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Gender balance in opera: building back better? (part 1)

We formed Hera in 2018 and made our first work in 2019. In retrospect this wasn’t ideal timing. But we’ve kept going and we’ve been lucky. Currently we’re feeling moderately confident that we’ll be going for a little while to come, with ‘Out of Her Mouth’ - a co-production with Mahogany Opera and Dunedin Consort – set for summer 2023, and other projects in the pipeline.

So, a moment of reflection.

Back in 2018, thinking about how to be a feminist opera company, we wanted to know how things stood for women in UK opera - to put our own experiences into context. Opera certainly didn’t feel equitable, in respect to gender or anything else, but there was already a lot of talk about change. Could we get a clearer picture? There wasn’t a lot of data available.

We decided to crunch some numbers. Specifically, we looked at gender balance in three seasons of work by the companies which were in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio at the time, counting named on-stage roles, directors, conductors and composers.

Obviously, this didn’t give us a total picture - even of gender balance - in UK opera: it was a view from England (with WNO receiving funding from both sides of the border), and excluded opera festivals, as well as lots of small companies who were closer to being our peers. It also didn’t include the whole creative team. More complete information would be great, but we needed a manageable data set. So we focussed on where most public money was going. At a time when ACE was vocally championing the ‘Creative Case for Diversity’, we felt it was one way to measure the gap between that aspiration and what was actually happening.

A clearer picture emerged, and it wasn’t great. See below for a summary.

So, now we’re wondering, four years later and after the rupture of Covid-19, will this have changed? There’s been a lot of talk about ‘building back better’. We’re going to look again at the data, and let you know. But we’re feeling nervous. Right now, we feel cautiously optimistic about the future of opera, but maybe that’s just because we’re having better experiences ourselves, working as Hera. What does the bigger picture look like? Stay tuned to find out.

Where we were before the pandemic




Av. 2015-18

Named roles















Composers (new commissions)





Composers (all other)





  • Women consistently had fewer than 40% of named singing roles. This is an aspect of inequality that often goes unnoticed, perhaps because it’s so easy to think of famous female leading roles. But across whole productions, women singers, of whom there are many more, have fewer opportunities to be cast. This alone would be good reason to reconsider the repertoire being performed.

  • Women conductors were only 5% of those credited, and if we’d adjusted for size of auditoria and number of performances this would have been even lower. This feels like something the industry is beginning to address, but the bar for improvement is very low. (Also, change isn’t just ‘happening’, it’s being driven by brilliant women, and occasional excellent men).

  • Women directed just under 11% of productions in 2015/16, but over 21% in 2016/17. Without more information we can’t be sure if this represents a trend. And we don’t know whether progress simply stalled temporarily the following year, or whether we’ve levelled off at an 80/20 split. That’s definitely something we’ll be looking to find out.

  • We’ve got a horrible feeling that 80/20 is what ‘more equality’ feels like for male-dominated institutions, because women composers received 20% of new opera commissions over the period. We cannot think of a good reason for this not to be 50/50, and I don’t think anyone could without telling on themselves.

  • In addition, 0% (ZERO!) of other productions were by women composers. We didn’t expect a 50/50 split, because so many productions are of the same few canonical works. But we were still surprised. Even with all the pressures on programming that exist, some lesser-known works were being produced, but none by a woman from any period, from baroque rediscoveries to recent successes. This has had a big influence on our planning since completing the research: from our only producing work by women and gender-minoritised composers; to finding ways to connect new work to the existing heritage of opera by women. Opera has got stuck in a loop of thinking of women composers as something new - always new, always beginning- something which new initiatives can unwittingly reinforce. We need to break out of this. Perhaps we are just beginning to?

Some notes on the data:

  1. The gender of artists was checked against the pronouns used in professional biographies available on artists’ and agents’ websites. We did not include a non-binary category in our data, and did not come across any non-binary artists in compiling the data. In future, we will include this information more consciously in our research.

  2. The companies we looked at were: English National Opera, English Touring Opera, Welsh National Opera, Royal Opera House, Northern Opera, Glyndebourne Touring (not Festival), Birmingham Opera and Mahogany Opera Group. We’re not publishing the data for individual companies, because it isn’t the point. The only instances of companies consistently achieving parity or better in any category were: WNO for new commissions (always 50/50; 2 of 4 in total); and Mahogany Opera Group for conductors (majority female in this period, but over a very small number of productions). Note, Mahogany Opera are not currently an NPO.

  3. We included all new and revived productions in each season. This means a few productions are in the data more than once. We included all studio, one-off, off-site and semi-staged productions when these were included in main season announcements, and not when they were not. We felt it was easier to take companies at their word as to what was part of their season than to invent our own criteria.

  4. Named roles were counted using the cast lists provided by the company in question wherever possible.

  5. We only counted original production directors. We did not count revival, staff or associate directors. We would be interested in the discrepancy between the proportion of these latter roles filled by women, and the figures for production directors.

  6. Where more than one conductor was credited on a run, both were counted equally in the data: i.e. we counted people, not jobs. However, when two singers shared a role, we only counted the role once. This is perhaps a little inconsistent. There were so few women conductors in the data that it seemed too bleak to start counting them in fractions.

  7. Our slightly blunt approach means that our figures overestimate women’s presence: women directors and conductors are more likely to work on shorter runs in smaller auditoria, but this is not reflected in our numbers. For more on this, the recent article, “Opera-ting on inequality – gender representation in creative roles at the Royal Opera” (2021) by Caitlin Vincent, Amanda Coles & Jordan Beth Vincent, includes interesting detail.

If you have questions about this research please email If you’re citing this data in your own work, let us know, we’d love to hear about it.


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