Dallas — Between Nov. 27 and Dec. 10, 2016, The Dallas Opera hosted the second residency of the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors. As I have described before, this unique program is designed to provide conducting coaching and career support to women on the cusp of major conducting careers. For this second residency, more than 150 conductors from 34 countries applied, reflecting a broad range of countries from across the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. If there are any remaining skeptics regarding the need for this program, consider this statistic: of the top 30 largest budget symphonies and opera companies in America (combined), only one has a female Music Director (more on this later).
The inaugural program in 2015 lasted an intensive nine days, culminating in a public concert in the Winspear Opera House. Thanks to the generosity of several donors, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program was expanded this year to two full weeks, with a concert of opera overtures, arias and vocal ensembles halfway through the residency, and a final concert at the celebratory conclusion of the Institute. As before, the program was oriented around both “hands-on” conducting experience and master classes, as well as a separate curriculum of more than a dozen sessions with arts and business leaders providing guidance on everything from working with the media to overcoming career obstacles. The program represents a major investment in these conductors, as they have the benefit of more than 35 hours of rehearsal and performance time with The Dallas Opera Orchestra over the two-week period, in addition to numerous discussion-oriented sessions with experienced leaders from the classical music field. This posting will describe the conducting elements of this year’s residency, and next month’s article will cover the business and career management curriculum in more detail.
In 2016, I invited a diverse set of distinguished faculty members to coach the participant conductors in master classes with both orchestra and piano, supported by very experienced singers. TDO’s Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement worked intensively with the conductors, displaying her usual meticulous preparation of the scores, and her rich experience as an experienced and insightful conducting coach. Conductor Carlo Montanaro also worked regularly with the conductors. His energy and passion, and his commitment to artistic excellence, were self-evident, and we are looking forward to his production of Verdi’s La traviata with TDO in a future season. TDO’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, was busy with a major recording project in Europe over the residency period, unfortunately, and could not be present this year. Both Paiement and Montanaro worked with the conductors to help them prepare for a concert at the Murchison Performing Arts Center (UNT) on Dec. 4, and then a final, “capstone” concert on Dec. 10 in the Winspear Opera House. Streaming video of the entire program from this final program will be available on TDO’s website no later than the end of January.
This year, I also engaged three additional conductors on the faculty to work with the program participants. Marin Alsop made a special stop in Dallas on her way to Brazil to hold a public master class with the conductors and full orchestra, and to meet privately with the six conductors and four observers participating in the program. Even in 2016, she remains the only female Music Director of a major American symphony or opera company, having become Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony in 2007. She also graciously spent time in Dallas with the lead donors to the Hart Institute, which they greatly appreciated. It is no exaggeration to say that the conductors, observers, staff and donors found Alsop to be a particularly inspiring presence on, and off, the podium. Renato Balsadonna, the former Chorus Master of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, presented a seminar and a master class on “Tamino’s Scene with The Speaker” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, giving the conductors an excellent introduction to the vocal, linguistic, and musical challenges of this notoriously difficult recitative. Alice Farnham also gave a very well-attended seminar for TDO’s donors describing the conducting program she co-founded in the U.K. for young conductors. This program was based initially at Morley College, and is now hosted by the Royal Philharmonic Society. Her conducting program attracts many distinguished conducting faculty, and has been very helpful in filling the pipeline with younger women conductors between 16 and 25 years of age. Farnham also gave an important master class for the TDO conductors on “The Letter Scene” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, drawing on her extensive experience in working on opera productions in Russia, and her deep knowledge of the Russian language.
I would like to offer my special thanks to the members of The Dallas Opera Orchestra, who performed magnificently throughout the program. Over the course of the two weeks, they rehearsed and performed with six different conductors, who were—in turn—coached during the rehearsals by three different conductors (two of the faculty conductors worked solely with singers and piano due to scheduling constraints). The orchestral players offered their full support and attention to the individual conductors in many hours of rehearsals, for which I am personally very grateful. Try to imagine how challenging it is to perform 18 works in a single concert, in numerous musical styles, led by six different conductors, each of whom have their own musical approaches and conducting techniques. I can only say, “Bravi tutti!”
