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Arts + Lifestyle

Behind-The-Curtain: The Women Of The Royal Opera House

Of London’s enduring cultural institutions, there are few places that coalesce creative, international talent quite like the Royal Opera House.

The opulence, theatre and enchantment of this historic institution is world-renowned, drawing a discerning audience from across the globe for centuries. Sustained by over 1,000 permanent staff and a network of over 20,000 artists and theatre-makers, the Royal Opera House remains one of London’s leading cultural exports today.

Citizen Femme was granted behind-the-curtain access to the Royal Opera House as part of the HerStory Tour, running until 29 June 2024. We speak to the women at the helm of this remarkable enterprise today, who tell us about their inspirations, the changing role of the institution in today’s world, and what they hope to see change for the better in the future.

Sarah Crabtree: Creative Producer of The Royal Opera

Photo: Charlie Clift

Photo: Charlie Clift

What drove you to become a Creative Producer of The Royal Opera? 

I have always been inspired to use music to tell great stories to more people, especially young people. In 2012 I had the privilege of commissioning and developing my first new opera, an immersive, promenade production of Alice in Wonderland in the grounds of Holland Park. Seeing so many kids completely captivated inspired me to focus on developing new opera – and new audiences for opera.

Who inspired you on your journey?

Twenty years ago, female leaders – producers, designers, directors, or even artistic directors – were few and far between. Elaine Padmore, our former Director of Opera, being a notable exception to that. However, as I started my career, Jude Kelly took over at the Southbank Centre and a few years later came the Woman of the World Festival. That felt like a real step change for women in our industry, and for our audiences. Jude was, and still is, an inspiration for me.

What would you like to see change for women in opera? 

Opera needs to prioritise building a new canon from female creators, centring stories of dynamic, empowered women, not least to provide a choice for future audiences and a better balance. To put it into perspective, not one of the top ten most performed operas worldwide is written or composed by a woman and, of those titles, more than half of the female leads meet a grisly end, usually at the hands of a man. I wonder how many members of our audience have stopped to take a moment to reflect on that.

It is not all bleak though – there has been an increasing number of female composers on Royal Opera House stages alongside some exciting new appointments in leadership roles across UK opera companies. Our senior management team, for example, is now majority female, which is really cool – it’s only with that balance of perspectives that we can really drive the change we want and need.

What do you love most about working at the Royal Opera House? 

My red-letter days at the Royal Opera House are usually not whilst watching a performance, but intimate moments in rehearsals when I have to pinch myself that it is my job to sit, listen and absorb the incredible talent and artistry in the most splendid and dramatic setting. What I love most, is my extraordinary colleagues. It is truly a building filled to the brim with passionate people working at the top of their game, making world-class theatre for huge numbers of people every single day, and I think that it is because of these people that it will endure.

Emma Wilson MBE FRSA: Director of Technical, Production and Costume

What keeps you inspired and motivated each day?

Being in a department that has every craft and technical skill you could possibly need to stage productions, from costume making, wig-making, make-up, jewellery, millinery, or printing and dyeing fabrics to the designer’s exact requirements. Then, there are the technical and production crafts from lighting programmers, sound or automation engineers, metal and woodworkers, through to scenic artists, prop making and armoury. I work with so many skilled and dedicated men and women at the top of their game, which is really inspiring.

Also, the fact that I can make a difference to the next generation; making visible the range of opportunities to young people to have meaningful and fulfilling careers in the vibrant UK theatre industry. Sustainability is hugely important to the theatre community and here at the Royal Opera House. My academic background is in Environmental Politics, so I am particularly keen to support how we might innovate and explore new ways of working, to move to a more circular economy.

What has been the most memorable production at the ROH you have worked on and why?

I couldn’t possibly single out one, that would be unfair! Some are extraordinary in terms of design, or storytelling, or casting, or all the above. Across both ballet and opera there is such variety that it’s a rich mix to choose from.

What would you like people to better understand about your job and the role your team plays in bringing productions to life?

