From left: Jennifer Condon, Jessica Gethin, Stephanie Rhodes, Anna Skryleva, Natalie Murray Beale and Lidiya Yankovskaya take a bow after Saturday\'s concert at Winspear Opera House

The Women Conductors Speak

As the Dallas Opera's groundbreaking Institute for Women Conductors wrapped up, we talked to the six women about the importance of this initiative, and their passion.

published Sunday, December 13, 2015

Photo: Karen Almond
From left: Jennifer Condon, Jessica Gethin, Stephanie Rhodes, Anna Skryleva, Natalie Murray Beale and Lidiya Yankovskaya take a bow after the Dec. 5 concert at Winspear Opera House


Dallas —  Answer: Zero.

Question:  Of the 11 opera companies that employ either a Music Director or a Chief Conductor, how many are women?


Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny shared this statistic as part of his motivation to launch their residential program, The Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors (IWC). According to statistics developed by the League for American Orchestras for the period 2012-2013 (published by TheaterJones), of the 103 high-budget American orchestras, only 12 were female.  Clearly an imbalance exists. The Dallas Opera extended an invitation to female conductors and other musicians seeking a new career in conducting, age 40 and younger, to apply for this new Institute.

More than 100 professionals applied, representing 27 countries including the United States. Of these applicants, six were selected for this nine-day career enhancement intensive that featured mentoring and training sessions with Dallas Opera Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement. Selected participants were Jennifer Condon (Australia/Germany), Jessica Gethin (Australia), Natalie Murray Beale (United Kingdom), Stephanie Rhodes (USA), Anna Skryleva (Russia/Germany) and Lidiya Yankovskaya (USA). In addition to the mentoring sessions with Villaume and Paiement, Institute faculty comprised of arts executives, artist representatives, and community and board leaders conducted seminars, provided networking opportunities and a panel discussion. Closing this inaugural Institute was a final performance Saturday, Dec. 5 at the Winspear Opera House.

TheaterJones talked with each of the conductors about a range of topics, from their perceptions of self and marketing, to their preparation process for new projects, and their views on the role of the conductor in building audience. As expected, there were similarities and overlapping responses, such as when discussing their technical preparedness. One expects a conductor to have depth in technical and academic training, but that is only one aspect of this career. From this set of interviews it was immediately clear what distinguished these six women not only from the other applicants, but from other emerging conductors in the field as well. The responses below are a mix of paraphrases and direct quotes. Janice Franklin's comments are in italics.

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Stephanie Rhodes conducts at the Dallas Opera's Institute for Women Conductors final concert at the Winspear Opera House



TheaterJones: Are you thinking differently about yourself, your identity and/or image as a result of what you are learning through the Institute? 

Stephanie Rhodes: It’s great to have [feedback from the orchestra and from mentors Villaume and Paiement in rehearsal] in a safe environment where you can fix things and improve drastically in just a matter of days.

Jennifer Condon: It’s been really enlightening listening to everyone in the different forums and discovering that the foundation of where I want to be is actually quite established. I wasn’t expecting that.

Lidiya Yankovskaya: [asking herself] How do I differentiate myself professionally? Am I actually presenting what I want people to know or see about me rather than listing things in my bio without thinking about what they convey?

Anna Skryleva: The best way to sell something is to be natural, to find yourself and the best parts of yourself so you can present. It is very important to find things we can improve, and to believe in ourselves.


TheaterJones: The term ‘trailblazer’ has been used in reference to you.  Do you see yourself as a trailblazer?

The general response to this question was quick and emphatic “No!” The conductors were united in their belief that being a female is inconsequential to being a good conductor, and that any pressure felt is from being a conductor, not from being a conductor who happens to be female.

Anna Skryleva: I am not doing this because I want to show every woman that it is possible. I’m doing this because this is my passion. It is natural. But I am happy to have the opportunity through this institute to motivate other females.”

Jessica Gethin: [I am] aware of my responsibility as a future mentor. 

Natalie Murray Beale: As a conductor, you need to use your intellect and your imagination.  Both are very important. You need to pursue this goal rigorously and at the same time take care of your artists. You’re really trying to extract something from the people you are working with. It becomes less about you and more about the people you are trying to create something with. 

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts at the Dallas Opera's Institute for Women Conductors final concert at the Winspear Opera House


TheaterJones: What are your thoughts regarding the challenge of building audience for the future, and how you might contribute to that?

In her current role as music director for several organizations, Yankovskaya tackles this problem routinely. She recently premiered a full-length ballet that was based on hacktivism, specifically the hacker group known as Anonymous.

Yankovskaya: For me the most important thing about building audience is to make audiences feel that the art is relevant to their lives, to their cultural context. … In the classical arena, people that have never been to a concert hall or been in the opera don’t know what to expect. So they’re afraid of going there. They’re afraid of trying this. If you relate it to something they know, it helps. We had a member of Anonymous, and hackers, come out to our show. At first, Anonymous was skeptical about being represented in a ballet, but they loved it.

Gethin: We do have a responsibility to reach out into the community, to make it accessible without sacrificing the integrity of the music. In Australia, a lot of areas do not have a lot of the culture that the European houses have.


TheaterJones: How do you prepare for a new project?

