Anna Skryleva is in the Dallas Opera\'s Institute for Women Conductors
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Supporting a World of Women Conductors

In his latest Off the Cuff column, the Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny offers insight into the organization's upcoming and groundbreaking Institute for Women Conductors.

published Sunday, September 6, 2015


Dallas — As many readers may already know, The Dallas Opera has launched a new program this year for women opera conductors: the Institute for Women Conductors (IWC). As it turns out, there are only three significant programs in the world for women conductors: the program at The Dallas Opera, Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia, and the program at Morley College in London co-founded by Alice Farnham and Andrea Brown. The International New York Times recently profiled the Morley College program here, with complimentary mentions of the other two initiatives.

Since TDO’s announcement, we have had a very positive reaction from potential participants, as well as opera and music industry leaders, and donors. Earlier this year, we received 103 applications for the new institute from 27 different countries. From these applicants, six were selected to participate, and a further four were invited to observe the rehearsals and other sessions. (More information on the six selected participants can be found here.)

Photo: Courtesy Dallas Opera
Natalie Murray Beale is in the Dallas Opera's Institute for Women Conductors

TDO’s Institute for Women Conductors includes hands-on conducting with the full Dallas Opera Orchestra; master classes with TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement, seminars and discussions on topics centered on women conductors making their mark in the field, and opportunities to network with other participants. All six participants will conduct The Dallas Opera Orchestra in a final public concert on December 5, 2015. Program participants are also eligible for an annual 2-day networking event beginning summer, 2016, in addition to ongoing networking and consultation with program faculty and potential invitations to serve as Assistant Conductors on future TDO productions. The IWC is scheduled to convene for at least the next five years, during which, the participants will become part of an emerging network of 30 young, exceptionally talented conductors already making their mark on twenty-first century opera.

At The Dallas Opera, we have been working on curriculum design for the program for more than a year, with the goal of maximizing the impact of a relatively short, but very intensive, residency. The program has a heavy “hands-on” component, with opportunities for participants to conduct singers with piano in master classes, as well as perform with the Dallas Opera Orchestra. This part of the program will be even more intensive in the second and subsequent years, when the program is slated to last a full two weeks. A second, equally important, aspect of the program is a series of 15 sessions—some lectures, some panel discussions, some role plays and mock interviews—in which the participants are encouraged to think creatively about the tools they will need to continue to advance their careers.

For the “hands on” aspect of the program, each of the six conductors will have an opportunity to conduct an overture and two arias or small ensembles. We have engaged a series of outstanding singers to work with these conductors in both rehearsal and performance with The Dallas Opera Orchestra. As the conductors prepare for the public concert, they will participate in a series of master classes with Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement. The repertoire will include music by some of the most popular opera composers in the canon (e.g. Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Donizetti), as well as notable 20th century composers (e.g. Carlisle Floyd, Gian Carlo Menotti), and important contemporary ones (e.g. Jake Heggie, Mark Adamo). This concert will take place on Saturday, Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m., and we are already inviting industry leaders in the artist management, opera, and symphony fields to attend.

In regard to instructional sessions, we plan to provide a range of topics and formats, including industry overviews and analysis, personal testimonials from successful female arts leaders, panel discussions, and sessions on specific skill development. It is going to be a busy nine days! While the program is still being finalized, I wanted to share some details about 15 planned sessions that I consider central to this new program:

