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8 January 2020

Opera Summit: Decolonising the High Arts, part A

Sonya Holowell Image: Sonya Holowell  
© Josef Goding

Sonya Holowell took part in the Gender Equity and Diversity in Opera Summit, organised by the AMC, together with the Australia Council for the Arts and APRA AMCOS. The list of participants in this initial summit included composers, singers, producers, and administrators representing a wide range of expertise and organisations.

Sonya Holowell's article will be published in two parts, with part B to follow. Read also: Harriet Cunningham's report on the summit (Resonate 9 January 2020) and the summary of discussions (Resonate 12 December 2019).

A summit was called on 2 December, in Sydney, to address gender disparity and diversity issues in Australian opera. It was a perfect storm a long time in the making, and many women in particular had had enough. Championed by colleagues including 200 co-signatories, a call to action had been put forth demanding an immediate inquest into these disparities, which statistics and widely shared sentiment would testify required serious scrutiny, now. Inciting this call were composers Liza Lim, Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk and Sally Blackwood, supported by many others who had been speaking and writing on the issues prior to the summit.

A selection of 29 representatives from various arts institutions and some artists were invited to a round-table discussion facilitated by the Australian Music Centre, APRA AMCOS and the Australia Council for the Arts, with the debate conducted under Chatham House rules. My role was to write a report summarising the voices present at the summit, and to add my own.

The summit opened a pandora's box for me, and perhaps for others who were present, too. I see this as fruitful, as proof of a generative endeavour. I have also felt the weight of what wasn't said and who wasn't present, so I will write this report with a dual function: to summarise what I see as the day's key points of agreement and contention, and also to attempt representation of the 'others'- both the othered issues and the people who I believe are at risk of being forgotten in these spaces.

To support this dual function I'm presenting my report in two halves: Part A - that you'll read now - and a soon-to-follow Part B. This will allow each of my intentions the space they need to be best served.


There had been a big sector shake up, and now companies were taking up the mantle of equity. There had been much discourse on these matters, and now it was time for strategy and action. It was hoped we'd get to a collective statement or agreement by the end of the day.

There were seven demands made in the call to action which would serve as both starting and anchor points for the day's deliberations. They were as follows:

1. We want diversity to be reflected in all aspects of the opera we experience.
2. We call for a questioning of the systemic acceptance of gender-based violence in opera.
3. We want recognition, respect, advocacy and support for creators who are female, non-binary and from diverse cultural backgrounds.
4. We call for safe inclusive spaces for people with diverse voices and abilities to set the agenda, to lead the conversation, to have a resonant voice.
5. We want to decolonise the distribution of power so that the stories and creative work of women and all people with diverse voices resonate equally with that of men.
6. We call for an unprecedented commitment to the programming and commissioning of new Australian opera work with gender and cultural diversity at the forefront.
7. We call for those in leadership to back us and that the act of hearing be prioritised alongside the act of speaking.

It was established from the outset that any discussion on diversity or inclusion would need to go beyond gender to address racial and cultural diversity. But gender would be an important starting point that would assumedly open up space for other forms of exclusion or bias to be discussed. There was an initial acknowledgment of all the women who had come before, made possible, and paved the way. There was also an acknowledgement that this was a privileged space and that there were relevant voices not in the room. I also found it pertinent when one participant opened by highlighting the long-held tradition of combining song, dance and theatre practised by First Nations people on this continent.

One of the main barriers to action on gender parity was identified early on as the argument for 'meritocracy', which functions on the belief that the best wins, which sits atop the assumption that every person has an equal enough opportunity in the quest for success. This ignores the inherent privileges that many, and far from all, are afforded. But it was also noted that many of those whom equality measures could theoretically benefit are actually proponents of the meritocracy argument themselves. As one participant said, there are women who feel it's insulting to suggest they can't win prizes on their merit alone and require special awards and categories just for them.

The 'quality must come first' claim that often opposes equality measures in the sector was identified and generally disqualified by the group, who agreed that deliberately increasing the presence of women necessarily improves quality by offering a truer, more complete picture of Australian musical activity and artistic output.

This led to a discussion on programming and the underlying belief of some in the industry that 'women don't sell tickets', which many saw as a cop out rooted in sexism. Underneath this was found an assumption that diverse voices 'in general' could somehow present a type of risk. Again this was countered with the argument that diverse voices necessarily make the arts richer. By increasing the relevance of art we increase its value. This would include the programming of new Australian work overall which, by representing our contemporary, diverse society, should by definition add value rather than threaten it.

