Banner Photo: SWAP'ra gala at OHP, credit Robert Workman

Sophie Gilpin is is a stage director working in both opera and theatre. She is Artistic Director of HeadFirst Productions and Co-Founder of SWAP’ra: Supporting Women and Parents in Opera. Sophie has directed productions for companies including Hampstead Garden Opera, Riverside Opera/Rose Theatre Kingston, Celebrate Voice, and Re:Sound Music Theatre/Oxford Lieder Festival, as well as working for Opera North, Opera up Close and Iford Arts.  

Sophie is passionate about engendering more inclusive working practices where women in senior leadership positions are no longer the exception to the rule.

Over the last year a lot of data has been collected to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on women. UN Women has found that although everyone has taken on more responsibility at home, women are still responsible for the lion’s share of domestic work and childcare, and McKinsey & Company found that although women make up 39% of the global workforce, they account for 54% of overall job losses. That women have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic is not an issue exclusive to the arts, but these findings are certainly reflected in our industry; Encore Musicians reported in winter last year that young female musicians had 34% fewer gigs booked for the rest of 2020 than their male colleagues. 

The pandemic has highlighted existing inequalities in all sorts of ways, but a gender imbalance in classical music has always been there. The Women in Theatre Forum compiled a report last year evidencing that women are still significantly underrepresented in the arts, but in 2016 – nearly five years ago – the Department of Culture, Media and Sport published The Culture White Paper, stating that ‘progress has arguably been made on addressing gender balance’. The problem with this line of thinking is that it implies gender inequality has been “fixed”, so we no longer have to think about it. But last year’s ACE Diversity Report shows that just 32% of the music industry’s workforce consists of women. Data for classical music specifically is hard to find, but the statistics that SWAP’ra collects each year show that the figures are even lower for women in the key creative roles in opera, and Christina Scharff has shown that horizontal gender segregation in orchestras is as prevalent as vertical segregation within organisational structures. 

This is a real problem. The homogeneity of decision-makers, arts managers and creatives threatens the diversity of which voices are heard and whose stories told. It perpetuates the underrepresentation of certain demographics in audiences by appealing only to the sections of society that are represented in the art that we produce. If we want classical music to be relevant in today’s society, we must reflect the multiplicity of our nation on our stages, in our programming, and throughout all departments in our companies. 

What & Why is SWAP’ra?

In 2017 three singers and two directors – most of whom didn’t know each other – met for a coffee in the Barbican Centre foyer to share our thoughts and experiences of being women and/or parents working in opera. We spoke about the challenges we’d faced, the difficulties our friends and colleagues had shared with us, and our hopes for an industry that could do more to support women (including female-identifying and non-binary folk) and parents in opera. Over the next few weeks SWAP’ra was born and we have been working ever since to address the gender inequality that still persists in opera, despite the industry’s good intentions. At the very core of our ethos is a desire to celebrate, support, and use positive reinforcement to achieve our goals; we feel that there is no value for us in finger-pointing and playing a blame game. What we want is a paradigm shift, and for the people in positions of power to not only recognise what the problems are but to take steps to address them. We also want women and parents to feel empowered and hopeful that opera needs them and, most importantly, wants them to stay in the workforce; we all lose out when talented musicians and theatre-makers leave opera for careers in industries that demonstrably support and value them more than they feel this one does. Our work is divided into three pillars – Advocacy & Research, Mentoring & Peer Support, and Performance Platforms – and we address the underrepresentation of women in opera as well as working to create a more sustainable, family-friendly industry for parents and carers. These two threads are distinct and yet interconnected; we know that caring responsibilities are often a significant factor for the infamous glass ceiling but not all women are parents, and not all parents are women. 

At the very core of our ethos is a desire to celebrate, support, and use positive reinforcement to achieve our goals; we feel that there is no value for us in finger-pointing and playing a blame game.

Advocacy & Research

In early 2018 we collected some data to demonstrate the gender imbalance in senior creative roles across the UK’s major opera houses and festivals. We also invited stories from parents about difficulties they had faced trying to balance parenthood or pregnancy and a career in opera. Some required only simple fixes, some demanded a consideration of more formalised change, and others opened up a Pandora’s box of very complex issues of attitude and systemic weaknesses. 

