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International Women's Day 2018

We’ve spoken with some leading female voices in the world of opera

In tribute to International Women’s Day, which this year takes place on 8 March, we’ve spoken with some leading female voices in the world of opera to find out who inspires them and what position the industry could or should take to increase the visibility of women in opera.

Fiona Shaw – Director

Fiona Shaw in rehearsal for The Rape of Lucretia in 2015. Photo: James Bellorini

Fiona Shaw trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She is well known for both her acting and directing work and was awarded a CBE for Services to Drama in 2001. At Glyndebourne, Shaw directed the critically acclaimed production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia in Tour 2013 and Festival 2015 and returns this autumn to direct Massenet’s Cendrillon for the Glyndebourne Tour.

Which operatic heroine speaks to you the most and why?

It’s not the strength of heroines I find interesting, it’s their weakness, because that is what the audience identifies with. It’s the same with my own acting, when people say ‘you play strong heroines’, I say on the contrary, I am always exploring their weakness, the way in which they have to deal with something and come through it. Strength is not in itself interesting, it’s the charm of a person which is. It’s seeing the victim survive.

When I first bonded with opera, I really loved works like Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites – I liked Blanche, not because she is a nice person or a good person, but because she’s a coward who finally stands up and is willing to die for something [she is a nun, guillotined with other members of the Carmelite order, having earlier forsaken them, during the French revolution]. You need to be open as a heroine, it doesn’t mean you have to be virtuous, you don’t want to be good all the time, Blanche isn’t good. But there is something about her soul which we see. She is a hard woman having lost her children. When she loses the last one she sings with a kind of openness which makes you see the inside of her soul. This is what opera offers like nothing else can. The chance to have a framework that is structured in music, so that the singer can be much braver, free to express what’s inside the person, genuinely.

What do you think the opera industry should or could do to see more women directing or running opera companies?

Opera, if it is to survive, has got to reflect the visual, cultural and emotional experience of a diverse world. Investing in and commissioning new opera is a brilliant way to increase diversity in the art form.

The only thing we must hold on to is rigour, it’s the same with Shakespeare and everything else – everything else must change but keep the rigour. You have to learn how to sing, you have to rehearse like mad, you have to put a lot of effort into making opera.

Sarah Connolly, Mezzo Soprano

Sarah Connolly as Gertrude and Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia in Hamlet. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Born in County Durham, Connolly studied piano and singing at the Royal College of Music, where she is now a Fellow. In 2017 she was made a Dame in recognition of her services to the arts. At Glyndebourne she has performed the roles of Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, Phaedra in Hippolyte et Aricie and most recently, Gertrude in the world premiere of Brett Dean’s Hamlet. In Festival 2018 she returns to the title role of Giulio Cesare.

It must be a challenge for women in 2018 to play female characters who are often victims. How do you approach this?

If we we were to follow this logic to its conclusion, might great works such as Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben be considered out of step with current thinking and consigned to the scrap heap? The same for Carmen or any number of Puccini soprano roles? Women are victims in certain operas, they are of their era and to change the nature of the composer’s intention is a subversion and weak, however unpalatable it might appear. Should villains be made nicer so that we feel less ‘embarrassed’? Should directors soften Scarpia’s towering ego or the macho posturing in Rigoletto? All characters in opera should be well rounded even if they haven’t been particularly well drawn. It is up to us and the director to use our imaginations.

Giulio Cesare is one of the ultimate male power roles. How is it to play that as a women?

I don’t approach any role as gender specific but as a character. Cesare is a colossal personality and in Handel’s interpretation he assumes a rather rakish and playful nature. My body will reflect how he walks and moves, his age, his mood, and his reactions to provocation.

Which operatic heroine speaks to you the most and why?

Charpentier’s Médée. Yes, she committed infanticide and there can be no justification for that, but she was oppressed by a patriarchal society. By allowing her to escape, Euripides, who left us the play, is informing his male audience that women should be treated kindly and with respect.

Who is your female opera pioneer?

Dame Janet Baker in her performing career made many diverse and wonderfully unusual choices such as to perform new music, recitals, Baroque French and Handel opera. This for me, and for many other mezzos, is hugely pioneering. She also invested a unique and deeply moving sincerity in her singing which helped confirm throughout my career that it is the way forward.

What do you think the opera industry should or could do to see more women directing or running opera companies?

Yes more women should be running opera companies for sure! Christina Scheppelmann of the Liceu is a fabulous example of how women lead the field. There really should be more women applying for artistic control of opera houses.

Elizabeth DeShong, Mezzo-Soprano

The recipient of numerous awards, DeShong received the Washington National Opera’s Artist of the Year Award in 2010 for her debut performance as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. Previous roles at Glyndebourne include Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel; Kitchen Girl in Rusalka and in 2016 Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She will play Suzuki in Madama Butterfly at Festival 2018.

Which operatic heroine speaks to you the most and why?

I would have to choose Hermia in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hermia is educated and her needs are well met. She loves Lysander, not because she needs to be rescued or for what he can give to her. In fact, she has much more to offer than he does, which is precisely why the relationship is in trouble. Hermia, with full understanding of her situation, sets off to meet her love. Even when challenged, she is strong and a fighter. She has the courage to speak her truth and does so even in the face of danger. ‘And though she be but little, she is fierce’… this 5’ 2” feminist can get behind that slogan.

Demetrius (Duncan Rock), Helena (Kate Royal), Lysander (Benjamin Hulett) and Hermia (Elizabeth DeShong), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Glyndebourne Festival 2016. Photo: Robert Workman

Who is your female opera pioneer – who inspires you?

One of my very first professional operatic roles was Third Secretary in John Adams’ Nixon in China at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Marin Alsop was the conductor. It was wonderful to see a woman in charge of that demanding score. I was also introduced early on in my career to [conductor] Jane Glover. Both of these women are true leaders, masterful musicians, and inspirational collaborators. I greatly admire them both.

Despite being written in the early 1900s, the story of Madama Butterfly is all too familiar today. What can we learn from this opera in 2018?

We can acknowledge a powerful man of means, taking advantage of a woman from another culture. We can view and contemplate the cultural climate that supported soldiers taking “temporary brides” for convenience. We can also view the relationship between Suzuki and Butterfly as a powerful example of women supporting women without judgement. We can explore the void left behind by true heartbreak, whatever the cause. We can see the pain that is caused when knowing voices are silenced.

What do you think the opera industry should or could do to see more women directing or running opera companies?

More companies must commit to engaging female conductors and actively seeking commissions by female composers. As we continue to support women in speaking out against the individuals and systems that have held us back, we will see the many strong, qualified, capable women who have been there all along stepping forward into more positions of leadership.

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