Lidiya Yankovskaya
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Shattering the Operatic Glass Ceiling

Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny reflects on some of the challenges facing women conductors in the opera world, and shares some eloquent and personal statements by these women about the obstacles they face.

published Sunday, June 7, 2015


Dallas — Reading media commentary and analysis about the opera field over the last 18 months, it is clear that women still face considerable challenges in their quest to succeed in such a male-dominated world. Women remain resolutely under-represented in musical, executive leadership, and conducting roles in major opera companies.

Consider these statistics: There are 15 large-budget opera companies in North America—the so-called “Level 1” companies, by OPERA America’s definition. Of these, 12 have a General Director, typically the most senior artistic and business leadership position in the company. Among these 12, only one is a woman. Are you keeping score? Of the 11 companies that employ either a Music Director or a Chief Conductor, none are women, and only a handful of Artistic Administrator or Artistic Director positions are occupied by women across these 15 different companies. Altogether, Level 1 companies produce approximately 100 distinct opera productions a year, each with its own run of performances. In the announced 2015-2016 season, women conductors are engaged to lead roughly 5 percent of this total number of productions. In the symphonic world, the situation is no better. Of the top two dozen or so symphony orchestras in the United States, only one can boast of having a female Music Director (Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony).

Photo: Courtesy Dallas Opera
Stephanie Rhodes

In response to this self-evident imbalance, The Dallas Opera is launching The Institute for Women Conductors (IWC), initially inspired by my appointment last year of the gifted Nicole Paiement as Principal Guest Conductor. The IWC is envisioned as a five-year program, beginning with the inaugural session in late November and early December, 2015, with ongoing mentoring that will continue through the duration of the multi-year program. First, TDO will host quarterly conference calls where participants can discuss issues and concerns in their careers in a supportive, peer group environment. Each year, participants also will be invited to a 2-day alumnae networking event here in Dallas with travel costs paid for by the program. The first networking event will be held in the summer of 2016. Over the course of five years, TDO will explore effective ways to support the development of a network of 30 extremely talented young conductors.

The IWC program will be intensive and focused on two primary areas: hands-on conducting—through work with The Dallas Opera Orchestra and master classes (with singers and piano) hosted by TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Paiement, culminating in a public concert at the head of The Dallas Opera Orchestra; and a series of seminars, discussions, and role plays on topics including personal branding and image management; conducting successful media interviews; defining success in a male-dominated field; selecting repertoire for career impact; the intricacies of accepting and declining specific engagements; partnering with the concertmaster; and finding the right artist manager.

TDO announced the program on February 9, 2015, with a national media campaign and supporting advertising. Applicants were asked to submit an online application using the site, and the new initiative attracted a large number of highly qualified applicants. In total, 103 women from 27 countries applied, including the United Sates, the U.K., continental Europe, Canada, Central and South America, the Middle East, Australia and Asia.

From this applicant pool, six participants were selected, as well as an additional four observers who will sit in on all rehearsals and sessions but will not have the opportunity to conduct. Of the participants, two are from the U.S. and four are from foreign countries, reflecting the geographic distribution of the applicant pool. All participants have outstanding music background as performers. Many have strong opera backgrounds, and all have at least some opera conducting experience.

You can read more about the six fellows and four observers here; the six fellows are:

  • Jennifer Condon (Australia/Germany)
  • Jessica Gethin (Australia)
  • Natalie Murray Beale (UK)
  • Stephanie Rhodes (USA)
  • Anna Skryleva (Russia/Germany)
  • Lidiya Yankovskaya (USA)

Applicants were asked to submit a two-page personal statement in support of their application, and many of these statements independently referenced a common set of themes. The themes they highlighted included the ongoing “glass ceiling” for women conductors; the lack of role models and mentors; special barriers for women conductors; the need to reset audience expectations; and women as leaders and collaborators. Some also wrote about uniquely feminine qualities that would, in their view, make women even stronger conductors than men.

The quotes below have been drawn from the applicant pool, as a whole, and some have been lightly edited for clarity.


Regarding Perceptions of a “Glass Ceiling

Some applicants addressed head-on their concern about a “glass ceiling”—in other words, an invisible barrier to their further progress at a mid-point in their career.

• “I have often felt the absence of women in our industry, both on the music staff and on the podium, and only recent experiences with female conductors have led me to believe that I could commit fully to this profession and not be hindered due to my gender.” (American conductor)

• “I have felt the glass ceiling for the first time in the professional world this year” (American conductor)

Photo: Courtesy Dallas Opera
Jessica Gethin


Lack of role models and mentors

Quite a few applicants noted the lack of role models and mentors, and the effect on their careers.

