How The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute Is Training Up A New Generation Of Female Conductors

When it comes to glass ceilings, politics isn’t the only area where women are still heavily underrepresented. In the classical music world, it is still a very rare sight to see a female conductor, especially at some of the most notable orchestras and opera companies. In the US, across all 800 orchestras, men make up 80% of conductors, according to figures from 2013.

Today there are only 2 women leading major orchestras – JoAnn Falletta at the Buffalo Symphony, and Marin Alsop at the Baltimore Symphony. Marin has become quite a renowned name in the conducting world and for good reason.

She broke a major barrier in 2014 when she became the first woman ever to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, a 118-year-old London concert that marks the end of the city’s eight-week summer season of classical music. But she doesn’t want to be the lone female at the top, and has been involved in an exciting initiative to foster a new generation of female talent.

Marin was part of the conducting faculty for The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Female Conductors‘ annual program in the fall which selects a small group of up-and-coming conductors from around the world, and teaches them the ins and outs of the industry while also giving them hands-on experience in front of the Dallas Opera Orchestra.

The program was initially launched in 2015 under the leadership of Dallas Opera general director and CEO Keith Cerny, who told he had witnessed some of the barriers women were facing in the industry. He told reporter Scott Cantrell he was excited to be doing this program especially right now as we are witnessing an important cultural moment where a number of high-profile men are being ousted from their jobs for sexual assault allegations and abusing their power over women.

“There’s a lot of discussion in the media about opportunities for women and some of the barriers to them, and we’re very proud that we’re doing our part for classical music,” he said.

Six applicants were selected from a total of 161 who applied, and came from Australia, Brazil, Colombia, France, Poland and the US to participate in the two week program in November. Along with the conductors, there were 4 observers, and 4 participants in a new orchestra administrators program.

Along with the experience of conducting the orchestra for actual performances, the participants discuss leadership styles and also get media training to know the importance of cultivating their own brand. There are also conversations about how leadership styles differ among genders, which seems to be a very important aspect of wider discussions about women in leadership roles. When asked her views on the state of women in the classical music industry, Marin Alsop says it goes beyond just plain old discrimination. It is a matter of “comfort”.

“We as a society are not comfortable with women in leadership roles. This is not limited to conducting. Our little conducting world is a microcosm of larger society,” she said.

One only has to recall many of the 2016 Presidential election analyses to understand how the idea of a female Commander In Chief was a source of great discomfort for many, including other women (white women who voted overwhelmingly cast their ballot for Trump). Sexism played a major role in the election and it certainly made many of us reassess what has been lurking under the slow gender equality gains of the past decade.

As with political conversations post-election pointing to the need for a more diverse leadership in government at all levels, Marin says the same is needed in the music world, and sees the Dallas Opera’s program as a great stepping stone toward achieving this.

“Not only does it create opportunities for women to try things and experiment and get feedback from musicians, but it also draws public attention to the concept of women in leadership roles. It’s the same discussion I want to have about race. Why are minorities so poorly represented on the podium?” she said.

She’s not wrong there. We recently shared the story of Europe’s first black and minority ethnic orchestra called Chineke!, founded by a well-known London-based musician, as a way to disrupt the classical music status quo and give representation to more diverse musicians.

The Hart Institute for Female Conductors already has already proved to be extremely valuable. In the Opera world, there is currently only 1 female music director in the top 50 American opera companies – Chicago Opera Theater’s Lidiya Yankovskaya, who came up through the Dallas Opera’s program, as reports. As long as the program continues, there is no doubt she will be joined by others.

Marin Alsop certainly doesn’t enjoy being a female anomaly in the conducting world and looks forward to the day when being the first isn’t newsworthy.

“It’s a privilege to be the first woman, but I’m really sick of it. I want company. I want to see the second woman and the third woman. I want to see the one-hundredth woman,” she told NBC.

One of the women who took part in the orchestra administrators program was Jennifer Rivera, who is the Assistant Director of Development at Long Beach Opera and a two-time Grammy nominee. She expressed how excited she was participating in the program, going from a career as a singer to an administrator and learning the ropes.

“It’s interesting transitioning into an office environment because there are different expectations for how women should act or comport themselves and I think there are different expectations for women in general, especially for women in leadership roles,” she told NBC.

She spoke about Marin Alsop’s advice about empathy being an important part of leadership as a conductor, expressing how feminine traits can be seen as an advantage.

“As women, we are expected and taught to be more empathetic. So utilizing that quality we already societally have imposed and turning it around and making it an asset for ourselves and our leadership is a really effective idea,” she said.

In a PBS special news report on the Hart Institute Initiative back in January, Keith Cerny says the Dallas Opera has made a 20 year commitment to the program, and has a very specific view of how he will judge it as a success in the future.

“It would be terrific to think that, 20 years from now, this whole issue will have gone away, and men and women will be equally evaluated for positions on the podium,” he told PBS reporter Jeffrey Brown.

One of the female conductors who previously took part in the two-week program says the initiative does more than equip the women with the right skills and mentorship they need for a career in conducting.

“It’s a safe space for us to treat some of those issues, some of which are just, you know, common, everyday things, like questions that all conductors have to face. And then there are some issues to explore that may pertain to women. The fact that the numbers are rather low in positions of directorship in opera, why is that? Can we talk about that?” said Elizabeth Askren.

What the Dallas Opera is offering through the Hart Institute is clearly more than just a career opportunity for these women. It is a movement disrupting an industry that is well overdue for some diversity and change. And just like Marin Alsop expressing not wanting to be the lone woman at the top of her field, here’s hoping the Hart Institute won’t be the only organization looking to foster a new generation of female talent in the classical music world.







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  1. Pingback: Meet The Musician Who Founded An Association To Elevate The Work Of Female Iranian Composers - GirlTalkHQ

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