultures, of genders, of abilities… - in an industry that is often perceived to centre around the canon of works created in 19th and 20th century Europe. Hence, discussion ranged across issues from workplace safety to repertoire to audiences to individual opportunities to company and industry-wide structure and design.

A patchwork of statements reflects the complexity and diversity of the conversation. There were the 'meritocracy' arguments: 'It's not about gender. It's about the best person for the job' and 'I don't want to appoint a woman just because she's a woman'. These were countered by a call to reframe the artform: 'We don't want to censor works. But we're actually censoring so many stories all the time because they're not on the stage', and 'It's time to stop talking about 'women composers' as being a risk. Everyone in the arts is taking a risk!'

A sense of urgency frequently tripped over the weight of tradition. While some were saying, 'we just have to do it,' others warned, 'you're going to get a lot of pushback'. As one said, 'You're looking at structural change, not helping the infirm'. As an extension of this, others said: 'to make meaningful change takes time' but that 'you have to sustain the conversation'.

A common theme was that this was a systemic problem manifesting in many different areas of the industry, from hiring and firing to remuneration to work conditions and artistic leadership. For example, participants commented 'Performing arts prefer parents to be invisible' and 'there have been things happen in the rehearsal room and I've known I just had to keep my gob shut'.

It was acknowledged that the scale and longevity of different organisations had a significant impact on their ability to change, and that partnerships were key to increasing the flexibility: 'The big companies can't be trapped by their bigness and the small companies can't be trapped by their smallness.'

Practical suggestions for change included the auditing, naming and shaming, and reframing traditional repertoire to make it more relevant to modern audiences, one artist suggesting, 'Carmen, Butterfly and Lucia should only be directed by women for the foreseeable future.'

As for audiences, participants noted that 'audiences don't really care about who directed the show ultimately provided that it's a good experience'. Ultimately, participants agreed that the problem must be addressed with the understanding that 'increased diversity is increased quality,' and that opera needed to reflect its audience to remain relevant.

A tale of five models

Opera is not the only artform where women experience systemic disadvantage. Representatives from theatre, literature and contemporary music were able to offer perspectives on how their sectors were addressing issues of gender equity and diversity.


In 2009, Belvoir Street Theatre announced a subscription season which did not feature any women in creative roles. That was theatre's flashpoint. Sydney Theatre Company was immediately engaged in the conversation but, at first, much of the conversation revolved around quotas and the question of merit.

'Historically, many people in the arts industry don't like quotas because they consider them "anti-creative,"' says Patrick McIntyre, Executive Director of Sydney Theatre Company since 2010. 'There has traditionally been a sensitivity to the idea of numbers driving artistic decision making. This view is sometimes held even by people who are philosophically well-disposed to becoming a more equitable industry. There were numerous discussions at the time challenging this idea - and also, if a company did adopt quotas, should they be internal goals or shared publicly.'

Over the last decade STC has put in place a range of programs including artist residencies, commissioning programs, an emerging writers' group and the Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP) Directors Initiative program which offer opportunities and drive greater diversity. While these weren't badged as programs for women specifically, there was a deliberate skew towards women when filling the positions, particularly with the resident artist positions, and many people who took on these roles have now gone on to become leaders in the industry.

McIntyre considers that generational change has also played a part, noting that younger practitioners such as STC's Artistic Director Kip Williams, appointed in 2017, display much less angst about debates concerning quotas and merit. Williams's approach was 'We just have to do it. Why aren't we doing it?' and this was supported by ambitious goals for gender parity, including in playwrighting and direction.

The various programs already put in place meant that there was a pipeline of emerging women creatives, so change happened swiftly. Since the 2018 season - the first programmed by Williams - women have taken 60% of creative leadership roles in the mainstage subscription season, with a minimum of 50% female directors and 50% female playwrights. McIntyre believes that this kind of ratio is here to stay.

The National Theatre of Parramatta was launched in 2015. It addresses not just gender equity but diversity more broadly, with the aim of 'putting the nation on stage.' It has been an inclusive company from the word go, rather than an established retrofit. From the start, NTofP has told the stories of people who have often not had a voice in the Western theatre making canon, through lack of opportunity arising from gender, cultural, economic and other barriers. It is essential for the company to provide opportunities in key creative and leadership roles wherever possible.