Further, participants seized that idea floating around out there that patrons don't really want to see new work; that what they want is the familiarity of the tried and tested. But are we assuming the worst of them? One participant noted that in her experience it is quite often the gatekeepers of the programming who are the conservatives and that the 'old school crowd' often expressed a desire to experience new work.

But there appeared a genuine fear here; a belief that certain institutions, particularly the bigger ones, can't afford to take such risks in programming unknown works. Particularly in comparison to the smaller companies who admitted their privilege in having more freedom and flexibility in this area. The larger companies highlighted their need to meet the interests of multiple stakeholders including state funding, audiences and private donors, and that this has a direct impact on programming freedoms. The attempt to juggle these demands with the programming of new work was noted as a difficult balancing act that often resulted in what many see as overly safe or stuck programming.

One radical solution was to set expectations and then have the boldness to stand on these convictions. A type of 'just do it' approach which seemed refreshing to many in the room. To address this identified link between scale and risk more specifically, one solution offered was to vary (decrease) scale to mitigate risk through stimulus of shorter-length works.

The next topic for discussion addressed the second demand in the call to action. In my background reading I learnt that many agree the widely performed operatic storylines are often a problem, both in their representation of diverse cultures but also in the way women are represented as victims, scarlet women or trophies to be won. Some of the solutions I came across were echoed during the summit. While some, for example, believe many of these stories simply should no longer be told, others believe the works still have a place but must be framed in a way that is responsible and doesn't perpetuate harmful narratives. This framing would need to address both how the stories are told and who is telling them. The group agreed there is boundless scope for reinterpretation of the classics and that this scope is under-utilised. It would also be equally important that those at risk of harmful representation through such storylines be given the control to govern and direct the creation of such works so that potential for harm can become an opportunity for empowerment, to restore control to subjects over their own depictions.

The group also acknowledged a need to go further in providing support and pathways for arts workers to meet their needs at key points throughout their careers. This includes support through transition points, like the intermediate spaces between study and work, or the mid-career 'pressure point', or times when hitting a ceiling requires a shift into new territory. Some answers to this were to formalise mentoring and pay it properly and to invest more heavily in residencies, skills development and networking opportunities, with the primary aims of growth, sustainability, flexibility and longevity. One participant mentioned their difficulty in trying to find a female lighting designer for their production, which led to a discussion on the need to support training at the tertiary level, and even to encourage access to these industries earlier in one's education.

Support for arts workers would also require assurance of safe and healthy working environments. Both workplace culture and the day-to-day expectations of workers would need to promote these ideals; practical examples being regulation of working hours and pay, support for parents and accountability measures relating to behaviour in the workplace. It would be important to stay across the changing barriers that people face and be continually working to ensure accessibility to the resources required for success. The term 'talent pipeline' was used to describe this overall trajectory from education and training through to the late career stages. Addressing it was summed up by one participant as 'how to start, stay and be seen'.

Conversations around support and pathways moved into the subject of accessibility. How could a sense of an open door be fostered between audiences, staff and arts institutions? It was highlighted more than once that there is a responsibility to ensure that publicly funded art be for the public. There would need to be a reaching out; to audiences, to potential staff, and to each other across the sector.

Accessibility and representation were closely knit topics of discussion, from which stemmed the belief that audiences need to see themselves represented onstage, in stories, and in all aspects of the infrastructure, to really believe that opera could be 'for them'. Similarly, potential staff at all levels would need to see the same. If inclusion and relevance is not modelled, there remains a barrier to any sense of belonging within the operatic realm.

One participant offered a solution through 'changing the paradigm of marketing'. Another suggestion for increasing relevance and accessibility was for more cross-disciplinary collaboration; that through this 'bringing together' of creative worlds, audience reach and accessibility can be maximised. This was likened to Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk or 'total artwork'. Assumedly there could be something for everyone (or at least many) in these cross-artform spaces. Theatre and opera were one noted example of a previously successful crossover relationship. It was also agreed that the bigger opera companies need to be reaching out to partner with the small-to-mediums which could help provide support and a flattening out of the disparities between large and small. These collaborations could also stimulate more dialogue and broaden visibility of who else is out there working in the landscape, so wider nets can be cast.

