“We all want the same thing: we all want to make the best art, to work in a decent environment.”
Sophie Gilpin, SWAP’ra
SWAP’ra was established by five working artists in response to a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry and to provide a supportive platform to effect positive change for women and parents in opera, not just in performance, but also leadership roles. The declared aim of the organisation is to foster an environment in which a female CEO, music director, artistic director, conductor, composer or librettist is no longer noteworthy.
When SWAP’ra co-founder, director Sophie Gilpin spoke to Music Works (Season 2 Episode 2.5) she covered some of the issues that women and parents face working in the classical music industry. One of the key messages she brought to the table was how important it is for everyone involved to have a stake in this and work together to create an environment in which it is possible to have a family and work, even in a difficult medium like opera where the hours militate against anyone with childcare commitments.
Sometimes it seems like a big ask, but she sees these essential conversations happening more and more with more small initiatives, more little step changes, but all of which add up to a movement in the right direction.
Of course, a lot of it goes back to traditional attitudes about women in the creative work space and how that is sometimes harder to tackle. It is generally understood that the industry has to be more representative, but that can lead to unhelpful tokenism which can in turn lead women to feel they are unfairly pitted against each other.
“There’s the men’s table [that] has space for one woman and…you know that…your gender is so present, and that you are being looked at as a female director, a female producer, a female conductor.”
The statistics are not always encouraging. The Arts Council’s diversity report last year shows that there are something like 32% of women employed across all roles in music (not counting freelancers) whereas across the arts as a whole the figure is 57%.
To challenge this, the gala that launched SWAP’ra at Opera Holland Park in 2018 used 150 music professionals: an all female orchestra, all female conductors, all female directors, all female state management team, all female repetiteurs and all female singers. The message was overt: “If anybody is in any doubt that the talent is out there, here’s 150 of us.”
But, while Sophie and SWAP’ra may feel militant about something that she believes matters deeply to the health of industry and everyone, male and female alike, employed within it, she ends on a positive note:
“The most important thing is that we want to have this conversation in a positive way. We want to be celebratory and we want to be supportive and we want to highlight all the things that are going really, really well.”
Things may be a long way from ideal, but with people like Sophie and organisations like SWAP’ra pushing for change, it will, it has to get better.
Welcome to our new blog series, talking to leading musicians who are also parents about their experiences of balancing their careers with family life. This week, meet international operatic soprano Máire Flavin, who talks about the issues surrounding operatic contracts and pregnancy, and the childcare challenges for opera singers.
How many children do you have and how old are they?
I am a new Mom to a gorgeous 5 month old girl.
Tell me a bit about your work and how it is structured.
I am a freelance opera singer with concert work as well of course. I am not tied to any one house although most of my work is in the UK and Ireland. I do large scale tours with the big companies but no longer do the smaller, but longer, tours with smaller companies. In terms of control over my schedule, I can of course say yes or no to projects, but this is the arts so usually you are saying yes to as much as possible! Once on contract I have no control over my schedule. Most UK companies work on a weekly schedule sent out on the previous Thursday or Friday. I have spent only 30 days at home this last year, but that is also due to my husband’s schedule (he is also an opera singer).
Tell me about your work/parenthood balance.
We are very new to the work/parenthood balance and will only really see how it works this coming year. Already, over the summer, we have both had roles to learn so have needed to find ways to give each other time! We are also in different countries for all of our contracts this coming year so it will be a challenge as a family.
Have you had to turn down opportunities because of being a parent? How did this make you feel?
Of course I had to turn work down towards the end of my pregnancy/nearing my due date. I have not yet had to turn any work down due to being a parent but I suppose there is more financial pressure – if the contract doesn’t pay well enough to cover childcare and unless it is hugely artistically fulfilling i.e. a role I have always wanted to do and never had the chance to, then it just won’t be feasible. At the end of the day it is my choice how I balance being a parent and my work, this is just a very complicated industry within which to do that.
Do you have regular childcare, and if so, in what form?
At the moment we do not have regular childcare. I am looking for childcare on location in each of my upcoming contracts and getting family help where I can for tech week when she is little as I’d rather family were doing her bedtime routine where possible.
Have you performed anywhere that made the work/parenthood balance easier?
I think the work that Swap’ra is doing is invaluable. They have already made progress with companies in the UK giving advanced schedules to facilitate booking childcare etc. During my pregnancy, and for one of my first contracts back, Opera North have been fantastic. They really looked after me when pregnant but also trusted me to get on with my job and also trusted, by rehiring me post-pregnancy, that I would make sure I was back on form after giving birth. This, unfortunately, is certainly not always the case.
What can promoters/venues/festival organisers do to help freelance artists who are parents?
One of the biggest differences opera companies can make is to be willing to give advanced scheduling where possible. There are still companies in Ireland, and it is the norm throughout continental Europe, who give out the next days schedule at 6pm the previous evening. This makes organising childcare extremely complicated, not to mention unnecessarily expensive. Expecting your childcare provider to agree to either be needed or not, or for how many hours, the evening before is ridiculous and most would not agree to be hired on that basis, so why it is acceptable to expect that scheduling to be ok for artists is beyond me.
How did being a freelance musician affect your parental leave?
Parental leave is not really a thing when you are freelance. Depending on where you pay your tax and what is available from the state you may receive some basic maternity pay but essentially time away from work is time not being paid and not being seen and potentially not getting future work. Certainly my husband only got 2 days off, including the day of labour, when our daughter was born as he was mid-production and mid-tech week. Of course the flip side of our job is once the show was up he was around to help more than a 9-5 Dad.
Are you part of any online social groups for freelancers/freelance parents?
There are several great online support networks on the like of facebook for parents, especially Moms, in the classical music/opera business and it has already been a great resource to me. We really do support each other in the opera world!
Dublin-born soprano Máire Flavin represented Ireland in BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, where she was a finalist in the Song Prize.
Her album Baby Mineis a collection of animated childhood film classics with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra. Any artist profits will go to Autism charities in the UK, Ireland and USA.
Last season saw Ms. Flavin make her Austrian debut as Contessa d’Almaviva Le nozze di Figaro (Salzburger Landestheater); her company debut as Contessa d’Almaviva Le nozze di Figaro, and perform the role of Hannah in the World Premiere of The Second Violinist (Irish National Opera); two role debuts with Opera North as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow and Anna Sørensen in the UK premiere of Silent Night; Mimi La bohème (Cork International Opera Series); and Mozart Requiem & Once upon a Dream: Celebrating Disney (RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra).
Previous highlights include roles with Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Atelier Lyrique de Tourcoing, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Glyndebourne on Tour, Opera North, Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera, Northern Ireland Opera, and with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, and the Deutsche Philharmonie.
In the forthcoming season she will make her debut at Wexford Festival Opera in the world premiere of Andrew Synnott’s La Cucina and return to Opera North for Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.