By Lila Palmer

IT has been 33 years since Catherine Clément wrote: “All the women in opera die a death prepared for them by a slow plot, woven by furtive, fleeting heroes.’’ But it may as well be last week. Carmen, Tosca, Violetta: beautiful, doomed, girls. Opera reflects our deep cultural misogyny: in novels, TV shows, and superhero tales, young women dare to exist and end up dead.

Why is this a problem? To start it’s really rough on singers. Most opera singers specialise in particular roles. If you’re the “go to” Carmen of the moment, you might be violently murdered several times a week. In 10 years as a professional opera singer, I watched my female peers continually victimised by repertoire narratives, never mind harassment and other gender-based challenges in their work.

You needn’t take it from me: let’s focus on the data. Operabase lists the 30 most performed operas worldwide. Of the 30, 14 are comedies. In comedies, women survive to curtain, though in 50% they must fight off “amusing” unwanted attentions from a sexual aggressor. Of the comedies, two involve the death of a principal female character, and two others involve rape. Fifteen of the 16 other (non-comic) operas kill the woman, with only Tatyana in Eugene Onegin surviving.

Why all the dead girls? Librettists decide plot and characterisation. All the most performed repertory operas worldwide, including the UK, were by male librettists. At our own beloved EIF, all operas in the last three full seasons (2019, 2021, 2022) were by male librettists. The data demonstrates that male librettists write stories about women’s death and sexual exploitation, preferably both. Contemporary works are no exception: the most prominent recent works include female death by rape and torture. What might female storytellers offer instead?

Whilst certain parts of the opera industry are trying to improve cut-through for female creatives (ROH and Festival Aix-En-Provence residencies), they are not making it to main stages. Women are still "too risk"’ for feature.

Thus we are missing stories from 50% of our population. That’s a problem for a form that needs new audiences. Women also buy more than 50% of opera tickets. Femicide and female violence are rising in society, why should audiences show up to stories that fetishise this all-too-present reality? Dramatically speaking, beautiful female death in opera functions to restore social order. Are we happy with that takeaway in 2022?

Increasingly, people are deliciously intolerant of the misogyny and racism once accepted as "part of life”. They’re not going to go to opera that perpetuates views they find repulsive. It is bad business to keep telling the same stories by the same storytellers.

Opera has vast power to render human emotion. But there are emotions beyond horror and female fear. Female performers, sick of waiting for intendants to catch up, are beginning to commission the stories they want to perform. That’s a hopeful sign. At this year’s EIF Golda Schultz performs This Be Her Verse, a song cycle I wrote for her that explores watershed moments in a modern woman’s life.

The data reveals that all of the new works nudging at repertory status are tragedies. Female laughter. Female joy. Wouldn’t that be something to celebrate?

Lila Palmer is a librettist and producer who specialises in concealed or historically overlooked narratives, with an active secondary practice in creating activation events for museum interpretation, including the London Transport Museum, Museum of London and many others.