In their first year of operation, women wrote and directed 100% of the program.

Joanne Kee, founding CEO, points out key differences between their model and more traditional theatre company models: above all they don't have an artistic director. 'It's an executive producer model. So that means that it's open auditions, open pitches.'

Their business model is also heavily reliant on investment and partnerships. Riverside Studios is a major partner, providing rehearsal space, venues, ticketing and marketing resources. In the creative arena, they have had a big success with White Pearl, a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company. One of their shows is transferring to Belvoir St Theatre next year, and artists associated with the company have been programmed by Sydney Festival.

'I totally understand the weight of history... We've been able to be a bit more nimble,' says Kee. 'But it does take investment.'


The idea for the Stella Prize was hatched in 2011 at the Melbourne Writers' Festival. Sophie Cunningham, writer and Stella Prize founding board member explains:
'After a panel on the paucity of women receiving literary prizes, a group of women went for a drink at the pub and said, 'we've got to do something. We're sick of talking about this and nothing changing.'

'The idea of starting a prize was strategic. It was not the only way of dealing with gender inequity but it was useful. The fact is that women writers weren't getting reviewed as much, winning awards as much, getting as big advances... A prize was seen as one way of making ourselves an interesting talking point, rewarding our writers and generating change. It was never seen as the end game.'

The Stella Prize is a success. It has had a positive impact on many women writers, in terms of publicity and sales.

'I'm very proud of what we've done but I'm aware it's a start. In no way are we there, wherever there is.'

She also identifies several significant stumbling blocks which the founders had to confront, not least that judging could be considered a patriarchal model.

'I was on endless panels being asked, "isn't it insulting to women, saying that they can't win prizes in their own right?" And I would say, "well, they're not winning them, so unless you are arguing that they aren't winning them because they aren't good enough, we clearly have a problem".'

The board also faced questions about their own lack of diversity, including in regard to involvement from Indigenous writers. Indeed, they experienced pushback from all directions, from criticisms of being too young to being too white and too middle-class. Too literary. Not literary enough. Too narrow. Too wide. Managing these different issues constructively is an ongoing process.

Alongside the Stella Prize is the annual Stella Count, which surveys women's representation in major literary publications and book reviews. Researchers from several different universities scrutinise the book review sections of 12 major Australian newspapers and book reviewing publications. They tally the number of books reviewed and the gender of the books' authors.

They also note the gender identity of the reviewer, and the space given to reviews of books by women compared with those by men. This, says Cunningham, has become an important way to keep the conversation going. As well, the Stella Prize has introduced a schools program.

Like McIntyre, Cunningham recognises the value of naming and shaming and quick, decisive action such as committing to an all-female program, but also acknowledging that real cultural change takes time.

'…Trying to deal with all the problems at once, as weird and impossible and difficult as it sounds, may be the only way of successfully creating some change. You are going to get pushback. Roll with it - indeed learn from it - rather than become agitated or defensive.'


APRA AMCOS is a music rights organisation representing over 100,000 songwriters, composers and publishers from Australia and New Zealand. The organisation made a public statement in 2017 about increasing female representation within their membership, setting an ambitious target to increase female members.
'We learnt within the first year that some of the criteria we had set ourselves to meet weren't going to happen,' says Jana Gibson, APRA AMCOS Head, Member Services.

'We were looking to increase new female membership by 25% over a three year period. That statistic did not stack up. But it was important that we set ourselves a target.'

While it didn't achieve its membership goals, APRA AMCOS does adhere to a gender ratio of 40:40:20 (where the 20% can be from either gender, allowing for flexibility) across all of its programs and events, from judging panels to ambassadors to panellists and speakers. Their approach has underlined an agenda for a much more inclusive approach to everything they do: in terms of genre, generation, geography, multicultural and Indigenous equity as well as gender equity.
Like the Stella Prize, one of the problems for growing female participation is self-perception.