In thinking about this year’s residency, I have five initial observations about the group:
Increased Self-Confidence. This year’s conductors and observers exuded a greater overall level of self-confidence than last year’s group, both in their work on the podium and in the group discussion sessions. In fact, they felt confident enough to challenge from time to time, sometimes quite assertively, the coaching they received from the distinguished conducting faculty. This difference is probably related to the conductors having, on average, a somewhat higher level of experience, buttressed by some important positive news in the field about successes for women conductors in the intervening year. This news includes the appointment of women to major Music Director positions (e.g. Mirga Grazinytė-Tyla’s appointment as Music Director at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), and high-profile engagements of women as guest conductors (e.g. Susanna Mälkki’s appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and her work at the Met to conduct Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin). These announcements, and others, have validated women’s ability to succeed as conductors at the highest professional level.
Refusal to be defined by their gender. This year’s conductors and observers were even more vocal about preferring to be viewed by audiences, critics and decision makers as a “woman who conducts,” rather than as a “woman conductor.” One of the many challenges that women face as a conductor is that they must overcome a “novelty value” with some audiences that distracts from their musical impact. My hope is that audiences around the world will grow more comfortable with women on the podium with every passing year, and can therefore focus exclusively on the conductors’ musical leadership rather than their gender. In Dallas, I felt that the audience for the 2016 final concert was already much more at ease with a concert that included six women conductors than they were in the 2015 final concert; by the way, this is a larger number of women conductors than they will see in an entire decade at most major symphonies or opera companies.
Concerns about balancing motherhood with the travel demands of being a top-tier conductor. Approximately half of this year’s group had children of their own, and were already managing the challenges of motherhood and the punishing travel schedule conducting careers often require. Several female faculty members provided personal insights into how they had managed to strike at least some balance in this area, but all agreed that it is a valid and important concern with no easy or universal solutions.
Employment discrimination is still a major factor in many counties. This year’s group included conductors from the U.S., Taiwan, Greece, New Zealand, France, and Romania. I was stunned to learn that more than one conductor had been removed from an important position because she was expecting a child. While labor laws protect women from this type of overt discrimination in the United States, these protections are not universal, and sadly give Board members and institutions in many countries one more avenue to block the progress of talented women.
Sexual harassment of women conductors remains a major and distressing problem, in all geographies. Perhaps most disheartening to me was the number of times the issue of overt harassment of women conductors by male conductors and colleagues was mentioned over the course of the residency. In a social event on the second day of the program, more than half of the group brought up this issue with me as a specific area of concern. Our faculty offered a variety of personal experiences and perspectives to offer reassurance and advice in this area, but, clearly, sexual harassment remains a major issue in the classical music field.
The overall attitude of this year’s group was focused, ambitious, and realistic, and all the Institute “Fellows” were eager to learn more about the business side of the Music Director’s role (in particular, the Board relationship). One important element of TDO’s program is an annual reunion for the conductors, where they can continue to develop their skills on the podium, and to learn more about the music business and career management. For the 2017 reunion, we will bring back both the 2015 and 2016 conductor “classes” for a joint reunion, so that the conductors can meet one another, and continue to develop their network. We will continue to expand these reunions on a five-year rolling basis, building up to an invitation list of 30 in the fifth and subsequent years. Big enough to be useful, yet small enough to remain personal.
In closing, I wanted to thank Hart Institute Program Manager David Lomeli, and Planning Manager Meredith Wallace, and all of the rest of the TDO staff. These individuals worked extremely hard to prepare for the arrival of the conductors and observers, and managed the complex logistics and schedule very smoothly throughout. Several of my leadership team also led sessions in the program, and I will describe their contributions in next month’s column. I personally found the two weeks of meetings with faculty, conductors and observers incredibly stimulating, and it made me even more secure in my belief that a program of this kind is an important addition to the opera field. While I was dismayed to learn further specifics about the challenges for women conductors, especially around ongoing employment discrimination and sexual harassment, I remain optimistic that the classical music field will continue to develop opportunities for women conductors, and am very proud of TDO’s 20-year commitment to this important task. I encourage readers to log onto TDO’s website in late January to watch streaming video of this group of extremely talented young conductors—who just happen to be women.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Sunday of each month in TheaterJones.com.
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