My interest was recently piqued when I read a piece in The Economist which reported that two opera conservatories in Sweden declined to admit male singers because they were not up to standard.
The conservatory decided that even though it would make for skewed student productions, it could not admit male singers on the grounds of gender alone. The Gothenburg University College of Opera has found itself in a similar position. Of the 45 singers who auditioned this year, nine were men, but as the Dean of Studies Monica Danielsson tells Prospero, “none of them reached the level of admission”. Consequently, none of them won a place.
As a comparison, the article cited Indiana University Jacobs School of Music which,
…receives a similar ratio of female to male applicants. But unlike Swedish conservatories, the school admits a weighted student body. In effect, sopranos have to score much higher marks to gain admission. “We have to strive for a balance between the voice parts,” explains Professor Mary Ann Hart, chair of the school’s voice department. “You can teach singers repertoire but at an opera school, at some point, they have to act on stage.”
It should be noted that there is no mention about whether the men admitted to Indiana are up to standard or not, only that there is much more competition among women than men due to the ratio of applicants.
I have never really viewed myself as much of an activist when it comes to the subject of the gender imbalance in arts job opportunities. But I feel that whether what is happening in Sweden is isolated or indicative of a trend, it bears attention.
When the argument a male is more highly qualified evaporates and the criteria for admitting or casting a male is based on a piece written hundreds of years ago needing one, it is probably past time to start creating new works with more roles for women.
When it comes to the performing arts, I am always going to lean toward high level of skill as a criteria. Arts careers are difficult to pursue so if someone only has the capacity to be mediocre at the end of their training, they shouldn’t be lead to believe they can compete at a high level. If the guys can’t meet an objective measure of this ability, then it may be for the best if they are cut.
Is it fair to women who entered the conservatory at 8 striving to raise their proficiency 9 if they are forced to perform beside a man who operates at 6 and was admitted so that a performance could be mounted?
Admittedly this is a tricky question. Working alongside others who force you to bring your best everyday is important. Yet as the professor at Indiana says, practical experience, not theory, is the ultimate goal of the training. Right now the male voice is needed for that purpose when it comes to opera.
This isn’t just an issue with opera, musical theater and acting programs, with some exceptions, face a similar ratio of female to male applicants.
I have seen training programs where there are 300 theater majors and you are lucky if you get on stage once in all the years you are there. That type of arrangement sucks. What would be worse is if there were a similar situation where you would be lucky to perform before you graduated if you were female, but averaged a role every other semester if you were male.
If it was just a matter of more women applying to programs than men, that would be one thing, but if there is a large number of very highly skilled women applying to programs (or even just auditioning based on the skill they have been able to cultivate), then there is a demand for challenging roles to suit them.
Ideally, there would be more roles written with built in flexibility so that choosing to produce a good show didn’t have added baggage of the gender mix. I suspect currently there would be a tendency to cast men rather than women in those roles. I can’t see how a blind audition process like orchestras use could be devised that would mask gender and still accurately evaluate ability in singing and acting.