Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera
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Cultivating Great Women Conductors

In his latest off the cuff, General Director & CEO Keith Cerny writes about a unique—and sorely needed—new program launched by The Dallas Opera in order to identify, develop and support distinctively talented women conductors in the field of opera.

published Sunday, March 1, 2015

Photo: Karen Almond
Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera

Dallas — As many readers know, the topic of women conductors, and the continuing barriers they face in achieving equality in their chosen profession, has been a topical and contentious subject in the media of late; without rehashing all of the recent controversy, it is clear that the very idea of women conductors is still actively resisted in some quarters. Others, however, are quick to recognize that there is a significant problem in the field. In a recent profile of TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement, Michael Pastreich of Musical America Worldwide called conducting “a profession that leaves women scandalously underrepresented.” Speaking as a practicing musician for more than 40 years, I can attest to having seen first-hand the uneven playing field that women conductors often face. While there are some excellent programs in support of young women orchestral conductors, there are few, if any, programs devoted to helping women conductors make their mark on the field of opera.


Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Conductor Nicole Paiement with composer Joby Talbot, shot for the recent Dallas Opera world premiere of Everest

To do our part in addressing these barriers, The Dallas Opera has very recently launched an ambitious, and—in our view—much needed, new program: the Institute for Women Conductors at The Dallas Opera. This program is designed to provide a high-visibility program for female opera conductors on the cusp of major careers with coaching, career support, and ongoing networking, thereby beginning to address the apparent inequity in the field that sadly persists. We hope that, in time, TDO will serve as a de facto “center of excellence” in providing opportunities for young women conductors, while raising awareness of the obstacles women encounter in this field.


The first program of the IWC will take place between Nov. 28 and Dec. 6, 2015, and TDO plans to expand the program in the following year. For the pilot program, the Institute will admit six female conductors (and two alternates), 40 years of age and younger. In its inaugural year, the residency will take place over 9 days, with a planned expansion to 14 days in the second and following years. All participants will conduct rehearsals and a performance with The Dallas Opera Orchestra and soloists. They will also participate in master classes and rehearsals with TDO’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, and TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement, working with piano and singers. The final public performance will provide important audience feedback and media visibility for participants, as well as the chance to conduct The Dallas Opera Orchestra on the stage of the acclaimed Winspear Opera House for a crowd that will include invited industry “movers and shakers.” Beyond the residency, The Dallas Opera will continue to support Institute alumnae by creating a network of other women conductors available to “compare notes” and offer career advice in addition to an annual alumnae networking event.

The program began to accept applicants less than three weeks ago and, based upon the caliber of those who have already expressed serious interest in this program, the inaugural group of applicants will be impressive. To date, applicants hail from not only the United States, but also the U.K., Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, the Middle East, and South America.

I confess that I was surprised how quickly the international community responded to this new program; we can credit the incredible reach, speed and connectivity of the Internet for that one. Equally intriguing is the wide range of career experience shown by the applicants, including (but not limited to): concertmaster, house conductor, music staff at opera houses and young artist programs, choral conductors, even composers. Here’s a sampling of the applicant pool to date:

  • Assistant conductors from U.S. opera companies of various budget levels
  • Music staff members, including head of music staff, from U.S. opera companies, also of various budget levels
  • Graduate students from top U.S. and U.K. conservatories, and winners of major international competitions
  • Chorus assistant at a world-renowned U.S. orchestra
  • Concertmaster at major German opera company
  • Principal conductor of regional German company, and an assistant conductor at renowned German opera house
  • Head of Music Staff of Western European opera house
  • Music staff member at leading U.K. opera company
  • Music staff member at Swiss opera and ballet company
  • Assistant conductor at South American opera company
  • Composer in residence at major European Opera Festival
  • Music staff member at leading European young artist program
  • Assistant conductor from a Middle Eastern opera company

Given this talent pool, we know that we will have more superbly qualified applicants than places, and we plan to encourage talented applicants not offered a place to reapply next year.

Which brings us to the question of the moment: how will we whittle down the list?  Naturally, we are looking for uniquely talented musicians on the podium, but their personal characteristics are also extremely important. “Trailblazing” in a profession still disproportionately represented by men requires women who are uniquely self-aware and able to adapt their communication and leadership styles to the needs of the moment, in addition to the required technical and musical prowess as conductors. Here are the criteria that we plan to use to select our final group:

  • Documented track record of excellence in music training and performances to date
  • Strong commitment to the field of opera
  • Passion to succeed, balanced with willingness to collaborate
  • Superb interpersonal skills; able to adapt personal style to meet a range of communication challenges
  • Open-minded and flexible in outlook; willing to learn new skills
  • Confident and self-aware
  • Willing to share insights with colleagues, and do her part to maintain an ongoing support network                                    

Past readers of this column know how passionate I am about teamwork. For this new conducting program, collaboration and mutual support are extremely important for the participants, as they collectively work to break down barriers in the field. Teamwork is also especially important in this group, since over the first five years of the program, we will gradually construct an alumnae network, and reconvene the group each summer beginning in the summer of 2016.

Institute participants will have the chance to work directly with the superb Dallas Opera Orchestra, and participate in master classes. We will also include other elements in the curriculum, including: finding the right artist manager; personal branding and image management; conducting successful media interviews (rehearsed through role plays); guest lecturers providing various perspectives on succeeding in a male-dominated field, and more technical areas such as selecting repertoire for career impact, the role of contemporary opera, accepting and declining specific engagements, and partnering with a concertmaster.

It promises to be a very busy nine days!

If you yourself are interested in the Institute, or know someone who could benefit from participation, please direct them to between now and the April 15 deadline. I also encourage all readers to attend the final performance of the Institute, showcasing all six participants, on Dec. 5, 2015.

Over the next five years, and as the cohort of alumnae grows, we expect this program to have a major impact, in and out of the orchestra pit, as it stimulates a national conversation about women conductors and the barriers they continue to face in professional advancement. The Institute for Women Conductors at The Dallas Opera will also work to connect interested parties (e.g. artist managers, symphony CEOs and opera company general directors) with carefully selected, top-tier young women conductors; focus more media attention on the issue and last, but certainly not least, elevate the profile of talented women conductors in the minds of key decision makers—those who will select tomorrow’s music directors and guest conductors.

Ambitious? Certainly. But opera as an art form, and as a profession, has always been known for taking gambles and stretching boundaries; we should aim for nothing less in the launch of this exciting new program.


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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Cultivating Great Women Conductors
In his latest off the cuff, General Director & CEO Keith Cerny writes about a unique—and sorely needed—new program launched by The Dallas Opera in order to identify, develop and support distinctively talented women conductors in the field of opera.
by Keith Cerny

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