Cognitive dissonance: feminism and opera

Can I be both an opera singer and a good feminist? How do we reconcile participating in a sexist art form while promoting equality in our personal and political lives?

Many opera singers have come forward in the #MeToo campaign to say that sexually predatory men are not just to be found in Hollywood. No surprise there: sadly it seems to occur throughout most if not all workplaces. Beyond this despicable real life behaviour, the art form itself is sexist, both in plot (damsel in distress needing rescue, wanton woman being punished, powerful women being depicted as evil, etc.) and in practice (fewer roles for women compared to roles for men in most of the opera repertoire, most women’s roles falling within a very narrow stereotype.) It could (and often is) argued that this is as a result of most of the ‘standard’ repertoire being written in a less enlightened time than our own: the 18th and 19th centuries weren’t exactly a golden age of feminism. But even in the 20th and 21st centuries, few operas were, or are being, written with balanced casting and storylines. And in 2018 we’re still talking about how few women are taken seriously as conductors and composers (there has been some progress in the number of female stage directors. Some.) 

My feelings of unease also stem from an uncomfortable suspicion that many opera fans – my audience, the people I’m supposed to be doing all this hard work for – are supporting these attitudes. Or at least they don’t notice, or don’t care about, the sexism endemic to the artform. It’s a bit disconcerting to think that someone applauding my singing may at the same time not believe in my rights as an individual.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Opera is meant to be about telling stories in the most heightened, passionate, and virtuosic means possible. Taking the human voice to its extremes. What has gender got to do with that? Making art at the very highest level: that’s not sexist at it’s core. So opera doesn’t have to be sexist, but what can we do? 

As a start: Support other women as composers, librettists, directors, conductors, and impresarios; Treat other female singers as collaborators rather than competitors; ‘Come out’ as feminists and speak out when we see mistakes of the past being repeated and reinforced. 

So, can I be both an opera singer and a good feminist? 

I’m doing my best.


The Art of Letting Go…

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art begins with the lines :

‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’
We are going to lose stuff, jobs, dreams, even people, in course of our lifetime. Why not get good at it? In fact, we probably could all stand to lose things we no longer need: extra pounds, bad attitudes, painful memories, household clutter. Books outining methods of clearing out our clutter are very popular at the moment, and more of us are valuing experiences over possessions. The younger generation are no longer interested in having the ‘family heirlooms’ of the past, just at the same time that the ageing baby boom generation is leaving ever bigger piles of stuff behind. But it’s not just redundant possessions that we need to lose, it’s the desire, compulsion even, to hang onto every detail of our past, and the belief that somehow we are diminished without our ‘stuff’ that needs to get lost.

We are going to lose stuff, jobs, dreams, even people, in course of our lifetime. Why not get good at it?

I have fought ‘pack-rat-itis’ practically my whole life, and it is Bishop’s final line ‘It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.’ that really hit home: make art out of your losses. Write a poem. Paint a picture. Don’t just accept loss, embrace it as an opportunity to create something new out of what is left behind. (I found Bishop’s poem so inspiring, I commissioned a composer to set it into a modern art song, and then performed and recorded it. She changed ‘write it!’ to ‘sing it!’ For me.) When I am faced with sorting through, discarding/donating/recycling my own sentimental clutter, I look for ways to creatively use small pieces of the items in patchwork or collage, making ‘art’ out of letting go.

Recently my son came to me with one of his favourite t-shirts that he had outgrown. Now, he seems miraculously free of the pack-rat gene, and I hope he will stay that way. But he really liked that t-shirt. ‘Can you make me a cushion like you did before?’ (I had made a cushion cover for his older sister, using an old hoodie, her favourite, which reminded her of a family holiday, but that she had outgrown.) He wanted to let go of the t-shirt – after all, it no longer fit – but not the memories. We gathered a few more amusing bits and a much smaller shirt that I had been saving back for this purpose, and he did the designing while I did the sewing. Here is the result.

