Dallas — Many readers already know about the launch late last year of the Hart Institute for Women Conductors at The Dallas Opera. We had a very successful nine-day program, which culminated in a public concert featuring the six participating conductors. (You can see video of the concert here). This year, the program will last two full weeks, with a public concert featuring all six conductors at the end of each week.
To prepare for this year’s program, Music Director Emmanuel Villaume and Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement and I reviewed the outstanding pool of applicants, ably supported by Assistant Artistic Administrator David Lomeli. We were delighted to have 156 applications to review this year, from 32 diverse countries including expected locations such as the United Kingdom, United States and Western Europe, but also countries where women face numerous challenges in securing leadership positions such as Chile, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Greece, and South Korea. (By contrast, last year we had 103 applicants from 26 countries). In reviewing the applications, I observed a number of common themes. In this posting, I would like to present a range of quotes from the applicants’ personal statements that underscore five specific—and commonly shared—themes. The quotes have been lightly edited for clarity, and, in some cases, to preserve confidentiality.
Perceived discrimination against women conductors
May applicants mentioned that they felt discriminated against in their quest to become successful and sought-after conductors. A sample:
• “Unfortunately, in Europe as a woman, you very seldom get the chance to show your proper abilities and talents in conducting. Often female conductors are not really being taken seriously in the world of music, which is still dominated by men.” (Germany)
• “Although I am always trying to focus only on music, I observe that conducting is still mainly a “male” field, where women don’t have the kind of equality. For example, in the Czech Republic, has not been professionally involved any female conductor so far.” (Czech Republic)
• “As regards to the gender issue of the profession, I must admit that I have only been subject to discrimination at two particular moments in my career, and this was more likely due to my pregnancies than anything else. Aside from these moments, I have never felt that I was being treated differently, unfairly, or irrationally for being a woman conductor. I know now, however, that my image, perception thereof, and personal issues are extremely visible and scrutinized perhaps stronger than a male conductor would be. I am in the process of still realizing this, and I know that I am still going through an enormous learning process. I am lucky that I am conducting four different amateur ensembles [abroad], where I can secretly work on improving my image, communication, rehearsal technique and networking…Even though a conductor works with large ensembles, it is still a lonely and perplexing career.” (United States)
• “I’ve taken part in numerous conducting masterclasses in the past, mainly in the US and even then, I noticed an ample gap in the attitude towards female conductors, between Israel and America. At that time, I was the only female conductor in my country for ten years. I’ll never forget the eyes of some of the orchestra players when I first entered an audition around twenty years ago. I know that the US is still a ways from having total equality between men and women in the field of conducting, but I’m happy and optimistic about the new wave of changes in recent years.” (Israel)
Views on male-female differences, including motherhood’s impact on a conducting career
Some applicants made compelling comments regarding how men and women may approach conducting differently, and the special challenges of child-bearing in the midst of a conducting career:
• Over the years I have become increasingly interested in the physical gestures and body language of conductors, particularly the differences between men and women. I would be fascinated to observe and be involved in a series of masterclasses that not only cover repertoire that I am working toward, but also discuss the physical and psychological aspects of a female standing on the podium.” (Australia)
• “…for a female conductor, the dance of reconciling the demands of professional development with those of founding and maintaining a family is particularly intricate. I am all in favor of equality in the household as in the workplace, but no amount of freethinking can explain away an inherent inequality: only women have the distinct privilege – and responsibility – of bearing children. As someone who has recently become a mother, I have experienced first-hand the very private struggle to conceive, then the deliberate powering-down of professional engagements to create a less-stressful environment for the pregnancy, and the ensuing tolls that pregnancy and postpartum can take on the body and mind. I also swallowed the bitter pill of engagement retractions which followed the news that I had recently become a mother.” (United States)
Reflections on lack of opportunities for women conductors
Consistent with last year’s applicant pool, many conductors commented on lack of opportunities, and successful role models, for women conductors:
• “It is rare for young women conductors to have hands-on experience with a professional opera house orchestra and to understand the drills of performance preparations.” (Taiwan)
