When The Tenors Are Sixers At Best

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.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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4 thoughts on “When The Tenors Are Sixers At Best”

  1. For singing, parts require specific vocal ranges, which are highly correlated with biological sex. This makes cross-casting very difficult, unless the music is rewritten, which few audience members would appreciate.

    For acting, cross-casting is very common, both in student productions and professional ones.

    Incidentally, you’ll be pleased to hear that Santa Cruz Shakespeare has publicly committed to doing gender-balanced casting (as they did last summer). This has meant some cross-casting, but also rewriting some parts to be female that were originally male.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, “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.”

    Is it simply the case that productions are stuck in the offerings from hundreds of years ago, and that they do not any longer represent current climates? Is the default that these are the productions we will stage regardless of our ability to cast well? Or, are we at a point where we can see who there is to cast and then decide what to perform? Are we being attentive to the past, the present, or even the future?

    This is a similar issue to the conversation we had about the instagramification of visual art. The art form itself evolves to fit unfolding circumstances or it remains stuck in the same old same old of business as usual. Its a question of where our priorities lead us. It might be great to have more qualified male voices, but their absence should have at least some effect on the things we are committed to producing. A chef who did not get his delivery of fresh eggs won’t still attempt to make quiche. And if it forces us to be more creative and untested, maybe that’s a good thing in the end….

  3. There’s a parallel to what has been occurring in music schools forever and a day: there are only so many oboes you can fit in an orchestra, so schools are forced to artificially balance to some extent. Of course we have more freedom to choose our instruments, unlike singers.

  4. An education system that leads to an exclusion of one sex or the other is an abject failure. Any art which does this will wither. At least Indiana tries. Sweden just gives in.

    Honestly, I am all for more balanced casting. I am all for diversity in casting. However this is not that. At some point when you have decided that men are nor worthy to play any part, even those originally written for them, and you go ahead with the production, you have managed blackface.A grotesque exclusion where the only person good enough to play a man is a woman. (This is also very different than reverse casting of genders for a single production which is an exploration not an exclusion.)

    That sort of segregation was wrong in Shakespeare’s time and it is morally wrong today.

    Yeah, it isn’t just about the qualifications of the individual applicants. It to be about a wider diversity that society needs. Art is stunted when it alienates half the audience, look at what the exclusion of women and minorities have done for the last 1000 years in western art.

    As a member of the audience I want those sad misshapen off key voices of men. I want them because their voice adds an authenticity to the work and a viewpoint where all can shine.I think that maybe those “nine” women could learn something from that. They might even take something from it when playing a part written by a male author or in developing how they play a part originally written for a man.

    Further, we should write more roles for women, we should also have women writing, directing and producing more in the arts. This is not either we write more for women or exclude men- which is crazy… We need both.

    Honestly, If this is what fine arts have come to, Sweden Opera can count me out. They are immoral and irrelevant. They fail their female students, the men they refuse, and any audience they no longer deserve. I will go to Indiana, I will savor the cacophony if that is all they can produce, However,I am willing to bet their productions probably have joy,vigor and the singing of multitudes.


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