Houston Grand Opera’s latest grant shows continued efforts to support women in opera

Louisa Muller, opera stage director / Photo by Simon Pauly

Currently, women comprise fewer than 30% of stage directors and 15% of the conductors working on American opera productions – according to an internal review of recent seasons by Opera America.

That national industry organization recently announced the second round of recipients of its 2022 Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors.

Among the awardees is Houston Grand Opera, whose grant will support director Louisa Muller in the 2022 – 2023 season.

Funded by the Martineau Family Foundation and initiated last year, Opera America’s grant program for women directors and composers aims to incentivize opera companies to hire women in key artistic roles in an effort to advance gender equity in a male-dominated industry.

“These hires enrich the production and performance of new operas and works from the inherited repertoire, introduce audiences to the talent and insight of new artists, and inspire future generations of creative artists who identify as women,” the organization said in statement.

While Opera America does not disclose the specific grant amounts, each grant subsidizes up to 50% (and up to $10,000) of the fee of a woman stage director or conductor who is contracted for the first time by the company in these positions.

Director Louisa Muller in rehearsal / Courtesy of Opera Queensland

Though a longtime HGO collaborator through previous work with HGO Studio and as a past staff director, Muller will make her company debut as an independent, mainstage director when she leads HGO’s new production of The Wreckers in fall 2022.

“Louisa’s previous mainstage directing work here has been revivals of operas that were originally conceived of and directed by others, so with The Wreckers this is the first time she is originating the concept and production,” said HGO in an email.

Muller’s funded directorship also marks a milestone production of a rarely performed work by a female composer: Dame Ethel Smyth. When HGO presents The Wreckers next season, it will be the first time that the 1906 opera – considered Smyth’s masterpiece – is performed in the U.S. in a full production by a major opera company.

“I’m most excited about The Wreckers, I’ll be honest,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO’s general director and CEO, during a media preview of the company’s 2022-23 season on February 28.

“I have felt my whole life, ‘Why don’t people know this piece?’ And I would love to know if others feel the same way, and I think Houston with its commitment to discovery and new work … that this is the right audience for this piece, to embrace it, to receive it with respect, and maybe restore it to the repertoire,” Dastoor said.

Houston Grand Opera’s hiring of Muller and presentation of Smyth’s The Wreckers reflect an ongoing effort by the company to represent and advance women in opera.

With director Arin Arbus and conductor Eun Sun Kim also part of the 2022-23 creative teams, as well as the centering of numerous female stories and performers, HGO’s upcoming season is said to “lean into female power,” in an article by the Houston Chronicle.

“It’s a powerhouse season for women,” Dastoor said of the 2022-23 season at the media preview.

In 2021-22, half of HGO’s operas were conducted by women, marking a historic first for the company and a unique occurrence in the industry as a whole. That season included three female conductors, as well as two female directors: Dame Jane Glover, Omer Ben Seadia, Lidiya Yankovskaya, Eun Sun Kim, and Francesca Zambello.

Houston Grand Opera also received an inaugural Opera America Grant for Women Stage Directors and Conductors in 2021 in support of Lidiya Yankovskaya, who conducted the 2021-22 season opener of Carmen.

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