Opera and gender equality

Recently Jennifer Lawrence, one of Hollywood’s best payed actresses, has publicly denounced the difference of economic treatment between actors and actresses.  Cinema is only one example of entertainment industry where women have a lower status than men.  Actors have on average better parts, more interesting and more varied roles; they are represented like human beings, while women are in general more stereotyped, and often are only an accessory to the “real” action, concerning men: their purpose is to be ornamentation, or to become the trophy that the hero conquers. This difference in representation translates directly in a difference in pay: the audience goes to the movies to see a male hero, hence male actors are paid better. Obviously the Diva exists, but she pays a big price: the beauty standard she must adhere to is strict, she is paid less, and her career ends when she is around 37 (except Meryl Streep, of course).

serenaA similar phenomenon happens in sports: male sports are much more popular, and male athletes are paid much better than their female colleagues: they have better sponsors, and are much more famous.
Women athletes express the empowerment and the strength of the female body, and this, in our society, is rewarded much less than the strength of the male body.  Very often they are considered “masculine” (take a look at the hate that Serena Williams gets on the Internet, albeit, admittedly, in this case it is impossible to disentangle misogyny from racism).  They escape the standard stereotype of the weak, sweet, graceful woman, express their agency, and are punished.  Men represent the “real” embodiment of sports ideals, women are only a pathetic imitation, boring, worth of little attention, “masculine” and disgusting when they succeed. Physical activity is male.

Classical ballet represents a contradiction, in terms of how men and women artists are regarded.  On one hand “Ballet is Woman” as Balanchine said: it can be considered a high celebration of femininity, or rather, of a stereotyped version of femininity, ethereal, inherently patriarchal.  This makes ballerinas the absolute stars of classical ballet, and at the same time it forces them to torture their body to achieve an impossible physical model, and destroy their feet in the process (if you can stomach it, google “ballet dancers feet”).  It is one of the greatest examples of patriarchal control over women’s bodies: the reward is fame and success, the price is the destruction of the actual physical body, and, in a sense, dehumanization.  Observe, by the way, that this supremacy of women as stars of ballet does not translate in better economic treatment.

The interesting thing is how opera doesn’t fit into this pattern.  In the entertainment industry, opera stands out for its egalitarianism, because in opera women and men are not treated differently.  Male and female singers have the same chances to become famous and reach success: there are fans obsessing over men and women opera singers in the same proportion, which results in very similar earnings.  Men are not perceived as “more real” opera singers than women, as it happens in sports; male voice is not considered more beautiful as such.  The embodiment of opera singing is not a man, and it’s not a woman either, necessarily: the art is expressed in its highest form sometimes by a man and sometimes by a woman.  And if you ask an opera freak who has been the most influential singer ever in opera, the most frequent answer will be “Maria Callas”.

pav-caballeIn opera, the voice reigns supreme, not the body; this makes this particular artistic form less impacted by the bias due to society’s control over women’s bodies, hence more egalitarian.
Singers, men and women, are not required to fit absurd beauty standards, and, as a matter of fact, many of the most adored and famous singers cannot be defined “beautiful”, by any means.  Obviously, if a singer is beautiful, this helps her succeed, and the fact that Kaufmann is movie-star-handsome has certainly contributed to his success.  But, in general, singers with plain bodies and faces rouse the enthusiasm of fans, if the voice is good.  The examples are countless, from Pavarotti to Montserrat Caballé.

This “oversight” of the body, in my opinion, is the main reason for the equality between male and female Diva-status in opera, and it contributes to make opera one of the entertainment industries where there are fewer gender inequalities.  First the voice, then the body, much less important; hence the machine of war employed by the patriarchy to control women’s bodies is not in use in opera theatres.  Not against singers, anyway.


  1. What an interesting point. Do you have references for the income equality? (The reference to Maria Callas depressed me though, as she had such a hard time trying to fit with our warped standards of thinness).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s