Jessica Gethin conducts at the Dallas Opera\'s Institute for Women Conductors final concert at the Winspear Opera House
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What We Learned from the Women Conductors

In his latest Off the Cuff, Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny reflects on the successes, and opportunities for further improvement, from the inaugural Institute for Women Conductors.

published Sunday, January 3, 2016


Dallas — Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 6, The Dallas Opera held the inaugural program of the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors. Six conductors were selected from more than 100 applicants representing 27 countries, and four additional American observers were also selected. As it turned out, of these six, two were Americans, another two Australian, one British, and one Russian/German. More information on the program can be found here. As a measure of the program’s impact, a Google search in mid-December of the terms “Women Conductors” and then “News” from computers in both Dallas and New York showed this program realizing 9 of the 10 top search slots. (The other entry was an article about Marin Alsop’s subscription series debut with the Chicago Symphony).

Although I began the serious planning and initial fundraising two-and-a-half years ago to create this conducting program, the question of why women face barriers to professional success in some fields has been on my mind for more than 35 years. By way of background, my own career has been diverse, encompassing music performance, high technology, and business, and I have observed in many different settings the challenges that women face in establishing themselves in traditionally male-dominated fields.

I grew up in an academic family; and my mother and several of her friends were among the first women to be admitted to Ph.D. programs in physics and chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley; this experience gave me some important early exposure to the challenges facing women in academia at that time. When I attended Harvard Business School in 1989, and worked as a consultant for two top-tier firms in the U.S. and Europe in the 1990s, I observed a range of barriers for women achieving success in the business world—some overt, others more subtle. And, most recently, in my career as an opera General Director and CEO, I continue to see barriers for women as conductors and leaders in classical music, with the result that women are significantly under-represented in top management—including Music Director positions—as well as guest conductor opportunities at leading American opera companies. I consider the Institute for Women Conductors to be one of my most important personal initiatives at The Dallas Opera to date, and am extremely grateful for the support of Linda and Mitch Hart, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Richard and Enika Schulze Foundation, and Baker Botts LLP.

The inaugural conducting program at The Dallas Opera was very intensive, especially since in its first year it covered a vast range of material in just nine days. (In the future, when more funding will be available, the institute will last a full two weeks). The curriculum was focused around two primary areas. The first was hands-on conducting experience with The Dallas Opera Orchestra, and master classes with singers and piano presented by TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement. The second curriculum area, which I designed personally, was a series of seminars, panel discussions and role plays on important topics including personal branding and image management; conducting successful media interviews; succeeding in a male-dominated field; selecting repertoire for career impact; accepting and declining specific engagements; partnering with the concertmaster; and finding the right artist manager. The program culminated in a public concert on Dec. 5, 2015, with each of the six conductors conducting an overture and two arias or small ensembles with orchestra. The concert received excellent reviews, and the very high standard of the singers in the performance was noted by multiple reviewers.

Over the holiday period, I indulged in a little self-reflection about the curriculum for the seminars, panel discussion and role-plays we had developed. I wondered, with more than 35 years of thinking about the question of barriers to women in professional fields, how well did I anticipate the needs of the participants, and how could the program be improved in future years? I have organized my self-reflections into three areas: pleasant surprises, future opportunities, and—if I may be permitted—one general observation on how gender differences may possibly influence international conducting careers.


Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
The conductors take a bow at the Dallas Opera's Institute for Women Conductors final concert at the Winspear Opera House


Pleasant surprises

At the start of the conducting program, we organized a welcome get-together for the participants and observers at the elegant home at one of the lead sponsors. Many of the conductors and observers had only flown in that day, and some were quite jet-lagged. Of the nine participants, I had only met one before. One of the things that most impressed me in this event was how secure and confident the 10 conductors and observers were, as they interacted with donors they had never met in a city that many of them had never been to before. This outcome was extremely reassuring to me, as the contemporary conducting field requires any conductor—male or female—to be willing and supremely able to build relationships with their supporters and patrons.

Another pleasant surprise was how well the participants and observers collaborated from the very start, and formed their own network. Yes, this criterion had been an important part of the selection process, but personality and teamwork can be hard to judge from applications and references alone. Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement and I had worked to select conductors and observers who were outstanding musicians, and who also appeared to have a strong interest in being mutually supportive, as we wanted to create a long-term network among the group. I was delighted to see that we were able to get this right.

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Conductor Stephanie Rhodes


Future Opportunities

In evaluating the group, I saw three areas where the workshop and seminar program can be of greatest value to women conductors (in addition to, of course, the master classes and work with the Dallas Opera Orchestra). None of these areas are especially gender specific, in my mind. The first area is helping the conductors to better articulate their personal brand – i.e. the three-to-five areas that they believe make them memorable and distinctive relative to other conductors. These might include having made a major debut with a particular opera company, having conducted an important new opera, having won a major international conducting position, or having been the protégé of a famous conductor. The inter-personal confidence, noted above, allowed them to express themselves very well in mock interviews with TDO’s Director of Media and PR, Suzanne Calvin, and, later, in actual media interviews (see, for example, this piece on TheaterJones), they all made considerable progress over the week in being able to articulate their brands to themselves, one another, the program faculty, and ultimately, the media.

