Opera-ting Against Gender Inequality
Mar 25, 2022
Artist, opera singer, teacher, and mother:
Meet Annika Sophie Mendrala
Despite an international focus on gender inequality in the cultural and creative industries in recent years, we still have a lot of issues and concerns about how we approach gender equality. Opera is not the exception for those concerns, and there is still a lot to do in that industry. Opera tends to be seen as high culture for the rich and the intellectuals. Yet, opera has long ceased to be a product for elites. Thanks to globalization and new technologies, these works are within everyone's reach and, far from being an incomprehensible art, it is an artistic expression that only requires openness to be enjoyed.
If you want to enjoy opera, there is only one need: to want to do it. Don’t be fooled into thinking that to enjoy and understand an opera you must have a master's degree and two doctorates. An opera is, in simplified words, a play where the actors, instead of reciting their lines, sing them in the company of a symphony orchestra.
An opera is, as in a TV series, a movie, or a book, a story with a plot and characters that deals with themes such as love, fantasy, politics, and even social criticism (including gender issues). It is in this intersection of music and social issues where our friend Annika Sophie Mendrala shines. Born and raised in Germany, she is an incredible opera singer who also has a deep interest in gender issues. Annika graduated with honors from the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin in Berlin, Germany, and became a successful freelance singer.
Some of her important roles include Pamina (The Magic Flute, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Micaela (Carmen, Georges Bizet), Poppea (L'incoronazione di Poppea, Claudio Monteverdi), and La voix humaine and Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande, Claude Debussy) for which she received a nomination in the professional magazine Opernwelt as the best singer of the year 2014|15. Thus, we want to put her in the spotlight and celebrate her life and achievements. In this interview, she tells us about how she came to be an opera singer, the difficulties that come from working in a male dominated industry, and what inspired her to become a feminist.
Can you tell us what inspired you to pursue your professional path?
As an opera singer, my love for classical music and my passion for singing was always my guidance to enter this career path. When I was a child and teenager, I competed in competitions and on stage to play the harp, which was my instrument back then. Of course, I also wanted to sing and perform as a soprano. So, I guess I am a bit addicted to the stage.
Is there an experience in particular that shaped how you see and understand gender roles?
When I was younger, I did not think too much about the concept of gender roles. Not that I choose to deny it, it was not a matter of concern. I have always been a very feminine woman, I loved high heels, skirts, sexy clothing, make-up, and so forth. Also, I felt like a very soulful and sensitive person, who would even tend to have long and deep conversations with everyone. I thought that was typical for women only. Now I see these things differently, and I met a lot of very soulful and sensitive men, who love to have long and deep conversations. Also, as a mother of two girls, I am very aware of the ideas of society about how women behave stereotypically. It confuses me and makes me unhappy. Of course, it affects boys too because they always have to deal with ideas of masculinity that can become toxic.
Have you experienced any prejudice, discrimination, or lack of support towards you or your ideas because you are a woman?
I experienced a lack of support in the theater business when I became a mother. It is not a good place to have a family, because of the rehearsal culture and the working times. Also, it is taboo to speak about your private life when it comes to children. I still feel discriminated against because I cannot get certain jobs or get proper payment because of these structures. They tend to ask you to leave your family for 6-8 weeks to work in a production. Also, men often get paid better than women in this industry for doing the same work. It is absurd, and several studies have proven and documented that sad reality.
What do you think about today’s progress on gender equality?
It is beautiful and I see positive changes. We are a million miles away from gender equality, but the train is moving in the right direction. I am certain that from now on, the movement won't stop.
Can you tell us how you have grown as a woman over the years?
I have grown in very different ways. I started as a student of opera singing, and after that, I worked in the industry for many years. Later, I became a wife and mother of two beautiful, smart, witty and brave girls, whom I admire and love. It makes me really proud to help them find their way into this world. Another big change is that I have become an outspoken feminist and a more political person.
Thus, I founded BÜHNENMÜTTER (www.buehnenmuetter.com) together with a friend of mine. We are an initiative for women, who are working on stage or for the theater industry and have families. We have already built a community, and we want to fight for change in the industry, for more support for artists who are mothers as well.
Currently, I am chairing a very good a cappella choir with a dear friend. We make wonderful concept concerts with poems and performances of rarely heard music. Every concert has a special focus and topic. The next concert will be about war and peace, really ad-hoc for our current times.
Furthermore, I have built my own business in teaching how to sing. I am working with around 20 students on their singing, their performance, and their joy for music. Also, I have another production at a theater again. So, I have grown as an artist, as a singer, and as a teacher. At last but not least, as a mother I matured in psychological expertise and education. This made me a wiser, better, and even more empathetic person. I am very curious about what the future will bring.
What did you dream of becoming when you were younger?
That one is easy, I always wanted to become a singer or a doctor.
Can we achieve a sustainable way of living if there is no gender equality?
I do not know. I like to think we could achieve a sustainable way of living sooner if women were in higher positions to make important decisions. If women were supported, they could decide between destroying something to make even more money in a short time or rebuilding it and sustaining it for future generations. I believe that women think more about their children and grandchildren and will not choose quick money that can affect their future.
How do you want to continue developing your life plan? What comes next?
The next big thing will be a new job I am taking on. I will be in charge of a postgraduate degree for the singing voice in Berne/Switzerland with a female friend. I hope the initiative will grow and become a big movement. We already have 240 women on our side to fight for the change.
Why is it important to take gender issues into account when developing any kind of project in your area?
It is essential to start with the education of children. Let them know that a person can become whatever they feel like. I am a feminist, thus, I support equality, not the domination of either gender. I wish this mindset were prevalent in other areas as well. This is essential to consider when you develop a project, to have true gender equality and opportunities for everybody.
Do you think there are many kinds of barriers for women in your area of expertise?
Yes, don't get me started. We have a lot of barriers, indeed. Yet, it starts to change, and young women are seen and supported. So, I am very positive about the future.
Given the state of the world now, what would you choose to challenge or change?
“Care work” is still a very big issue. Women tend to carry on “care work” all the time in or for the family additionally to their career work. Children and elderly parents need support and help, and sometimes it is too much for one person to cope. If women’s private life does not change first, their work-life will not change either.
What piece of advice would you give to women that want to follow in your steps?
Do not be afraid of failure. That is the key to success because you will only get better and learn more and in the end. You will thrive. Also, do not concentrate on your imperfections when it comes to your looks and your body. There are big industries out there that imply that you need to change or to buy certain stuff to shine, but I do not agree. Playing their game is a waste of energy, and it holds you back from unleashing your full potential!
Hamburg-born soprano Annika Mendrala (formerly Annika Sophie Ritlewski) works as a freelance singer in Germany and abroad. She has performed at the Salzburg Easter Festival under the direction of Christian Thielemann, the Shanghai Music Festival, the Beijing Music Festival, the Kassel State Theater in Germany, the Bern Theater in Switzerland, the Anhaltisches Theater in Germany and for many years she performed very regularly at the Heidelberg Theater. Annika graduated with distinction and honors and is a prizewinner of the National Singing Competition Berlin and was a scholarship holder of the Richard Wagner Association Bayreuth and the Yehudi Menuhin Live Music Now Foundation. In addition to her opera engagements, Annika Mendrala regularly appears as a concert and lieder singer. Her versatile repertoire ranges from Bach's Passions to Mozart, Mendelsohn, and the great lyrical roles in her field. As a certified voice teacher, Annika Mendrala gives voice lessons for soloists and also works with choirs as a vocal coach.