Dallas — As I described in last month’s column, The Dallas Opera hosted the second residency of the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors between Nov. 27 and Dec. 10, 2016.
For readers unfamiliar with this unique program, the Hart Institute provides 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 nationalities from across the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. Institute Manager David Lomeli did an outstanding job of managing the application process, and stimulating interest in the program, so that we had the best possible pool of applicants. The Institute was the subject of a national news story last week on PBS NewsHour entitled “Bringing Women Conductors to the Front of the Orchestra” (which you can also watch below).
If there are any remaining skeptics regarding the need for this program (and there still are some, sadly), consider this statistic: of the top 30 largest budget symphonies and opera companies in America (combined), only one has a female Music Director. Or, if you prefer to read first-hand some of bias women face as conductors, consider this exchange on PBS.org, in which the individual posting his comment makes the remarkable assertion that hiring a women conductor will drive any major orchestra into bankruptcy. The exchange reads, in part:
“Nooooooooooooooooooooooo!! And I can assure you audiences will not accept female conductors as anything more than a novelty. Don't believe me? Just go to a concert conducted by a woman...you won't have problems getting a ticket!!”
Another viewer replies, “Sexists can stay home. That will leave more seats for the rest of us!” However, the source of the original comment doubles down in his response: “Good luck baby. You think you are going to pay for a major orchestra that way—good luck. USA orchestras are barely making (it) today and rely on handouts from the 1 percenters. You would and NOW will drive them into bankruptcy.”
Returning to the Dallas conducting institute, the inaugural residency of the Hart Institute for Women conductors 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 in the second year to two full weeks, with a concert of opera overtures, arias and vocal ensembles halfway through the residency, as well as a final concert at the celebratory conclusion of the Institute.
As before, the institute was oriented around both “hands-on” conducting experience and superb 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.
Last month’s posting described the conducting elements of this year’s residency, and this month’s article will cover the business and career management curriculum in more detail. None of the conductors were surprised that the Institute offered practical, hands-on experience guided by a master conducting coach; after all, what do you expect during a conducting residency? However, they were, admittedly, more intrigued and a little surprised by the business and career management aspects of the curriculum, which included a dozen sessions organized into four broad categories: career management, effective leadership, personal branding, and working with the media. Within the parameters of a column such as this, I can’t provide the entire career history of the impressive faculty, but have made brief comments regarding their backgrounds.
1. The Manager’s Role in a Successful Conducting Career (Alec Treuhaft, retired Senior Vice President of IMG Artists). This session described how an artist Manager can help—or hinder—a career, including building a relationship with a manager, ensuring you are getting the support you need, providing feedback to the manager, and when it’s time to find a new manager. The majority of conductors participating in the program did not yet have managers, so this segment was of particular interest and relevance.
2. Approaches to Successful Interviewing (Paul Hsun-Ling Chou, Co-Managing Partner of Korn Ferry’s Global Education Practice, and concert violinist). In his seminar, Paul Chou described 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. Many of the conductors had limited experience as candidates in searches for high level positions, and since most had their eye on becoming a Music Director one day they found this session very helpful.
3. Breaking through the Glass Ceiling in the Opera World (Zizi Mueller, former President of Boosey & Hawkes). Ms. Mueller offered her personal perspective on challenges facing women executives in the classical music and opera world, and some suggested strategies for overcoming them. As I noted in last month’s column, many of this year’s program participants had faced overt barriers of sexism and harassment in their careers, and they appreciated the opportunity to share perspectives with a successful executive.
4. Effective Leadership Styles (Marc Scorca, President and CEO of OPERA America). Marc Scorca led a stimulating interactive session on qualities of effective leaders, and a discussion of what adaptations, if any, are required for women to achieve top musical and leadership positions.
5. Leadership Lessons from a Board Perspective (Carol Lazier, Philanthropist and President of the Board, San Diego Opera). Carol Lazier led the highly successful return of the San Diego Opera as Board President following its unexpected decision to close in spring of 2014. In her session, she described 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.
6. Leadership Opportunities and Challenges for Women in the Performing Arts (Deborah Sandler, General Director of Kansas City Lyric Opera and Chair, Women’s Opera Network). Deborah Sandler offered detailed 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 in opera and other performing arts disciplines such as theater directors.
7. Developing and Communicating Your Personal Brand (Keith Cerny). This is one of my favorite parts of the program, and I signed myself up to lead this part of the curriculum in both residencies. Standing out in your field and making yourself known to key decision makers is extremely important to foster a successful career trajectory—and a clear, concise personal brand is vital. In this session, participants self-identified the three most important elements of her personal brand, in preparation for the mock media interviews by TDO’s outstanding Director of Media and PR, Suzanne Calvin. To me, it was notable that some conductors had a very clear idea of the elements they wanted to communicate in their personal brands, and some did not. As the old saying goes, if you don’t know where you want to go, you aren’t likely to get there.
8. Concert Attire Choices for Women Conductors (Rhonda Sargent-Chambers, Fashion Consultant). Following the final concert of the 2015 Institute, I had many comments and questions from Board and audience members about the conductors’ diverse choices in concert attire. This session took a very non-judgmental stance about fashion choices, focusing instead on describing options for concert attire, including clothes, shoes, hair styles, accessories, and makeup. In my own comments in the session, I focused on the need for conductors to make choices that were comfortable for them and expressed their personal style, but also avoided visual distractions that might interfere with their communication with the orchestra. (For example, long flowing sleeves on a blouse may look great, but the ripples in the fabric of a conductor’s arm may actually make it harder for even a motivated player to follow the beat. Ditto for long, dangling earrings). Initially, I sensed some polite skepticism from some of the conductors and observers about the need for this segment of the program, but I was enthusiastic about adding it in the second residency based on audience and participant feedback during the first year.
By the end of the second residency, the conductors were requesting much more feedback in this area, rather than less.
Working with the Media
9. Working Effectively with the Media, Including Mock Interviews and Debrief (Suzanne Calvin, Director of Media and PR, The Dallas Opera). Suzanne Calvin offered 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 one’s advantage. She also led a series of mock interviews of the conductors, including some “tough questions,” to give the conductors the confidence to deal with the unexpected while staying focused, collected, and “on message. These mock interviews took place in front of the entire group, and Suzanne encouraged the conductors to provide their feedback on whether or not each participant conveyed her personal brand effectively.
The 2016 residency attracted great donor and patron interest this year, and has stimulated a rich discussion in the field about women conductors and potential barriers to their success. As we did for the 2015 conductors, we have provided streaming video of the six conductors from the final 2016 concert on TDO’s website. Some clips from the 2016 final concert are already live, and we will continue to add additional clips in the coming days so that the six conductors from 2016 are able to share all of the material they performed. Readers who want to see for themselves can go to TDO’s website for the Hart Institute at http://dallasopera.org/learn/womens-conducting-institute/.
We will begin processing applications in late February for the 2017 Institute, so please spread the word about this unique program! We encourage qualified conductors from a wide range of backgrounds to apply for the third Institute, including vocal coaches, orchestra conductors, singers and solo instrumentalists, orchestral musicians, and even composers. Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement, and I are already looking forward to reviewing this year’s applications in preparation for our final selections.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Friday of each month in TheaterJones.com. (Note: As of Feb. 2017, it will run on Fridays.)
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