The diversity of experiences among these conductors is remarkable. All have considerable time logged in at the podium and in opera, but their musical tentacles stretch into other genres as well. They each spoke of how their work in the different environments comes together to inform their approach to opera. Their performance experiences continually feed their preparation process. Our conversation about prepping for a project yielded expected responses about things such as studying and analyzing the libretto and the score, but as they talked, other little nuggets rolled out that were fascinating.

For instance, Beale has an interest in working with composers on new works. She received a Royal Philharmonic Society award for her performance of We Are Shadows, a new opera. Ever aware that some traditionalists might have a narrowly dismissive view, Beale proudly and unapologetically promotes her exciting experience conducting the soundtrack to the BAFTA nominated videogame, “Alien: Isolation.”

Beale: The time frame [between prepping for videogame work and opera] is very different. In opera, the best situation is when you have a long time to learn a score, to live with it, to experience it then to share it.  The videogame industry time frames are very short. I might get the music the morning of the session. I will have conversations with the composer and production team about what they are trying to achieve. Your technique really comes into play in these situations because you have to produce very quickly.

Skryleva is the principal resident conductor at The State Theatre, Darmstadt, Germany, while still performing as a concert pianist across the world. She has worked in Germany for the past 15 years.

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Natalie Murray Beale conducts at the Dallas Opera's Institute for Women Conductors final concert at the Winspear Opera House


Skryleva: I listen to some recordings but I’m not a fan of recordings because I like to find my own way of making music. I don’t want to make mistakes, resulting from listening to what other people did. I just want to look at the score and find my personal way to make this music.  If it is an opera, in a language I do not understand, I learn the language. Until this moment I will only do operas in languages I understand which are Russian, German, English, and of course I speak Italian.”

Condon is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of New England, but her pathway is unusual. She developed an intense interest in the works of composer Peggy Glanville Hicks, and at the age of 17 found a lost opera, Sappho, in the archives of the Australian Music Center Library.

Condon: I found the piece, spent nine years getting the rights and working the manuscript into a performable set of parts. It was as I had started this process with the manuscript a few people said ‘you’re doing an awful lot of work … why don’t you submit the project as a doctorate’? So the doctorate is tied to the CDs. I handed in the manuscript and the CDs and now I am working on a revised performance edition and thesis to complete that package. Because the CD now exists now, the music has come to life but opera doesn’t really live unless it’s on the stage. Now I’m actively talking to people and looking for a co-production opportunity. It’s in English.

Rhodes is nearing completion of a book that standardizes Russian diction for singers. But English is her first language, so how did she become a Russian linguist?

Rhodes: My first exposure to Russian was at about age 10. My father is a physician and had some Russian patients. He brought home cassette tapes about ‘teach yourself Russian.’ I think he made it through not very much of it, but I was even then so fascinated that I learned all my numbers, etc. Then as a child is wont to do, forgot all about it and moved on to some other interests. It resurfaced again in graduate school when I was asked to work on Eugene Onegin. It was actually the first opera I was asked to prepare. My teacher, Martin Katz, who was also conducting it, said if I worked on it, I needed to be prepared to approach the language. I began an in depth study of the pronunciation at that time. I spent six months working on the libretto and how to form the sounds of Russian and in my last semester of graduate school, started Russian 101, with all the 18 and 19 year olds. It’s been an ongoing process. I was fortunate enough to be a Fulbright Scholar in Russia, and I worked for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. When you have to work in Russia from day one and negotiate your contract in Russian, you learn things very quickly.

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts at the Dallas Opera's Institute for Women Conductors final concert at the Winspear Opera House

Yankovskaya: The piano is a great route into conducting because as a pianist, you’re thinking vertically about many parts simultaneously. My own background, I am also a violinist and singer as well. I trained as both and performed professionally as well. When I was 17 I won a concerto competition, violin.  Mozart. And as you know during Mozart’s time, many of these were not conducted. The conductor asked me to lead from the piano occasionally.  So at the following concert, he asked me if I wanted to conduct the orchestra and I ended up conducting Dvořák’s Seventh symphony, a movement from it at a concert. For opera, as a pianist, I ended up continuing to study as a solo pianist and later as a collaborative pianist. In opera that became very helpful because early in my career I was able to accompany for a variety of conductors and watch their work, which was essential in my training.


There was one question planned, but at the last minute, in the moment, it was not asked. The unasked question was ‘what motivates you; why do you do what you do?’ Funny thing is, each conductor answered the question anyway. That provided perhaps the most intimate reveal about them as artists. One share in particular stands out and seems a perfect close to this telling.

Condon: My mother took me for the first time to the opera when I was six. She had cancer and my father’s not really into the cultural side of things, although he is coming to the concert this evening. She wasn’t sure that she would make it, and so wanted me to experience that once. I picked up that ball and ran with it. Having my adult identity so expressly tied to dreams of my childhood, makes it easier to follow a path. It feels like a natural progression. Not once in my life has it occurred to me to do anything else than conduct. It’s like a little miracle. Picking up a stick and turning paper into sound is without a doubt the most amazing experience of my life.


Answer Translation:  Passion.


» Look for a review of the concert from Gregory Sullivan Isaacs coming on TheaterJones

» Read Keith Cerny's October Off the Cuff column about the Institute for Women Conductors   Thanks For Reading

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The Women Conductors Speak
As the Dallas Opera's groundbreaking Institute for Women Conductors wrapped up, we talked to the six women about the importance of this initiative, and their passion.
by Janice L. Franklin

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