I have come to believe that women who are trailblazers are also sacrificial lambs. When they accept a leadership position without mentors who can warn them of the particular struggles they might face, predecessors who can demonstrate that survival is possible, or even that thriving is foreseeable; when women come to a job without these things, they may not succeed in the way that men succeed. They won’t thrive easily, because thriving is a product not only of the leadership they offer, but also of the culture that surrounds them.
Each trailblazing woman must come into a powerful position knowing that she is establishing loam, quite often in a zone of administrative monoculture. She must know that those conditions aren’t ones in which anything, or anyone “like her” can immediately thrive, but one in which her own sacrifice will lead to better conditions for others.
If she does succeed in that environment that was created, tended, cultivated, or even poisoned by her male predecessors, she is seen as a unicorn. A one-in-a-million combination of charm, talent, and determination. But it would be a mistake to then assume that any future women leaders must also be unicorns. After all, how many unicorns are there? Although the trailblazer was a unicorn, she (hopefully) left behind an environment, a culture that had changed. One with the capacity to support other forms of life, including those who would not have survived a day in the world she previously entered and subsequently altered.
So, when I see opera companies describing their ideal leadership candidate, as “a unicorn”, I worry.
“…as with any job description, we’re looking for a ‘unicorn’" Fiona Allan, in reference to Opera Australia's search for a new Artistic Director, SMH May 30, 2022 (Nick Galvin)
Inherent in that description (which in the case of OA may still be a necessity, due to the fact that they haven’t had a female artistic leader in the past 20 years), is the desire to hire someone that has managed to survive against all odds in hostile settings. While this does imply a woman, or a person from a minority group (good news) it also suggests that the environment is unlikely to change. The candidate must be able to survive it, or to personally take on the burden of changing it.
As a unicorn herself (and OA’s first female CEO) perhaps Allan hopes to find some decent unicorn company.
In my documentary, Top Job, Deborah Cheetham said, “Opera Australia needs two women at the helm. It’s in a state of distress, and it needs someone who can nurture it back to life.”
It is nice to imagine a dreamy artistic landscape where all stakeholders can thrive in each others’ company, with shared priorities: where new strategies are tended by experienced caretakers and, over time, anything hostile to that nurturing sentiment is quickly and efficiently disposed of by a team that tends the ecosystem. The “Biggest Little Farm” of opera.
Women who do this kind of work, the planting, seeding and tending of small plots of the artistic landscape, are not rare at all. In the US, women occupy around 51% of leadership positions in small and medium-sized houses*. And while those leaders who manage smaller budgets will almost definitely know what to do with more money, the opposite has not proven to be true. When faced with budgetary short fall, most big companies will flail, and will turn to populist solutions and capitalist mantras to mask a lack of creative fiscal acumen.
The irony is that with such an abundance of women who have run opera companies on a small-to-medium scale, when casting around for a new leader of a big company, we hear claims that there are not enough qualified female candidates. We start looking for a unicorn as if the environments at major companies are not only fundamentally different to smaller ones, but are destined to remain so. As if well-run, community-based, often-innovative opera companies may be successful on a small scale, but cannot be upsized. As if there are no transferable skills, because small and big companies have nothing in common. (And indeed currently, culturally, they don’t.)
But aren’t we trying to find more sustainable futures for big companies?
Aren’t we trying to rewrite the white, colonialist rulebook to incorporate more diversity of leadership, greater community relevance and involvement, development and hiring of local talent and intersection with indigenous culture and practitioners? Well now you’re in the women-led company domain. This is what those who run small companies are very, very good at. In fact, they are extremely skilled, experienced, nuanced, and have a proven track record of dedication and success. That kind of skillset is not often lauded, so it is very hard to communicate on a CV, at least in a way that has a chance of competing for attention alongside “I’ve run big companies before” or “I’ve succeeded within the big house system.” But these are the skills you should be looking to recruit if you, as a big opera company, are hoping to institute the changes you state so clearly in your job description.
The right candidate will demonstrate...
A clear history of fostering community relationships.
A dedication to training and developing local talent.
A sensitivity to the cultural legacy of the original inhabitants of the land.
A genuine commitment to education.
Foster and model a contemporary organisational culture that is open, honest and inclusive. Value a diversity of backgrounds, opinions and ways of working.
Possess a naturally collaborative and inquisitive orientation to seek out the ideas and opinions of others.
Stop looking for the unicorns, the superstars, the awardees and the famous mensches.
Start looking amongst those with the most experience in building the worlds you are trying to create. It helps if they are also unicorns who can wrangle the heck out of a toxic Board meeting, but that should not be your first priority.
“I look at this situation and go ‘what am I? Some kind of unicorn?'" Lindy Hume (Daily Review, Sept 14, 2017 / Ben Neutze)
Look for the artistic green thumbs. Prioritize achievements like: a proven demonstration of love for a community, youthful curiosity, a track record of effective mentorship. Look for those who have been willing to do what you need for very little money. Those who have achieved your goals on the smell of an oily rag: those who have worked tirelessly for little reward, and are now ready to apply what they have learned. Look for those who will know how to rejuvenate a neglected landscape, build a new arts ecosystem and deal with weeds, pests, and invasive species. They will create true change in your company’s culture and reveal pathways previously unknown. In short: stop trying to build on the frontier by hiring a big-city developer. The opera world is full of frontierswomen, and it always has been. It’s time to hand over the reins.
*Source: Opera America Field-wide Opera Demographic Report 2021
My latest film, Top Job, opens on October 22, 2022. You can view it at www.topjobfilm.com,