Secondly, the conductors clearly need a greater understanding of the music business—both at the internal operating level (e.g. marketing, fundraising, finance), and the overall field (e.g. executive recruiters and hiring processes, the role of artist managers, how guest conductors get hired). This area will be the focus of the summer reunions that will be held each year, with participants and observers being invited to attend each summer for five years following their initial residency.

One final area that came to light is the urgent need for the conductors to have video of themselves conducting. In the online applications for the program through, we had encouraged applicants to include video of themselves conducting. Relatively few of them did, since getting video of conducting typically requires payments to artists and unions that budget-strapped opera houses and symphonies (is there any other kind?) are not always able to pay. These videos are vital, however, in eliciting the interest of artist managers, making it possible to apply for conducting programs, and securing guest conducting appointments. The Dallas Opera will be providing personalized video of the performances to the six conductors in the first part of 2016.


One Possible “Confidence Gap”

While the strategy of TDO’s program is to create opportunities and support for exceptionally talented women conductors, rather than to focus on barriers to success, I had one general observation that I think will help the program, and ultimately the field. One of the lead faculty members was my friend and colleague Carol Lazier, President of the San Diego Opera Board, who shared an important article with me on women and careers; whether one agrees with every point made in the article or not, the piece is certainly worthy of discussion and self-reflection. The article, entitled “The Confidence Gap”, was written by Claire Shipman (a reporter for ABC News), and Katty Kay (anchor of BBC World News America) in the May, 2014 edition of the Atlantic Magazine. The subtitle of the article was “Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men—and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence. Here’s why, and what to do about it.”

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Conductor Natalie Murray Beale

While generalizing about gender differences in conducting is dangerous, especially since we had women representing such diverse countries, ethnic backgrounds, and local musical cultures participating in the conducting institute, Shipman and Kay’s article rang true with my experience leading the program. To quote the authors:

“Even as our understanding of confidence expanded, however, we found that our original suspicion was dead-on: there is a particular crisis for women—a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes. Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities. This disparity stems from factors ranging from upbringing to biology.

A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.”

What was refreshing and reassuring about the Conducting Institute was the extent to which the conductors were able to project a high level of—situationally appropriate—confidence in many donor-focused social settings and media interviews; this is vital in a world where Music Directors and guest conductors are expected to interact intensively and effectively with their audiences and supporters. The conductors and observers were also very comfortable in sharing highly personal perspectives in a group setting as we worked through questions of personal branding, the role of artist management, and career aspirations. There was, however, one specific area that resonated, for me at least, with the comments of Shipman and Kay. As I commented during the program, almost all of the conductors apologized too much to the orchestra, and this is an area where they may unknowingly give other conductors the edge. (I shared this perspective with them during the working sessions, and I think they all quickly assimilated the point).

Just to be clear, I believe that conductors should apologize to the orchestra if they make a technical mistake. My favorite example is the ferociously difficult finale of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, where it is very easy to get a beat pattern wrong as the meters change rapidly. However, in this case, a quick – “sorry, my mistake” suffices – although it is critically important to get this right the second time, or the orchestra will lose confidence in you. With the institute conductors, who were all accomplished musicians, but who varied considerably in podium experience and sophistication of stick technique, they tended to apologize when making a musical request. This sends the wrong message, completely. If a conductor wants the oboes and flutes to emphasize the phrasing, the first trumpet to play more quietly, or the strings to play with a different bowing, there is no need – indeed, it is unproductive – to be apologetic. (Rudeness won’t get them anywhere either, of course). This is a relatively minor point, and can be corrected, but is also important as these conductors work to secure future engagements in an extremely competitive field.

In closing, I was delighted with the success of The Dallas Opera’s inaugural conducting program, and am already looking forward to next year—which will feature considerably more orchestra time, stretched over a full two weeks. My team and I are also working on the follow-up networking opportunities for the group, and preparing for the summer reunion in the summer of 2016, which will feature more master classes and discussions of the music business, based on what we’ve learned from the process and the participants themselves.

Thanks to the generosity of Linda and Mitch Hart, The Dallas Opera has made a 20-year commitment to this program, so we will have ample time in the coming years to fine-tune the curriculum, choice of repertoire, faculty backgrounds, and format of the final public concerts. All in all, I feel very encouraged by how well-equipped these relatively young conductors are, to tackle the challenges of an international conducting career. I look forward to following their progress with great interest and, admittedly, a measure of personal satisfaction that stems from the role of The Dallas Opera in preparing these outstanding young professionals for the next set of challenges awaiting them.

It has been a rare pleasure and privilege.


◊ 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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What We Learned from the Women Conductors
In his latest Off the Cuff, Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny reflects on the successes, and opportunities for further improvement, from the inaugural Institute for Women Conductors.
by Keith Cerny

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