Here’s our data for the 2018/19 season:

This research enabled us to engage in a direct dialogue with opera’s senior management teams to look for a way to redress the gender imbalance. We started this conversation by hosting a round table discussion at the Southbank Centre with representatives from eight of the major opera companies. It is an ongoing conversation, and there are many complex structural challenges that mean that this is likely to remain a slow process, but we are making progress. Our advance scheduling format, parent pack template, and other family-friendly recommendations have been used in various ways by Opera Holland Park, Scottish Opera, and Grange Festival, as well as a whole host of smaller organisations, and various other initiatives are in the works. 

Mentoring & Peer Support

As an artist-run organisation we are in the unique position of having a direct line of communication with artists without the added complexity of being associated with any one opera company. 

Alongside our advocacy and research work, we want to shine a spotlight on the inspiring women and parents who are doing wonderful things. You can read our interviews with them here.

This time last year we were working on some very exciting projects but like so many arts organisations our plans changed very quickly and very drastically in March 2020. Instead, over the summer we offered grants for freelancers via an Emergency Fund to help support women struggling with the effects of the pandemic; shared other organisations’ resources for artists; started SWAP’ra Café, an informal, supportive online community for parents to share their experiences of parenting in a pandemic via regular Zoom meetings; and most recently established SWAP’ra Makes Space, a series of targeted sessions for women working in disciplines that are either male-dominated or can be particularly isolating. In February we held our first session for Women in Percussion and at the end of March we’re holding a session for Women in Brass. Please do join us if either one appeals to you. It’s really important that we speak to each other and articulate our challenges as well as celebrate our successes. Only by doing this will we feel less alone in our struggles and be empowered to make the change we want to see. 

Performance Platforms

I have heard so often the same excuse for a lack of gender diversity: that there are not enough talented women out there. We want to prove that this is not true; that if you look, you can find us. When we launched in 2018, we were keen to arrive on the scene with a bang and celebrate some of the magnificent women working in opera today. So we gathered over 150 of them together at Opera Holland Park and presented a gala of semi-staged opera scenes with an orchestra. Fiona Shaw hosted, and we were joined by female conductors, directors, singers, instrumentalists, and stage managers. It was spectacular and made an unambiguous statement to the industry: We Are Here. 

To celebrate International Women’s Day this year we are championing composers by filling social media with music by women past and present. For Forgotten Voices we’ve been working in association with Hera to source over eighty pieces of music from more than thirty female composers, all of which are being recorded by students from some of the UK’s conservatoires. They’ll be available to watch for free from 6 – 13 March 2021. Our goal is to ensure that these women are recognised for the extraordinary musicians they are. Crucially, we all need to search for women of colour too because they’ve been written out of the history books even more than white women have. We’re thrilled to be sharing compositions from Margaret Bonds, Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Maud Cuney-Hare, and Undine Smith Moore, but I’m sure we’re only scratching the surface. By creating this project, we hope that anyone programming music in the future – whether individual musicians or large organisations – will add these voices to the plethora of men whose music we all hear on a regular basis. 

So what next?

The last twelve months have had a devastating impact on the creative industries that cannot be underestimated, but I am a great believer in searching for opportunity in chaos. If nothing else, the pandemic has offered the classical music industry a chance to pause, reflect and reset, and this is true for individuals as much as it is for companies. We can use this time to identify what it is that really matters to us as creatives. Is it championing underrepresented voices and developing inclusive practices? Is it finding a better work-life balance? Is it learning new skills and establishing a portfolio career? Perhaps it’s none of these things, or perhaps it’s a combination of all of them. Either way, now we have an opportunity to take real, practical steps to mould ourselves and the industry into a better shape. 

If nothing else, the pandemic has offered the classical music industry a chance to pause, reflect and reset, and this is true for individuals as much as it is for companies.

The SWAP’ra dream is that we will see a world in which a female CEO, Music Director, Artistic Director, Conductor, Composer or Librettist is no longer noteworthy. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, articulated something similar when she wrote “in the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” The current status quo doesn’t reflect this future yet so I want women to stand up, stand strong, and claim your space to make your voices heard. And most importantly, to the women who are already in positions of power: please hold the door open behind you after you’ve walked through it so that the next woman can take her place by your side. 

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