Dallas — The recent mid-term election expanded the number of women in Congress, making it the best “Year of the Woman,” politically speaking, yet. Conversations about women in another field that has been male-dominated—classical music, especially where conductors and composer are concerned—have been ramping up in recent years, too. At least locally. A big part of that is thanks to the Dallas Opera’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, which debuted four years ago and is dedicated to breaching the glass podium. While there have always been a handful of working women conductors, only a dedicated opera buff can name even a few. The Dallas Opera aims to change that.
(Also see the Dallas Symphony's new commitment to commissioning works by women composers.)
For the last four years, TDO has welcomed a cadre of female conductors, who stand at the beginning of international careers, as well as an additional group of talented auditors. The workshop utilized The Dallas Opera’s orchestra and some talented young singers. All of this culminates in a “graduation” concert that is open to the public.
On Saturday, Nov. 10, this year’s six participants took turns conducting the singers in a series of arias, ensembles, and operatic orchestral selections. That alone was a treat for the audience who rarely get to hear such a concert, especially with such a fine orchestra. However, we were there to see the conductors and they certainly impressed.
Women didn’t start showing up as players in the world’s orchestras until 1913. Of course, there were women-only orchestras they could play in, but these were more of novelty and weren’t considered serious organizations by the gate-keepers of the time. Once women started to trickle into the orchestras as players, it soon became a flood thanks to the innovation of blind (behind a screen) auditions. Now, women make up about 50 percent of the players in most major orchestras.
We are in an era of polished baton technique. This is mostly created by conductors teaching in university degree programs with a talented group, much like these participants, looking to them for wisdom. Suddenly, they had to justify every little motion. Early on, they realized that this required a reexamination of everything they do. Students started to ask, “why did you make that gesture” and they needed an answer to offer other than the flaccid “it felt right.” The level of conductorial baton technique immediately started to rise. But the dark side soon appeared with a crop of highly choreographed conductors with doctoral degrees, divided into opposing camps: the Extravagants and the Minimals. The Hand Mirrorists show up on both sides.
This year’s Hart Institute concert opened with Sonia Ben-Santamaria's (France) energetic rendition of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale Overture. Conducting without a baton, she tended to mirror her hands and bounce on her feet. However, she did a fine job musically with all of the mood changes in this potpourri overture. Her work in the remainder of the program was similar, except for an arresting performance of a Handel aria, beautifully sung by countertenor Ryan Belongie. The Italianate tenor Angel Vargas sang an impassioned rendition of an aria from Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. A Russian-speaking audience member didn’t much like Vargas’ idea of how the language is spoken.
Priscilla Bomfim (Brazil) led the Verdi baritone Jeff Byrnes in a tutta forza rendition of the big Rigoletto aria, “Cortigano.” She wasn’t always on top of the text but gave the singer the underpinning he required. She did a better job with Weber’s Euryanthe Overture.
Maria Sensi-Sellner (U.S.A.) was right with the singers, baritone Jeff Byrnes and bass William Meinert, in a duet from Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Arias from Benjamin Britten’s superlative operas are so closely imbedded in the score that they rarely work as excerpts. Sensi-Sellner and soprano Toni Marie Palmertree gave Britten’s aria from Peter Grimes a musically correct reading that didn’t quite work.
Audrey Saint-Gil (France/U.S.A.) took on the overture from Smetana's Bartered Bride Overture and gave it a fine performance. This overture has fallen out of favor of late. In the past, it graced more programs than it does now and its renaissance on programs would be most welcome. She did an equally fine job as she led soprano Gino Perregrino in a moving rendition of the aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
Sarah Penicka-Smith (Australia) gets kudos for her performance of the big duet that ends the first act of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Puccini is notoriously difficult to conduct because he raises rubato to a new level that gives the singers a .007 designation. Penicka-Smith allowed Palmertree and Vargas to go their own way and the result was a moving performance. Another gold star goes to Vargas, who sang the ending as written rather than taking the high “C” along with the soprano.
Emily Senturia (U.S.A.) gave a rushed reading of Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila Overture. It was exciting, but the orchestra had trouble keeping up with her. She got the plum assignment of closing the concert with the glorious final trio from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. The problem with her performance is that she forgot about the musical director part of the job. She allowed the trio of singers to oversing the entire selection, blunting its impact.
What a tremendous experience the Hart Institute is.