Now, I’m not the first person to make things like this, in fact it’s part of an art form that goes back centuries, from mosaic to collage to crazy quilts. Most of the time, people, mainly women, made patchwork quilts out of necessity, using worn out clothes and scraps left over from other sewing projects, because they couldn’t afford to waste anything. These days, we – unfortunately – can very much afford to waste. So the making of this type of handicraft serves another purpose: to preserve memories, and to give ourselves a way of letting go of some possessions by using small parts of them to make something new. This way, we can let go, accept loss, even embrace it, with gentleness, creativity and even joy. The sadness of having to throw something away (or recycle it in some way) is replaced by the excitement of creation. 

ONE ART wins International Art Song Contest on HPR


Very pleased to announce that a track from ONE ART was chosen as a winner in the Hawai’i Public Radio International Art Song Contest.

The winners’ concert will be broadcast in early 2018 (exact date and time TBC), featuring a 15 minute mini-recital selected from the CD ONE ART. The semi-finalist concert was played on Singing and other Sins, on the 16th December 2017. A podcast version can be heard here:

Many thanks to the folks at HPR for choosing our recording!


History repeating
Five years after Thomas Adès’ The Tempest made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, his latest opera The Exterminating Angel also made its US and Metropolitan Opera premiere. And once again, I covered the high (even higher!) soprano role. At least this time my character is definably female. And no flying.

(Definitely not a boy)

It has been really special to be back at the Met. In this business it’s nice to be asked back to a house for many reasons: professionally, it shows they liked your work the first time, (and looks good on the c.v.,) and personally, you are on familiar territory (you already know your way around the city and the theatre, and all the good/cheap places for lunch) and, even more importantly, you probably have made a few friends there and you get a chance to catch up with them.

All those factors were magnified in this situation: I lived in New York for a while shortly after finishing my Master’s degree, and my digs were exactly 1 block from my old apartment; I’m working on (yet another) contemporary opera, which is my favourite thing to do; and…it has a HUGE cast (21 principal roles) so that’s a LOT of new friends (and quite a few ‘old’ ones, too!)

I say ‘history repeating’ for other reasons, too: The Exterminating Angel is surreal, and involves guests at a dinner party becoming trapped in a room, with several ‘deja vu’ moments; and this really feels like history in the making, with a composer conducting his own work, in front of sold out crowds, to rave reviews, at an extremely prestigious opera house.

(Showing off)

The Exterminating Angel finished its run the the Met on Tuesday, and I am back home in time for Thanksgiving. What am I thankful for? Time spent catching up with friends, showing off my sons to my Met ‘family’ (and for both of them having the chance to see an opera at the Met,) and, most importantly, finally escaping from that mysterious room!

Oh, the Glamour!

Anyone labouring under the illusion that opera singers lead a glamorous life need to take a glance at my diary (pictured)…and this was for a pretty good gig, too. The ‘bus’ listed wasn’t for me, it was to remind me that I had enough time to take my (primary school age) son to the school bus stop before heading to Germany (via Taxi/Train/EasyJet/Coach) for a performance the following evening. A leisurely school run…followed by an 8-hour commute to work. 

I once witnessed Jessye Norman arriving at Heathrow with at least 6 porters following with trolley loads of her matching designer luggage. 

Perhaps our friends Renee and Placido have minions to carry their bags (and ferry their children to school) and private jets to convey them to their next engagement: I once witnessed Jessye Norman arriving at Heathrow with at least 6 porters following with trolley loads of her matching designer luggage. So, OK, some megastars have a very glam existence, but the rest of us are saving pennies by using public transport and discount airlines. (An opera singer made some headlines recently by wearing her concert gown on the flight so the airline wouldn’t charge her for excess baggage.) 
Most of us jobbing singers lead fairly ordinary lives, with brief interludes of exquisite abnormality when we get the chance. The glamour is not found in first class travel and designer handbags, but in the music itself, and sometimes, when we are very lucky, amidst beautiful workspaces and famous faces. After all the schlepping and budget airlines, it is pretty wonderful to look up and see this as your ‘office’:

Soprano Laure Meloy has presented ‘The Secret Life of a Diva: the glamorous (!) world of opera’ to community groups, clubs, and at business networking events. Bookings can be made through Femme Lunatique Productions.