Image courtesy of Mahogany Opera Group

Founded in

1998

(as The Opera Group)

Artistic Director

Frederic Wake-Walker

Since 2011

Mahogany Opera Group logo

Profile

Mahogany Opera Group is a leading independent opera company that stretches the boundaries of what opera can be and who it is for.

Mahogany formed in 2014, bringing together two acclaimed companies specialising in creating and touring new work: The Opera Group and Mahogany Opera. Mahogany creates new opera in new ways, performing in different spaces and place throughout the UK and internationally. We collaborate with established and emerging artists, drawing on a range of cultural influences, theatrical methods and artforms. Our projects are created through our landmark research and development programme, Various Stages, which not only gives artists creative freedom, but also involves audiences throughout the process.

Recent productions include: The Rattler, a new interactive retelling of Rumpelstiltskin for families by Stephen Deazley and Martin Riley; Rolf Hind’s mindfulness opera Lost in Thought; Emily Hall’s Folie à Deux; Hans Krása’s Brundibár with children from across the UK, and cabaret opera Gloria – A Pigtale by H K Gruber.

Other work as The Opera Group and Mahogany Opera includes: David Bruce’s Olivier Award-nominated The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Benjamin Britten’s Church Parables, Harrison Birtwistle’s Bow Down and Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, which won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical 2008.

+ mahoganyoperagroup.co.uk

Touring company

Company Type

Touring

Our work has toured extensively within the UK to places such as the Barbican, Royal Opera House, Buxton Festival, and Edinburgh International Festival and internationally to Paris, Barcelona, Bregenz, Zurich, Berlin, St Petersburg, Bergen, Stockholm and New York.

Mahogany Opera Group - Total subsidy from Arts Council England in the 2015/16 financial year

Public Funding

£330,602

Total subsidy from Arts Council England in the 2015/16 financial year

London and South East England

Location

London / South East

Productions

5

Staged in the 2015/16 financial year

Staff

Staff - Mahogany Opera Group

Our Question

Where are the female opera librettists? What routes are currently available for aspiring librettists? How can we broaden these opportunities and encourage more women to consider writing libretti?

We initially asked the question as Mahogany has, to date, never commissioned a female librettist. This is despite commissioning several new operas over a number of years. We wanted to use this fairly narrow focus to explore the role of women within opera more generally. We hoped to test a method of tackling inequality that can translate into other areas of our work.

What We Did

“We started the Advance programme with a fairly narrow line of questioning – looking at female librettists – but the process has transformed our thinking, with the realisation that issues and barriers actually exist much more broadly in the perception of women within the opera sector.”
Michael Duffy, Communications Manager, Mahogany Opera Group

Investigation

Tonic set out to explore what pathways currently exist for people interested in writing libretti and how, once they’ve found a route in, they can maintain and develop a career in opera writing. From here, Tonic sought to understand what about these pathways may feel appealing and accessible to women and what less so. To do this they interviewed and ran focus groups with lots of opera-making women, including those who are or have written opera libretti, both those starting out and those more established.

They also spoke to opera ‘gatekeepers’; producers, artistic directors, and those involved in training. They researched courses and training opportunities that are currently open to upcoming librettists, and also did some number crunching, looking at the gender of librettists commissioned by a range of opera companies across the UK over a 12 month period.

All of this gave us a clear idea of where the gaps existed in terms of entry points for people keen to write libretti, but also enabled us to reflect on the wider context of opera: the place of women in that context, the power dynamic between librettists and composers during the writing process, and also our own role as opera ‘gatekeepers’.

What We Learned

Rather than there being a lack of women who want to write libretti, the research suggested that there are plenty of women writing libretti, but a lower chance that they will be commissioned, for a range of reasons.

The research focused on two areas: the challenges librettists can face in building and maintaining a career, and the challenges that women may face in creative roles in opera. By over-laying these two areas, and understanding how they intersect, we could gain a perspective on female librettists’ experiences.