  1. Challenges and Opportunities for Women Conductors in Opera In this session, we will provide an overview of gender imbalance in the opera world in conducting, musical leadership, and general management, and offer a perspective on root causes, particular challenges, and ways to address the problem.
  2. Partnering with the Concertmaster The concertmaster for the IWC will describe her views on the role of the concertmaster, and how the concertmaster and conductor can develop an effective and mutually supportive partnership.
  3. Approaches to Successful Interviewing An executive recruiter with extensive experience at two top firms will describe the process by which Music Director, General Director and Artistic Director positions are typically filled; the names and profiles of top international recruiting firms; how to build an ongoing relationship with recruiters; and how to participate effectively in the interview process. Following the session, he will provide personalized feedback to participants on their resumes.
  4. Developing your Personal Brand Making yourself memorable to the field and key decision makers is extremely important, and a clear, concise personal brand is vital. The session leader will offer his perspective on personal brands that work, and those that don’t.
  5. The Manager’s Role in a Successful Conducting Career The session leader, one of the most experienced artist managers in the business, will describe how an artist Manager can help—or hinder—a career, including building a relationship with a manager, ensuring conductors are getting the support they need, providing feedback to the manager, and when it’s time to find a new manager.
  6. Panel Discussion on Repertoire Selection and Personal Brand Whether a conductor aspires to be known as a broad generalist, or a specialist in a particular type of repertoire, her choice of repertoire—and which engagements she accepts—will have a profound impact on her career profile and trajectory. The panel will discuss how to make intelligent choices on repertoire and selecting engagements, and how to link these choices to her personal brand.
  7. Breaking through the Glass Ceiling in the Opera World A well-known industry leader will share her personal perspective on challenges facing women executives in the classical music and opera world, and some suggested strategies for overcoming them.
  8. Working Effectively with the Media TDO’s Director of Media and PR, Suzanne Calvin, will offer practical guidance on how to work effectively with the media, including tips for “best practice” in conveying key messages, and turning potentially hostile situations to your advantage.
  9. Workshop: Articulating Your Personal Brand The presenter will lead a workshop with participants to self-identify the three most important elements of her personal brand, based on session 4, in preparation for the mock interviews in session 10.
  10. Mock Interviews and Debrief Suzanne Calvin will interview each participant for 5-7 minutes, without knowing in advance the personal brand elements identified in session 9. After each interview, she will describe her perception of the participant’s personal brand, and the group will discuss whether or not each participant conveyed her brand effectively in the mock media interviews.
  11. Effective Leadership Styles A top executive from the opera field will describe effective leadership styles—based on his decades of experience—including what adaptations, if any, are required for women to achieve top musical and leadership positions.
  12. Breaking through the Glass Ceiling The presenter for this session is a nationally recognized leader in articulating the challenges facing women conductors, arts leaders and classical music executives. She will offer some statistics on the dearth of female leaders, especially at larger opera companies, and some of the strategies that appear to be working in addressing that imbalance.
  13. Leadership Lessons from a Board Perspective The speaker, a well-known figure in the opera world, will describe her approach to partnering with the media, building a new Board, hiring a new General Director, fund-raising in a crisis environment, and planning for the future.
  14. Interacting with Donors/Boards Panel discussion on Board and Donor expectations of Music Directors, and how to build long-term relationships with supporters.
  15. Wrap up and Summary Session leader will ask each participant to summarize what she learned  from the program, and will review plans for ongoing mentoring and the summer networking session.
Photo: Scott Bump
Lidiya Yankovskaya is in the Dallas Opera's Institute for Women Conductors


In conclusion, I find it intriguing to speculate now, a few months ahead of the course, on the areas that will have the greatest impact—apart from the musical component, which is essential—and I have two initial ideas. First, I think encouraging candidates to focus on their personal brand is extremely important. In my experience as a General Director & CEO, industry consultant and executive recruiter, I have found that encouraging younger leaders—whether male or female, corporate or non-profit—to focus clearly on how they want to be known by patrons and the media is always enormously valuable. Like it or not, we live in a world of media sound bites, and if we cannot articulate the impression we want to make, we’re not likely to make it. And, as I have noted in a previous column, if you want to be known as “the best conductor (or singer) in your generation,” you’d better be prepared to deliver! 

The second area that I predict will be extremely valuable is an ongoing discussion of the role of artist management for conductors. Among the 103 conductors who applied for the program, almost none mentioned their artist manager in their personal statement. In my experience, a great artist manager can be immensely helpful to young and mid-career artists, not only for their assistance in securing and negotiating the right engagements, but—even more important—in providing honest and practical guidance in order to maximize their artists’ career trajectory.

Time will tell whether my initial guesses are correct, but in the meantime, please plan to join us on Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. in the Winspear Opera House to hear this international assembly of six of the finest women conductors the world has to offer, leading the same concert. The term “once in a lifetime” definitely applies!


◊ 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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Supporting a World of Women Conductors
In his latest Off the Cuff column, the Dallas Opera's Keith Cerny offers insight into the organization's upcoming and groundbreaking Institute for Women Conductors.
by Keith Cerny

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