Saturday, 7 July 2018

Changing the discourse, soprano Madeleine Pierard & director Sophie Gilpin talk about SWAP'ra

The five founders of SWAP'ra - Kitty Whately, Sophie Gilpin, Ella Marchment, Anna Patalong, Madeleine Pierara
The five founders of SWAP'ra - Kitty Whately, Sophie Gilpin, Ella Marchment, Anna Patalong, Madeleine Pierara
SWAP'ra is a relatively new organisation, formed by five women working in opera to both help encourage change and to provide a supportive platform in the face of a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry. Since its formation in March 2018, SWAP'ra has garnered a fair amount of press coverage, but inevitably this has rather focused on one issue, that of parenting and the problems those working in opera have when balancing work and children. 

Swap'ra logo
Though the organisation's title, SWAP'ra, is in full 'Supporting Women and Parents in Opera', it is by no means a single-issue group and later this month it is presenting a gala performance at Opera Holland Park to help raise money to enable the organisation to move forward with a whole variety of plans for supporting women in opera as well as supporting parents. I met up with two of the founders, soprano Madeleine Pierard and director Sophie Gilpin, to find out more.

Whilst parenting is the most obviously problematic issue that the group seeks to address, its over-riding goal is to celebrate women in the opera industry. When you consider conductors, composers and librettists, women are poorly represented, and whilst there are more women working as directors many feel that they are not able to break out from the assistant director roles. SWAP'ra wants to create role models for women in the industry, and performance opportunities too; to create a platform for women to present themselves and their work, providing a supportive and mentoring role as well.


The organisation plans to introduce mentorships and they have had lots of offers/enquiries for both mentors and mentees, and once the gala is over they will be putting more concrete plans in place. It is worth remembering that SWAP'ra is being run by five working artists, so that everything they do has to be fitted into the gaps in busy schedules.

Another plan, which is dependent on fund-raising efforts like the gala, is to create a bursary. This is to address another problem related to parenting. When a woman takes time off to have children, it is necessary for her to build her way back into her career. Any singer who spends time away from the job knows about the fear of being forgotten, that not being around will mean you are not thought of for future jobs. After a break for children, a singer needs to generate work, and so has to pay for coaching, child care and other things, whilst having no appreciable income. The idea of the bursary is to help singers bridge this gap.

With the revelations coming out in the wake of the Weinstein affair and #metoo, there are plenty of stories arising out of the opera industry. But few, if any, women want to put their names to them, most are too worried about being seen to rock the boat in what is seen as a very precarious industry. These sort of issues are something which should not be overlooked, and one of the functions of SWAP'ra is to provide a supportive network to singers. But Madeleine and Sophie are also keen to emphasise the more positive experiences too, and to provide positive reinforcement for women in the industry.

There are small changes which can be made, changing the discourse and making big difference to individuals in the industry. Both women are keen to emphasise that companies are changing. When Madeleine Pierard was a young singer back in New Zealand, she entered a major singing competition and met a leading Prima Donna who told her that you cannot have this career and have children. That attitude has very much changed, and Madeleine talks about the way she was able to breast feed her second child whilst working, and that no-one batted an eye lid. And at the Royal Opera House, at least three young artists have had paid maternity leave during their tenure.

One of the problems is that large organisations do not shout about these things, usually from a fear of seeming self-important. And Madeleine and Sophie hope that SWAP'ra can take in this role, showing the things that are already being done.  With smaller fringe companies, there are plenty of young women already doing things, but there is still something of a gap between the top end and the grass roots.

Neither Madeleine nor Sophie feels this is because of active discrimination, but often there is an unconscious bias because larger organisations are often run largely by men and most place familiar figures, other men, in positions. The intention is not to replace men by women, but to have a more diverse team, which both Madeleine and Sophie feels makes things more interesting with more points of view.