The passion of the staff to present the creative vision to the highest possible production standards, the broad range of skills, crafts and opportunities that a career in theatre can offer, and the role we play in the telling of stories to one another.

We have told stories to each other in the dark for as long as we have been on earth – it’s how we share what’s important to us as a community; it lightens the load or allows emotion to flow, or provokes thought and debate – and to be part of that is a career well spent.

Emma Southworth: Creative Producer of The Royal Ballet At The Royal Opera House

You have worked with The Royal Ballet for over ten years, what’s been your most memorable moment?

There have been so many amazing performance and production moments, it’s really hard to select one. There is always something special about an opening night, particularly of a brand-new show. I love the nervous energy of those evenings and the hope that the show will go well and that the audience will love it!

The most memorable moment for me was the opening of our new Linbury Theatre (I’m responsible for The Royal Ballet programme there). That has been a real game changer in terms of how the Linbury stage is perceived and how much more visible we are now in the building. I feel very proud of the programmes that we have built for that theatre.

How have you seen the institution change during this time?

There are much better conversations about diversity, and this is reflected in what happens on the stage and in productions now. We are continuously looking for more ways to bring new voices in, which brings different approaches. We have also done a lot of work around choreographic development, which has created more opportunities and ways in for creative teams. We’re striving to be more representative and diverse in our work, both on and off the stage and, though we have made some great steps forward, there is still more work to do.

What does your day-to-day entail as Creative Producer of The Royal Ballet at The Royal Opera House? 


Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Every day is very different and dependent on what is happening on stage or in the studio. Some days are spent working on the programme and ideas, doing admin, having meetings and working on budgets, but some can be spent sitting in the theatre during technical rehearsal weeks and production time. I’m often at the Royal Opera House for performances and events in the evening, but I also travel to see performances elsewhere so I’m up to date with what companies and choreographers are producing.

What inspired you to get to this position and what continues to inspire you today?

Dance has always been my inspiration – I never tire of watching it or of talking to creative teams and colleagues about it. I continue to be inspired and humbled by the talent and artistry of The Royal Ballet dancers, daily.

Amandine Riche: Creator of The HerStory Tour and Royal Opera House Guide

Amandine you researched, wrote and delivered the HerStory tour, what inspired you to create this?

I think working with so many inspiring women at the Royal Opera House – including The Royal Ballet – inspired my curiosity to understand more about the women who have made the institution what it is today. The more time I spent here, the more stories I would hear about another amazing woman who had a hand in shaping or upholding the institution. That, and the fact that my mother was part of The Royal Ballet School – my childhood was full of amazing stories about her time there.

Can you tell us more about the family connection between you and the Royal Opera House?

My mother was with The Royal Ballet School from about the age of 16, until she graduated into The Royal Ballet Company. I grew up watching tapes of The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker and Coppélia – they are still two of my favourite ballets to this day. She also shared a lot of incredible stories: training alongside Baryshnikov, who specifically requested to stand on the bar near her; having Anthony Dowell tell her he was working on a ballet for her; and studying under the amazing but fearsome Monica Mason.

On the HerStory tour, you touch upon over twelve women who have played a pivotal role in shaping the Royal Opera House – including The Royal Ballet – is there a favourite or standout figure for you?

Ninette de Valois, the founder of The Royal Ballet, is certainly up there, as is Lady de Grey, Lucia Vestris and Adelina Patti – it is too hard to choose!

The HerStory Tour at the Royal Opera House 

Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

HerStory at the Royal Opera House explores the stories of the women who have helped shape it, along with The Royal Ballet. It’s an immersive exploration of the often untold stories of the women who formed, managed and sustained these triumphant, gilded institutions, including Ninette de Valois, who founded The Royal Ballet in 1926; Margot Fonteyn, an icon of British ballet who rose to prominence within its walls; and patrons Lady de Grey and Lady Charles Beresford, who were pivotal in reviving the Royal Opera House from its late-19th century decline. 

Lead image credit: Royal Opera House

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