Soprano Lesley Garrett has said change to all-boys choirs is “long overdue and called them a “throwback to a bygone age”.
All-boys choirs see the higher lines sung by boys, known as trebles and altos. Garrett, a member of the board of the English National Opera, said it was “nonsense”, put forward by “backward-looking traditionalists”, to argue that “there’s an exclusive purity in the boy’s voice”.
She singled out King’s College Choir, Cambridge, one of the most famous English choirs, for criticism for not introducing change, saying the choir must “wake up and listen to the music” in regards to its exclusion of girls.
“I will certainly be watching the BBC’s broadcast because this is an occasion I wouldn’t miss,” she said in an interview with the Radio Times. “But I’ll also be wondering to myself this year, as I do every year: where are the girls? Girls’ voices are just as pure, just as sweet and just as sonorous.”
Carols From King’s, the choir’s renowned Christmas service which is broadcast across the BBC, is celebrating its centenary this year. Based at King’s, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, it is composed of 16 boy choristers between the ages of seven and 13. The move to accept girls would be unprecedented in the history of the choir,which was founded over half a century ago.
“The irony is that King’s was the first all-male Cambridge college to admit women – which it did in 1972,” Garrett said. “It’s time they used their impressive history of gender equality and pioneering spirit to change things at their most famous set-piece event, especially in an age where gender equality is front and centre of the national debate and society’s minds.”
Directly addressing the choir’s incomingdirector of music, Daniel Hyde, she added: “To set a precedent of an all-male choir does seem cruel to a girl who adores music and singing and has the purity of tone that demands she should be given a chance to win a place in a great choir like King’s. Next year, I think the new boss must act.
“Carols from King’s is about tradition, but traditions must keep in step with changes in society, and in this case human rights. In this special anniversary when we celebrate 100 years of King’s Carols, we’re also marking a century of women’s suffrage. Surely, choirs that exclude girls must wake up and listen to the music.”
Prof David Howard, author of the 2002 study Gendered Voice in the Cathedral Choir, said the prospect of girls singing alongside boys was “very appropriate”.
“What [the study] shows is given the appropriate musical director, they can get a sound out of a boys’ front line choir and a girls’ front like choir which is essentially the same, especially in regards to evensong music,” Howard said.
“A lot of the issue is about allowing girls to have the same musical opportunity as boys in their lives. Against that is the tradition that choirs have been a boys only domain for a very long time. But is that appropriate in this day and age?
“I think from an equal opportunities point of view it is something all choirs should consider. If they are not going to do it they should have a good reason as to why not.”
King’s College Choir said: “We recognise the fantastic contribution that our female singers make to the choral scene here at Cambridge. We are especially proud of our mixed voice choir, King’s Voices, which was formed 20 years ago precisely to give women students opportunity to sing choral music in the chapel.
“Indeed, last weekend they gave a wonderful Christmas concert of carols in the chapel which raised a significant sum of money to support local homelessness projects. They also were involved in a recording with the men and boys last week for an album to be released in the new year.”