• “Apart from the inherently opaque and ferociously competitive nature of the job, which is true regardless of gender, an additional set of barriers exist for female conductors looking to break into the business. Firstly, there are extremely few female mentors on the market…Why is it significant to point out a dearth of female mentors? Because conductors are human, and humans like to connect and transmit with young people who remind them of themselves. So no matter how prepared, gifted, driven, witty and alive you as a young female conductor are, you will never be as “familiar,” read connectable, to an older (male) conductor as your male counterpart. Furthermore, established maestri “of a certain age” often suffer from sexist preconceptions of women on the podium: acceptable for fine and delicate pieces such as Mozart and Haydn; general issues of women in power positions; double standards in terms of dress/physical appearance, etc. For a female conductor to make a connection with an established conductor which is strong enough for him to believe in you and invest time and energy in you, you have to break down several barriers to be truly seen before you even raise the baton.” (American conductor living in continental Europe)


Special Barriers for women conductors

Some applicants noted that they felt they were subject to extra scrutiny because of their gender, and needed to work harder to prove themselves as leaders.

• “While making my conducting studies, I was the only woman in my class, and from a certain point of view I felt I was asked more than any other of my classmates. In some way I felt that I was not allowed to make mistakes, otherwise someone could say “she is a woman…” (Italian conductor)

• “I grew up in a beautiful country, which I respect and care about, but it is a country with, in general, very low consideration of women for positions of responsibility. A program like this would be absolutely not even possible to imagine” (Italian conductor)


Resetting audience expectations

Quite a few applicants wrote about the importance of resetting audience expectations, and turning the appearance of a woman on a podium into an “everyday”, and fully accepted, audience experience.

• “But from my point of view, it is just a matter of getting the eyes used to seeing a woman in front of an orchestra. The only way of doing so is by conducting; until the day that it is going to be perfectly normal, as nowadays we see women teaching, being soloists, painting, writing, etc.” (Italian conductor)

• “I am passionate about female conductors becoming more visible, more accepted and being given the opportunities to fulfill our professional and artistic potential.” (British conductor)

Photo: Courtesy Dallas Opera
Natalie Murray Beale


Women as Partners and Collaborators

Quite a few applicants (and working conductors) expressed the view that women are generally more effective partners and collaborators than their male counterparts.

• “I always have the feeling that there is a secret bond between women conductors. Discussing our moments on and off podium, the comments we have received from orchestra players and audiences during rehearsals and after concerts and also participating in conversations about the psychological part of being a woman conductor, makes us more united and determined to continue working hard for our beloved profession.” (Greek conductor)


Emergence of a Feminine Leadership Style

Perhaps somewhat more controversially, some applicants worked to generalize female characteristics that they believe make them stronger leaders and conductors

• “I do believe that femininity is a plus—in the artistic field, women are able to channel the artistic matter by means of a different sensitivity and to look at it from a different perspective—the same (way) they do in what concerns the productive process in a wider sense by making a full use of intuition, listening, attitude to the service, and multitasking ability, together with the ability of creating a good working environment. Personally, in any expression of my life, I rely on my womanly nature and I see this is always worthwhile….The common idea of leadership—and this is a matter of fact at least in Europe—is still linked to the male figure, while the feminine figure is considered not suitable for this role. All this originates from prejudices derived from an ancient legacy”. (Italian conductor)


In selecting the participants for the Institute for Women Conductors at The Dallas Opera, working with Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement, I was struck by not only the great experience and expertise of the candidates, but how thoughtfully they wrote about the challenges they face. While some applicants highlighted examples of outright discrimination, most wrote about more subtle and unspoken barriers to success. Many candidates had also developed a very personal “plan for success” that would allow them to build on their strengths as musicians and leaders, and their personalities, in order to ready themselves for major careers. As we prepare for the inaugural program of the IWC, I look forward to getting to know these women as both musicians and leaders, and to encouraging them to share their experiences and perspectives with one another, in their quest to share their insights and exceptional artistry with a wider and more appreciative audience.



◊ 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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Shattering the Operatic Glass Ceiling
Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny reflects on some of the challenges facing women conductors in the opera world, and shares some eloquent and personal statements by these women about the obstacles they face.
by Keith Cerny

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