Why the pregnant pause? Women in performing arts still face baby barriers

Soprano Julie Fuchs was asked to leave an opera cast because her pregnancy would ‘compromise its artistic integrity’. Why are companies not looking at different kind of compromises?

Four days before rehearsals were set to begin for the Hamburg State Opera’s production of The Magic Flute, soprano Julie Fuchs received surprising news from her employers: she would no longer be allowed to perform the part of Pamina because to do so would “compromise the production’s artistic integrity”. The crux of the theatre’s concern was that staging would have to be altered because Fuchs was pregnant. She was set to be four months along on opening night.

“As you can imagine, I am very disappointed as I am feeling vocally and physically in top form,” Fuchs wrote in a Facebook post last month announcing her dismissal. That post has since been seen thousands of times, setting off a media firestorm within the classical music world and prompting hundreds of comments from women who have encountered similar treatment. In the process, it’s helped spark a broader conversation about the unique challenges faced by parents and parents-to-be in the performing arts – and their acute vulnerability to workplace discrimination.

Fuchs’s story is not an isolated one. Two-time Grammy award nominee Jennifer Rivera is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, whose articles often touch on the realities facing mothers working in classical music. According to Rivera, theatres frequently drop singers who become pregnant, citing health concerns, a perceived risk of withdrawal and artistic considerations. But Rivera – who has herself performed pregnant – argues that compromises are more manageable than people realise.

‘Very disappointed’ … the French soprano Julie Fuchs at the Opera Garnier in Paris, 2015.
‘Very disappointed’ … the French soprano Julie Fuchs at the Opera Garnier in Paris, 2015. Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

“There are two choices: you can either hide the pregnancy or work it into the production,” she says. “Both should always be feasible.” At the Innsbruck festival, clever costuming masked Rivera’s figure; in a Nashville Opera performance of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, undertaken while she was eight months pregnant, she worked with director John Hoomes to shape her character so that her pregnancy made sense.

“When the performer is irreplaceable, someone always manages to figure out a workaround. It should be the standard that every woman with a signed contract is considered irreplaceable,” Rivera says. “The only way to allow women equal opportunities in the performing arts is to acknowledge that pregnancy can be part of their existence and make allowances.”

But in a field where leadership positions remain dominated by men, such acknowledgments are not always forthcoming. Instead, Rivera says, theatres often “suggest” that a pregnant singer walk away from a contract of her own accord. Because she quit instead of being fired, the theatre is no longer obligated to pay the contract fee – and, crucially, is no longer open to a wrongful termination suit. Conscious that pushing back might damage their careers in a highly competitive, connections-based job market, many women acquiesce. “A casting agent or company manager can always claim that they have released or fired someone for subjective reasons,” Rivera says. “So without standard protections in place, a non-famous performer will always fear retribution for publicly complaining about being fired or released because of pregnancy.”

The challenges facing mothers in the performing arts do not end once the child is born. When the British actor Cassie Raine returned to work after her her second daughter, she found herself having to bring her children to castings when family members couldn’t take them for the day; on more than one occasion, that meant auditioning with a crying baby in her lap. Realising just how little support there was for people in her position, Raine partnered with director Anna Ehnold-Danailov in 2016 to found the Parents and Carers in Performing Arts campaign, or Pipa. The organisation undertakes research and advocacy work on behalf of parents with careers in dance, music, theatre and opera.

Pipa’s research identifies and addresses the challenges that face parents working in the performing arts. Unsociable hours and last-minute audition announcements make organising childcare difficult; nurseries shut long before closing curtain. And the financial instability brought about by irregular and often low-paid work becomes even more pronounced when a child enters the picture. Meanwhile, the low take-up of the government’s shared parental leave policy means that childrearing responsibilities continue to fall disproportionately on women.

‘It should be the standard that every woman with a signed contract is considered irreplaceable’ … Jennifer Rivera.
‘It should be the standard that every woman with a signed contract is considered irreplaceable’ … Jennifer Rivera. Photograph: Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

The result is that artists without stable finances and a family to help with childcare – especially those from marginalised communities – are often pushed out completely. “After you’ve paid for your tube fare and bought a sandwich in place of dinner with your family, the average worker in the performance arts is hard pushed to afford childcare,” Raine said. “The industry is haemorrhaging talent.”

The environment, however, is changing. Raine notes that, since Pipa rolled out its Best Practice research project, the response among partner institutions has been overwhelmingly positive. “The shift in attitudes has been seismic,” she says. “As an industry we have had much soul-searching to do over the past few years, but I believe we are well on the way to becoming the inclusive and diverse industry that we can and must aspire to be.”

For her part, Rivera notes that the past few years have seen women in the performing world increasingly firm in their resolve to bring issues of workplace discrimination to public attention, especially with the advent of the #MeToo movement.

Less than a week after she announced her dismissal from the Hamburg State Opera, Fuchs shared something else on Facebook: a video of herself singing in Paris at an event held by Deutsche Grammophon. The “artistic integrity” is without question.

Erica Eisen

The GuardianTramp

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