image © Paul Marc Mitchell
May 1, 2018
Interview with composer, Roxanna Panufnik
Roxanna Panufnik studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and, since then, has written a wide range of pieces – opera, ballet, music theatre, choral works, orchestral and chamber compositions, and music for film and television – which are performed all over the world.
How did you get into composition, and particularly opera?
I fell in love with a book called “The Music Programme” by Paul Micou, whose wonderfully eccentric characters all had very clear musical identities - an opera seemed a logical next step...
What are the big differences for you in working across different genres, and do you have a favourite?
I love writing for the human voice - whether’s it’s opera, choral or song - I’m a wannabe mezzo with a mouse-squeak of a voice, so I can live my dream through my wonderful performers.
(How) have you seen attitudes towards women change over the years during your career?
I think the main issue has been visibility - we women composers/conductors etc. have always been there but not the first image that comes to mind when you ask someone what composer or conductor looks like! You see us around a lot more now - social media has played a pivotal role in this.
So many of the staple operas and repertoire are stories and music written by men. Why do you think this is, and do you think that a composer’s/librettist’s gender has any bearing on the kind of music she/he writes?
Again, I think it’s a visibility issue but this is being remedied. I’ve always wondered if it’s easier for me as a woman to wear my compositional heart on my sleeve - but that might also be just because I’m Polish...
Which female playwrights or novelists do you admire, and are there any of their plays that you think would adapt well to an opera?
I love Rose Tremain and imagine her novel “Restoration" would be a fabulous opera - or play with music.
Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
What do you think needs to be done in order to balance out the male to female composer/librettist ratio that we currently see in opera? What is already being done?
I think plenty is already being done!
Led by the recent Keychange initiative, founded by the PRS Foundation, many UK festivals have pledged to programmes a 50/50 gender split in relation to performers and composers by 2022. This has been met with mixed reactions in the media. How do you feel about quotas?
I think the intention is hugely laudable but I feel particularly for young/new male composers who might be in danger of missing out because of it. Many other female artists I’ve talked to about this hugely appreciate the efforts being made but want to know that they've got a gig through merit as well, not just because of gender.
Do you think the theory that women are naturally less authoritative than men is a true? If so is this just nature, or is this something that is conditioned in us from early childhood?
No - I think women are just cleverer at being authoritative without anyone noticing!
What do you think are the biggest barriers are for women entering the world of classical music, particularly for composers/librettists?
I honestly don’t think there are any.
In a business where there is always a plentiful supply of artist ready and willing, do you think changes should be made to make the industry more inclusive for artists with families and/or dependents?
I think the industry should do more to support musician parents - childcare is blisteringly expensive and very few artists are on a regular enough salary to afford the security of regular childcare. I have always found it shocking that I can put PA costs into my tax return but not childcare - without which I wouldn’t be able to work. This applies to elderly relatives in need, too.
Which operatic heroines most interest you?
Carmen - I know she’s more of an anti-heroine but I love her sass. And her arias, of course.
Which women in the opera industry do you admire?
I think what Nicky Creed, Executive Director at Garsington, is doing is amazing - she is so full of artistic vision and brimming with ideas to implement it.
How has becoming a parent changed or affected your job?
The biggest change is having less time - however, this is brilliant at making me more focused!
Is composing a parent-friendly career? Yes - as long as you have access to a reasonable amount of childcare, before your children are at school age.
(How) has your attitude to artists with families changed since you have become a parent?
I’m much more tolerant of working around school hours!
Were you ever encouraged not to have children for the sake of your career?
What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry who is about to become a parent?
Plan, plan, plan - develop support networks with family and friends and start saving for childcare ASAP. Also be aware that as soon as your child goes to pre-school not a week will go by without the family having some bug or another…!