A court Friday blocked a 9-year-old German girl from joining Berlin’s oldest cultural institution, its all-boys choir, after she sued to be allowed to sing with the chorus in a case that pitted a push for gender parity against centuries of musical tradition.
Berlin’s administrative court said that the choir’s artistic freedom is more important than equal treatment in this case.
The case had prompted a fierce debate about the difference between the voices of girls and boys at certain ages and the mystique surrounding the tone quality of boys’ voices — described as “wondrous” and “natural but utterly transient.”
But the suit argued that because the choir — the State and Cathedral Choir, part of Berlin’s University of the Arts — is a publicly funded cultural institution, its high-quality, intense musical education, voice training and performance opportunities must be made available to everyone, regardless of gender.
Coming months after a leading British soprano, Lesley Garrett, spurred an international debate on gender restriction in the arts by calling for girls to be admitted to the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, England, the German case had reverberated beyond Berlin.
Abbie Conant, an American trombonist who is now a professor of trombone at the state conservatory in Trossingen, in the Black Forest region of Germany, said what was at stake in the Berlin case was more than just the right to sing: It was about granting girls the same access to music education that can shape their lives and careers.
While women in classical music have made progress, she added in a phone interview from her home in New Mexico before the verdict, there is still a gap.
“I have several male colleagues who were in boys’ choirs and had that training and experience performing at a very early age, and that gave them a leg up in their careers,” Conant said.
The 9-year-old girl, whose identity has been withheld under German law because she is a minor, has a voice that causes patrons in a cafe in Germany to pause when she breaks out in a traditional Christmas carol.
She first tried to enter the choir in 2016 but was denied. Two years later, she again sought entry and was informed in a letter signed by the dean of the music department, “Never will a girl sing in a boys’ choir.”
In March, the choir invited the girl to sing before a selection committee, which again rejected her. It said she lacked the “high level of motivation” and “extraordinary talent” necessary to participate in the ensemble, the university said in a statement released by the court.
The university further said that the girl’s voice did not “fit the sound sought after for a boys’ choir.” The university did not respond to a request for comment.