'Women are not necessarily acknowledging themselves as songwriters,' says Jana. 'They don't see themselves as a composer.'

Jana Gibson says that APRA is more committed than ever to designing more programs to drive diversity.

'We have not given up on our targets. We're seeing growth and we're monitoring it.'

Keychange is an international initiative started by the UK Performing Rights Society (PRS) in collaboration with Reeperbahn Festival and Musikcentrum Ost, supported by the Creative Europe program. Keychange aims to accelerate change and create a better more inclusive music industry by encouraging festivals and music organisations to make a pledge to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022.

Vanessa Reed from New Music USA, formerly of the PRS and a driving force behind Keychange, joined the meeting via video link to talk about and take questions on the initiative. Like Joanne Kee, she noted that the issue had to be about diversity in a broader sense, and that in the US the language was more confrontational: #blacklivesmatter and #metoo were driving a demand for radical change in funding policies.

Many pathways

So many stories. Ideas. Challenges.

After hearing from other arts industry representatives, the focus came back to opera and, specifically, the quest for coherent, constructive, do-able ways forward. The larger group broke up into groups to discuss the multifaceted problem from three different angles:

• models of change - including questions of scale and company structure, risk and opportunity, programming, audiences, reporting
• resourcing and measures of achievement - including discussion of quotas and public statements around target setting, and more qualitative measures of success
• pathways - including training, mentoring, development programs more tailored to challenges facing women in the industry, and addressing a perception that women are a risk because they lack experience or skills

It became clear that, while the individual groups began with their allotted angle, the complexity of the problem meant that the conversation inevitably slipped into other areas.

The day culminated in Sally Blackwood's offering a draft proposal calling for a Keychange-style framework of commitments, followed by a review of the individual discussions. The ensuing conversations were good-natured and generous, loud and robust, and many felt they could have gone on well into the night, but for the sense of urgency to find practical ways forward. Ultimately, the day ended without firm commitments on the table, but it generated connections, ideas and ambitions.

These have been summarised by the Australia Council as follows

Conclusions and principles for change

1. Opera in Australia is one of many areas of arts practice that needs to change to actively reflect the diversity of contemporary Australia. This ensures it continues to meaningfully connect with current and future audiences.

2. This requires artists, individuals, organisations as well as funding bodies to reflect on the necessary shifts to support equity and inclusion in participation.

3. Individuals and organisations who demonstrate leadership will be celebrated for having a real and positive impact by better reflecting contemporary Australia.

4. It is recognised that change will be different for every artist and organisation. This means proposed actions need to realistic and measurable.

The Summit participants agreed:

The Australia Council will coordinate activity to further progress the issues raised in the call to action and summit.

This will include the convening of a working group to create a codesigned approach with the sector and funding bodies for positive change. This group will also consider the key issues in detail, providing recommendations for best practice principles and an agenda for change.

The Australia Council will continue to support positive change towards equity and inclusion across all art forms as part of its strategy Creativity Connects Us.

This working group will be confirmed in the new year with a view to concluding initial work later in 2020.

With these principles agreed, what began as a grassroots movement by four individuals has been acknowledged publically as an industry-wide issue. Above all, there is an overwhelming consensus on the need for change.


1 Under Chatham House rules, it is agreed that information disclosed during a meeting may be reported by those present, but the source of that information may not be explicitly or implicitly identified. In this report any remarks attributed to individuals have been reproduced with their permission.

Read also

> Gender Equity and Diversity in Opera Summit - summary of discussions (Resonate 12 December 2019) - see also: issues paper giving context, empirical data and examples of best practice in Australia and internationally.

> Sonya Holowell's report from the Summit

Further links

Harriet Cunningham - homepage & blog

Harriet Cunningham is a freelance writer based in Sydney.  In print she is best known as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s classical music critics. Harriet writes for print and online publications including the Financial Review, Gramophone Online, Limelight Magazine, the Sun Herald, the Sydney Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald and Qantas Inflight Magazine. Aside from journalism, Harriet works with a range of clients developing brochure copy, web copy, direct mail, media releases, proposals and speeches. 


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