Ultimately, it was agreed that all of this is best done together as a single ecology acting in 'one accord'. This would require a better understanding of how the different layers of the arts sector work together and how they can more effectively co-operate with a unified agenda.

Later discussions looked at models, encouraging brainstorming around current models that work and envisioning new ones that could. It was noted that opera can be quite rigid in terms of what has to get done in a year, and that this can impact the room that is left over for more 'experimental' programming. One suggestion was instead of yearly planning to think in terms of a two-year model which could provide more room to cover bases and allow choices to stay meaningful. The current subscription model came into question, too - could it be tested and challenged? Are we able to expect audiences to just 'trust' us more?

There were calls to increase pathway programs like Composing Women, to support global accountability initiatives like Keychange, and to fashion a model for change-making based on the Reconciliation Action Plan framework (as provided by Reconciliation Australia). The Collaboration Fund was exemplified as a model helping to get the major companies partnering with the small-to-mediums, and APRA AMCOS's 40/40/20 model demonstrated how internally-determined quotas could help organisations to reach targets. It was also recognised that we could learn a lot from the calling-out of Australian theatre in 2009 and the subsequent measures they've enacted to address their gender disparities.

One participant offered their organisation's Executive Producer model in place of having an Artistic Director. They also described having open auditions and open pitches and a system geared towards helping people come up through the ranks. Another participant's organisation has introduced a prize for women artists to raise profiles and spotlight women in their industry. A representative from a smaller opera company described how every production of theirs is brand-new and encourages emerging designers while significantly representing women in management roles.

Further on the issue of leadership, an argument was made in favour of a collaborative leadership model to replace the predominant model of the single director altogether. Speaking strongly to the fifth demand in the call to action, this alternative model could effectively increase the power of the collective by pooling skill sets and sharing responsibilities to meet the varying demands on the industry today.

It was agreed that models would need to be reviewed and a new framework be put in place to openly discuss issues that emerge. Incentives and positive reinforcement should be used to encourage and reward progress, and additional resources be fed into models to celebrate and sustain those that are working. The matter of measuring progress brought up the spicy issue of quotas: many have an aversion here, though some believe this 'stick over carrot' approach is necessary to drive change.

But if not quotas, then organisations could think more in terms of internally generated targets and strategic plans, customised to their organisation's unique situation. Additionally, targets must be reported against to indicate progress (or lack thereof), and public statements would go even further to ensuring accountability. On an individual level, artists could exercise any power or privilege they have to make choices in support of good models; a type of 'taking back the artform'.

The summit was called to navigate next steps, and it concluded by returning to this notion; what have we settled upon, and where to next? Everyone agreed there must be a next, and that traction and momentum is vital as we capitalise on the hour at hand. Summaries of the day looked at the nature of change itself and the need to work towards both short-term and longer-term change simultaneously to effect change on a structural level; essentially a 'designing' of change, moving proactivity from 'desired into required'.

There were many questions around this notion of change, like how is success or failure defined? What kind of change is acceptable? Is any change good or just the radical kind? And how do we avoid backsliding, which can often occur after short-term change?

It was hoped that a collective statement or set of principles would emerge from the day's deliberations that could be taken forward.

The group arrived at the following (taken from the official summary of discussions):

Conclusions and principles for change:
1. Opera in Australia is one of many areas of arts practice that need 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 be 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 sector working group to create a co-designed 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.

As I mentioned at the start of this report, there really was a can of worms unleashed for me in my own thinking around many of the topics addressed at the Gender Equity and Diversity in Opera Summit. I'm both grateful to have been invited to take part, and keen to speak to some points myself. In the upcoming Part B of this report I will share some of my own more personal reflections resulting from the summit including the idea of decolonising the 'high arts', and will offer some vital clarification around the notion of 'reconciliation' as it pertains to First Peoples.

Read also

> Gender Equity and Diversity in Opera Summit - summary of discussions (Resonate 12 December 2019)

> Harriet Cunningham's report on the Summit

Further links

Sonya Holowell - homepage

Sonya Holowell’s practice in experimental and improvised vocal music is informed by her diverse background in music spanning centuries, genres and cultural contexts. Her award-winning performances have featured at many of the leading festivals for classical, new and experimental music.


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