The original idea for the organisation came from the soprano Anna Patalong, She had a couple of bad experiences and found an existing, closed group on Facebook provided a very supportive network. Combine this with Anna's reading of the inspirational book Lean In by Cheryl Sandberg, and the result was the idea for SWAP'ra. The five women founders (Anna Patalong, Sophie Gilpin, Ella Marchment, Madeleine Pierard, Kitty Whately) were not friends, instead each brought different skills and experiences to the group.

Their focus for the moment is the gala at Opera Holland Park on 31 July 2018. This is their first big event, and the intention is both to raise awareness of the organisation and its message, and to raise money. Everyone is donating their time, with 43 singers, four conductors, seven directors, and orchestra of 35 and a chorus, all are women, even the stage management team.

They are not planning to make a feature of all-women events in the future, but this first one is intended to make a splash.  There will be semi-staged scenes from operas, a mix of standard repertory and interesting new pieces, including a UK premiere (from Mark Adamo's Little Women) and work by three women composers. And they have had brilliant support from the team at Opera Holland Park.

The gala is very much the public face of the organisation, but there is a more private one too, working a system level. Public conversation about important issues is all very well, but it only works if the organisation can also talk privately to the individuals in organisations who can make a real difference. So, later in the year, SWAP'ra is planning a round table with representatives of the major opera companies, to get everyone discussing what is working and what is not, and how to make a difference.

Sophie points out that you have to become aware of the pit-falls before you can fix them. Many issues still remain quietly unspoken. This isn't just around harassment and fear of rocking the boat, children are still not part of the natural discourse. As a director, Sophie has found herself discovering by accident that a singer had children, it wasn't a conversation you tended to have. And both Sophie and Madeleine feel that there is strong pressure on artists to be seen to put their career first, and of course, this attitude is not restricted to the opera industry.

Both Madeleine and Sophie feel that it is time for things to change, and by founding SWAP'ra they hope to facilitate this by supporting, celebrating, providing role models and opportunities. The idea to make parenting part of the natural discourse in the industry, and to bring about greater gender equality, not to stuff men and women into the same package but to bring both men's and women's experiences into the room, as part of the many things that you bring to the rehearsal team.

SWAP'ra's gala concert is at Opera Holland Park at 7.30pm on 31 July 2018.  Full details from the SWAP'ra website.

About SWAP’ra:

SWAP’ra (Supporting Women and Parents in Opera) was established by five working artists in response to a collective frustration with the unconscious gender bias in the industry and to provide a supportive platform to effect positive change for women and parents in opera. We want to be a catalyst for change by encouraging the opera community to actively redress these issues by:
  • Putting the spotlight on gender imbalance by increasing the visibility of inspirational women.
  • Creating a celebratory and supportive network of industry professionals where everyone has an equal voice.
  • Supporting parents in opera by offering practical solutions to the unique challenges faced by parents and carers (men and women).

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Garsington premiere: David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey's The Skating Rink (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Richly imaginative: Richard Blackford 's Niobe with Tamsin Waley-Cohen (★★★★★) - Cd review
  • Sublime Illusions - Noh Reimagined, a weekend of Noh performance and workshops at Kings Place (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Handel & Vivaldi from Grace Davidson & the Academy of Ancient Music (★★★½) - cd review
  • The good the bad and the ugly: Susan Froemke's The Opera House (★★★½) - film review
  • Russian Romantics: music for violin & piano by Glinka, Glazunov, Cui, Rubenstein, & more (★★★) - CD review
  • Powerful & emotional stuff: Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse at RCM Double Bill - Opera review
  • What a delightful voice: getting to know the music of Francesco Gasparini (★★★★) - CD review
  • Coming into focus: Kasper Holten's production of Don Giovanni returns to the Royal Opera  (★★★★★) - Opera review
  • A great big present: Stephen Medcalf on returning to Buxton to direct his favourite piece, Idomeneo  - interview
  • Handel's finest arias for base voice - Christopher Purves, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Home

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