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A Little Feminist, Queer Opera Music?

2011 November 15

Grab your drinks, we’re going to the pub to watch opera. It’s going to be amazing! Queer Feminist Cabaret Opera Mash-Up. In the pub! Get in.

I’ve been spending time with opera singers Clouds and Jessie, talking about their company Better Strangers and upcoming show,Ah! Forget My Fate: A Brief History Of Women In Opera (Abridged) at Islington’s King’s Head theatre. I asked them some semi-intelligent questions, and they gave me some pretty damn cool answers.

Tell us a bit about yourselves.

“Better Strangers started with Clouds and Jessie, two queer feminist geeks. We met through LARP and bonded over a mutual love of opera, together with frustration at the lack of available jobs. Clouds is now in her second year of a singing course at music school. Jessie is a youth worker at the East London Out Project, and does freelance community arts with people with profound and multiple learning disabilities. We both have literature degrees. Jessie likes queer theory and graphic novels. Clouds likes metal and baking. Pleased to meet you!”

Two women standing by a men at work sign

Men at work. Kinda. Not.

Better Strangers coalesced into an actual concept some time around May 2010. Our stated aim is to create musical performances by, with and for all kinds of women, and to use these to reach out to people who might normally feel excluded from opera.”

We love the idea of feminist opera – what role does it play in opera as a whole and in the wider arts world?

“To the best of our awareness, Better Strangers is the only feminist opera company in existence. There are occasional feminist productions dotted around, but no other companies dedicated to performing them, as far as we can tell. So that’s a start. In addition to putting on feminist productions of existing operas, we’ll be commissioning new music from female composers, asking female writers to contribute song lyrics and stories, and opening up discussions about women’s roles in opera, and how and why they need to change.

“At least two thirds of any singing class in a music school is likely to be made up of women – most of them sopranos – and yet each commonly performed opera will contain two, maybe three roles for the ‘female’ soprano, mezzo or alto register. It’s a hugely (and in some ways needlessly) competitive world. So, instead of wringing our hands about the dwindling interest in opera and classical music, why not create more? Our commissioned works will address this problem in two ways: firstly, by including more soprano, mezzo and alto roles; and secondly, by scoring many of them for small groups of instruments, so that they can be easily performed with limited space and resources.

“As well as performers, we’re encouraging contributions from female directors, MDs, producers (BadRep’s own Sarah C is working with us right now), composers, technicians, librettists and artists. Women composers are more widely recognised now than they have ever been, with Performing Right Society awarding funding for music written and commissioned by women, but there is still a lot of work to be done. We hope that as we bring the work of stage professionals and writers to light, women might start to be taken more seriously across the arts world.

“Our feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit. We at Better Strangers are interested in stories, and particularly stories that aren’t often told. This means listening to all kinds of different people – women, QUILTBAGs, people of colour, people from lower income brackets, people with disabilities, and anyone else who has something to share with the world.”

Drawing of a woman's face, made out of text

Artwork by Alex Campbell

The show features a lot of pieces for women performers. What are your opinions on the roles available to women in opera?

“The premise of Ah! Forget My Fate! is that women are very frequently typecast. The most common types of female characters are the weepy virgin, the terrible slut, the saucy servant girl, or the boy. In operas written before 1820 there were a lot more witches and evil sorceresses, but the villain’s role was handed over to basses later on. That’s it. If you’re a weepy virgin or a terrible slut in an opera written after 1830, chances are you’ll go mad or get consumption and die. Bad luck!

“How does one sing with consumption anyway? A wasting disease of the lungs and throat plays havoc with your timbre. There are a few exceptions, of course. We just want to create more of them. Besides, what about the mezzos who want to play a bold, upstanding young hero? Or the basses who want to play weepy, consumptive virgins?

“There is a heavy heteronormative gender bias in opera, which is kind of silly because not all sopranos, mezzos and altos are women, and not all tenors, baritones and basses are men. CN Lester of En Travesti is a gender neutral mezzo. Florestan of Lashings of Ginger Beer is a female baritone. Yet it’s expected, in opera as in life, that women and men will fit into these nice little boxes with a set type of voice and a set type of role to go with it, and it’s astonishing and disturbing how often the woman’s voice is silenced at the end of an opera.

What’s next for Better Strangers?

“After Ah! Forget My Fate, Better Strangers will be having some fun with devised performance. Alongside that, we’ll be doing some education work in community settings around how awesome opera and feminism are, and how opera does have something to offer people who aren’t rich and white, honest. Also in the works is a show in which all the dead heroines of famous operas rise again as zombies and take their revenge.

No, really. Keep an eye out – it’s going to be awesome.

  1. It seems this date has now had to be cancelled – so all the more reason to try to make the second one! []
3 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    November 15, 2011

    This was an interesting and informative piece. I hadn’t quite clocked that people would be typecast according to their gender regardless of their voice in that way, but it seems obvious now. Yet again, human species fail. Thank you for posting!

  2. Vee permalink
    November 15, 2011

    Greatly intrigued, newsletter subscribed!! will try and make one of the perfomeances for sure, and drag some vocally inclined friends along with me.

    (And also thanks for pointing me to Lashings Of.. too – as a female currently filling the role of baritone, this intrigues me greatly!!)

    • Miranda permalink*
      November 15, 2011

      I definitely recommend Lashings! I had so much fun when I saw them this year.

      Anyone else reading: there’s now only one show on 25 November due to a scheduling conflict at the venue (boo!) – so join us!

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