• “As my studies drew to a close, I found that the opportunities for Colombian conductors were few to none, with opportunities for women almost non-existent. Those that were successful found opportunity outside the country, and so I found myself moving to the U.S. to find a way forward…There are many opportunities for orchestral conductors in the U.S, but none that focus on opera at this level, and none geared toward alleviating the disparity between male and female conductors. Over the past few years, there has been a meteoric rise in the number of successful Latin-American conductors, a trend I view with hope and pride. But we still a need to address the gender gap that exists across the countries, continents, and organizations.” (Colombia)
• “Something that especially attracted me to this program is the design thinking about the challenges of woman conductors. Even when I think of the conductor as a musician (beyond being male or female) I think that a space of exchange, reflection and discussion about the figure of the woman conductor and the new paradigms established in culture was needed on this matter.” (Argentina)
Need for greater understanding of the music business
As part of TDO’s 5-year commitment to each “class” of conductors, alumnae will be invited to summer reunions for additional masterclasses with piano and singers, and a series of introductory seminars about the business of music in General Management, Marketing, Development and Finance. In our inaugural program last December, and the first round of follow-up discussions this spring, the 2015 class of conductors reiterated their interest in this type of training on multiple occasions. Here’s a related comment of one applicant for this year’s program:
• Along that line, I would also like to mention that my interest in the program is not solely about the conducting opportunities. Conductors now must have an acute understanding of the business side of the music world, so I am therefore also very interested in hearing about ways to develop my leadership skills, to know how to better work with executive recruiters, and also more completely understand the workings inside an opera company and opera management.” (United States)
And—more positively—unique opportunities for maestras in the future
Despite all of the challenges mentioned above, some applicants see a bright future for women conductors:
• “My goal as a conductor in the future is to be part of a new generation of female conductors that will change the narrow vision of society and, unfortunately, some colleagues have [a view] of this career as being only adequate for men. I wish that ahead in my career as the music director of a professional orchestra or opera theatre I can accomplish my social and musical objectives by creating a warm working atmosphere in which great understanding and unique interpretations can be achieved.” (Argentina)
• “I am excited at the prospect of discussing and exploring the role and future of women conductors. I believe that this is the century of the female conductor, and that we are ready to meet the challenge of the podium with grace and flair.” (Spain)
• “My grandmother lived long enough to see me begin my work as a [vocal] coach, and used to warn me that it was a man’s job. She was only trying to save me future heartache because in her world, that was the reality. I smile when I think of what the expression on her face would be if she could see me up on the podium today. Thank you for a program that carries female conductors further away from that old world.” (Slovenia)
In closing, while many applicants to the program this year commented on the challenges facing women conductors, many also saw an emerging change in the profession, with increasing opportunities on the horizon. At The Dallas Opera, we are delighted to observe the continuing success of our class of 2015 conductors, and to welcome a new group for the 2016 residency. As in the inaugural class, this year’s institute will include rehearsals and performances with the Dallas Opera Orchestra, conducting masterclasses with both piano and orchestra, and a series of lectures and seminars on a wide range of topics including personal branding, working effectively with the media, and leadership.
We will hold public concerts with full orchestra and singers on both Dec. 4 and Dec. 10, 2016, and more details will be announced later. I hope that you can join us to show your support for this vitally important program!
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"
- June 2013 "Managing the Opera Company of the Future"
- July 2013 "Raked Over the Coals"
- August 2013 "Hogarth in Reverse"
- September 2013 "No Genuflecting Required"
- October 2013 "2B or Not 2B"
- November 2013 "Calling All Geeks"
- December 2013 "Stravinsky's Last Word"
- January 2014 "Opera Without Borders"
- February 2014 "To Be or Not To Be"
- March 2014 "A Mirror of His Time"
- April 2014 "A Postcard from Oman"
- May 2014 "Building Musical Brands That Deliver"
- June 2014 "The Turning of the Tide"
- July 2014 "Two Sides to Every Screen"
- August 2014 "Life and Death in the Mountains"
- September 2014 "Smells Like Team Spirit"
- October 2014 "Salome's Second Act"
- November 2014 "Opera in the Age of Anxiety"
- December 2014 "Just the Fachs, Ma'am"
- January 2015 "Inside Santa's Workshop"
- February 2015 "The New Verismo"
- March 2015 "Cultivating Great Women Conductors"
- April 2015 "We've Got You Covered"
- May 2015 "Top of Their Game"
- June 2015 "Shattering the Operatic Glass Ceiling"
- July 2015 "A Tsunami of North American Opera"
- August 2015 "The Dallas Opera's Riverboat Adventure"
- September 2015 "Supporting a World of Women Composers"
- October 2015 "On the Prowl for Opera's MVPs"
- November 2015: "Why Should Broadway Have all the Fun?"
- December 2015: "A 21st Century Sleigh Ride"
- January 2016: "What We Learned from the Women Conductors"
- February 2016: "Gender Parity in Opera Management"
- March 2016: "Conducting in High Def"
- April 2016: "A Symphonic Memorial to Babi Yar"
- May 2016: "Show Boast"