Those interviewed commented on the following challenges facing librettists

  • There are few formal routes in to writing libretti and, in comparison to many other artistic roles, fewer artist/career development opportunities. Even for established librettists there aren’t that many paid commissions, reflecting the relatively low number of new operas being commissioned in the UK annually. Writing a libretto can be a lengthy and highly involved process, and the fee given may not reflect this.
  • In a conventional writing relationship, the librettist is generally junior to the composer who has final say over which parts of the text are used and how. Consequently librettists have lower status in the creative process and limited autonomy over how their words are used in the final production.
  • There are currently few opportunities through which librettists and composers can get to know one another, or test out working relationships outside of being commissioned. So composers may choose to repeatedly work with librettists they already know or who appear to them to be ‘safe’, or familiar.
  • Unlike many theatres with dedicated Literary departments, there is generally little resource within opera houses for anyone on the creative staff to be responsible for getting to know writers or their work. Consequently it can be hard for librettists to get a foot in the door or onto the radar of an opera house.
  • While the music for a new opera may be given proper resourcing in terms of its development, this is less likely to be the case for the text. Consequently librettists’ work may not be given the development time or attention it needs. Yet having a ‘flop’ attached to them is something which, in the risk-adverse context of opera, is difficult for a librettist – especially a less established one – to recover from.

Challenges for woman in creative roles in opera

  • The research suggested there are complex issues in regards to how women are viewed in the opera world generally. In particular whether they are taken seriously as creators.
  • Overwhelmingly ‘gatekeepers’ in the opera world, including those involved in the commissioning of new opera, are male and relatively homogenous in terms of age, ethnicity, and class background. This means the bulk of artistic decisions about what work gets made in UK opera and by who is taken by a relatively narrow group.
  • In addition to this, the majority of people in training and working professionally as composers are male.
  • It was felt that the lack of resource given to development of texts (as noted above) can mean less traditional modes of storytelling (and in particular, storytelling about women that doesn’t adhere to classic ‘tropes’ of femininity) is not given the time or space to be developed, understood or appreciated by other people involved in the commissioning, development, and staging of a new opera.
  • The opera world can be ‘risk adverse’ and protective of its heritage. This heritage is one in which women aren’t particularly visible as creators. This can mean women are, either consciously or unconsciously, perceived as being risky if placed in a creative role, because they don’t resemble the people who, historically, have undertaken these roles.

While the research that Tonic conducted was initiated by our question about female librettists, it exploded our thinking into many more areas than we had initially expected. We’re now thinking about how we work with women across all creative roles and also what Mahogany Opera Group’s role, as an organisation that stretches the boundaries of what opera can be and who it is for, can be in addressing some of the challenges the research identified.

What We’re Doing

“The process has really helped us move our thinking forward, offering up new avenues for how we create work, as well as who/how we are making creative decisions. Exploring existing restrictions and inequalities has set us on a path to both making change and making more interesting, more relevant work.”
Ally Rosser, General Manager, Mahogany Opera Group

What we want to do in response to what we learned

  • Build awareness of diversity into decision making across the organisation;we’re becoming far more thorough in monitoring ourselves, being clearer with the freelancers we employ about what we expect of them, and providing training for our staff and Board.
  • Broaden the way in which our artistic decisions are made; we’re ensuring a wider range of people, with a broader base of perspectives, backgrounds, and tastes are involved and have a voice.
  • Widen our pool of artists and how we source new talent and in particular create a greater number of opportunities for librettists; we’re initiating a range of ‘open calls’ so we can get to know a broader range of artists and are rethinking the nature of the R&D opportunities we provide.
  • Challenge the convention of libretto writing and how new opera is made; we want to consult partner organisations about how we can challenge conventions, make links with others who are keen to develop more equitable relationships between librettists and composers, and learn about ways that librettists and their work could be better supported and developed by organisations.
  • Inspire young girls to consider all professional careers in opera open to them; we’re ensuring that across all our communications the contributions and perspectives of the women involved in our work are as visible as those of the men. We’re especially focusing on this in regards to our children and young people’s work because we want girls to see that all roles in opera are open to them.

Is This Work a Step Towards a Bigger Goal?

We’re very conscious of the issues surrounding equality and diversity in opera (and the arts generally). We want our work to be open to everyone, as artists, audiences, participants and staff. By focusing on one specific area, gender equality, we have been able to open up our thinking. We have been able to explore solutions and activity that we can apply more widely to enable greater access.

Alison Porter, Executive Producer, Mahogany Opera Group

“We knew that gender equality was an issue for opera, but to an extent there’s a general assumption that other issues in equality and diversity are more pressing. However, Advance not only opened our eyes to some stark realities concerning gender inequality, but has also given us tools and confidence to approach other areas of inequality going forward.”

Michael Duffy, Communications Manager, Mahogany Opera Group

“The depth of the research Tonic undertook was fantastic. It shone a light on practices and processes within the opera sector, allowing us to interrogate the question to a degree that we would never have been able to do ourselves. This might sound overwhelming, but the support and structure of Advance meant that there was plenty of time to digest and ask questions.”

Mahogany Opera Group creative team statistics

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