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‘Cold, hard numbers’ capture opera’s staggering gender inequities

MassOpera founder Dana Lynne Varga co-authored a new study enumerating discrimination in the field.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, or so the old joke goes. But according to a new analysis of systemic gender discrimination in the opera industry, if you’re a classical singer, you’ll have a much easier time getting there if you’re a man. At every stage of training and career, female singers are “excluded or marginalized,” found co-authors Zach Finkelstein, Hillary LaBonte, and Dana Lynne Varga in a collaboration between Finkelstein’s website The Middleclass Artist and Varga’s holistic career coaching business, The Empowered Musician.

Varga, a soprano and pedagogue who founded MassOpera (formerly MetroWest Opera) in 2007, had already extensively written on gender disparity in the field. But Finkelstein’s skills as a data analyst helped transform the anecdotes and case studies into stark numbers, she explained over the phone from her Arlington home.


The figures are disquieting. Approximately seven out of 10 voice and opera graduates are women, but since the most popular operas in the canon have many more roles for men, female singers are much less likely to be given career opportunities, and more likely to go into debt. Female classical performers also earn on average 29 percent less than their male counterparts.

As artistic director of MassOpera, Varga has made supporting Boston’s many emerging singers part of the company’s mission — and this means choosing casts that reflect the gender balance of the singers on the scene, roughly 70 percent female. But she knows this isn’t on many of her fellow administrators’ minds. “During the preparation for this article, there were four industry professionals that I had to define gender parity to. They didn’t know what it meant,” she said.

But with the study racking up 50,000 views and counting on Finkelstein’s website, Varga is confident that it’ll draw attention to the issues it highlights. “I think that it was right place/right time,” she said. “COVID has laid everything bare. All the cracks are hanging out now. And I’m here for it.”


Q. In doing the work for this study, did you and your co-authors find anything that surprised you at all?

A. Nothing. We knew it backward and forward. But until you have the cold, hard numbers — I had a suspicion that the 70 percent graduation rate [meaning 70 percent of vocal music graduates are female] was true. And I’m relieved that it was more or less proven.

I was really grateful for the opportunity to talk about what I call the pipeline. That’s tied to gender parity issues in my mind — the pipeline is this prescribed path that classical singers are told you’re supposed to follow to have a full-time career in opera. And there’s just so many issues with the pipeline. It greatly favors people with money and male singers, and it treats opera as God, right? When really there are a million ways to be a singer. There’s pro choral work, and there’s oratorio and concert work, and there’s art song work. I think art song is about to make a huge reappearance in the classical world post-COVID. That’s my hot take.

Q. What kind of reactions have you seen to the study?

A. In general, I find that the younger generations are angry and not necessarily surprised. Then there’s the older generations as well as the people I call the 1 percent — the people who make their entire livings as opera singers. Their reaction has been some surprise and also great appreciation for us laying things out there, and getting people to talk about it so we can all start making moves toward change.


Q. Who do you hope will see the study, and what do you hope they’ll do with the information?

A. The audience I most want to reach is people in positions of power at opera companies and in academia. Artistic directors, general directors. It’s great that the singers and musicians are all reading it. But systemic change across the board needs to happen.

Q. In this time with no live performances, do you see opportunities to set up a more equitable singing world?

A. Definitely. COVID has laid everything bare, and now we have numbers and we’re talking about these things. Academia and the industry now has no choice but to put more women in positions of power, and create more opportunities for diversity and inclusion. They have to do it — they should want to do it, but they also have to do it at this point.

What else is going to set change in motion: school curriculums have needed to change for a long time. [Conservatory students] need [to learn about] entrepreneurship, and money smarts, and taxes, and understanding that you will likely need a correlating career. Then there’s the whole … how are you going to change parity in academia? I don’t know that the solution is that we should try to have 50/50 male and female in schools. The field needs to work harder to reflect what’s happening in the schools. Almost all voice programs take more women, and give them less money and fewer opportunities, and then the men pay less and sing more. That has to be changed.


Interview was condensed and edited. Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.