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Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera

Dallas Opera Putting More Women On The Podium

by Anne Bothwell 17 Nov 2017 10:39 PM

Classical music has a problem hiring women leaders. Across the country, there are almost no female conductors leading major orchestras. But a residency program in Dallas is trying to change this – and it’s having some success.

On Saturday, the Dallas Opera presents an evening with the Hart Institute residents, a rare opportunity to see six women conductors leading the Opera’s orchestra. For details, click here.

Today in State of the Arts, I sat down with Keith Cerny, CEO of  Dallas Opera, to  talk about the international impact of the Hart Institute.

Here’s a transcript of our conversation:

It just seems weird to me – that in 2017 – there’s a line of work that is pretty much closed to women. What is it about classical music? You’ve been tracking practices, where’s the disconnect?

What we see in the field is that as you look down this pyramid, there are a lot of women – particularly in executive leadership roles – at small opera companies and even on the musical side. But as the organizations sort of rise to the top of the pyramid, it becomes a very un-level situation.

Of the top nine opera companies in America, which includes Dallas Opera, none of them are led by a woman. None of them have a women music director. And we’re unique because we have a principal guest conductor Nicole Paiement. I hired her a couple years ago.

So this is all very important, because one of the arguments that you hear around [the industry] is that one of the reasons why there are no women at the top is because there’s no pipeline. The statistics completely say otherwise though.

Lina Gonzalez-Granados (Colombia) conducts. Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera

Lina Gonzalez-Granados (Colombia) conducts.
Photo: Karen Almond

You have started the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors. And you’re bringing in women from all over the world. What will they be doing? 

The program is a two-weeks residency, but really that’s only the beginning of a five-year journey that includes a series of reunions and quarterly update calls with the conductors. The conductors are actually selected in part for their willingness to help one another. That’s because one of the things we noticed in the field is that women often feel very isolated – particularly when they’re coming from different countries. The goals of the program are to help these women climb the latter in the musical field.

We’ve had a couple of big successes and I would like to mention them quickly. One of our alumnae – Lidiya Yankovskaya – was appointed to the music director of  Chicago Opera Theater this summer. And this is a really major event in the field. Out of the the top 62 opera companies in America, not one of them had a woman director until now.

Chicago Opera Theater's Lidiya Yankovskaya. Photo: Chicago Opera Theater

Chicago Opera Theater’s Lidiya Yankovskaya.
Photo: Chicago Opera Theater

I was reading some observations that you made after the first year of the program, and you were very pleased to see how confident so many of these women were. But you noticed one thing: when they were conducting, they were often apologizing to the orchestra. 

This was something that came up during the first year of the program. And at the time, five of the six conductors would apologize to the orchestra before asking for what they wanted from the musicians. They would say things like, ‘I’m very sorry, but would the oboe player play a little louder?’ or ‘I apologize, but could I have more intensity from the violins?’ And the point that I made to them then and that I’ve made to the classes since, is that there’s no need to apologize.

I mean you want to show great respect for the orchestra and you equally don’t want to be rude to the orchestra, but there’s no need to apologize. It may seem like a small point, but when you’re leading an organization there’s no need to deposition yourself from the start. You’re totally expected and entitled and deserve to be able to ask for what you’re looking for.

So what are the chances that the Dallas Opera will have a female conductor one day?

Well, we have Nicole Paiement (guest conductor). I hired her in 2012 to conduct a contemporary opera by Peter Maxwell Davies called “The Lighthouse.” And that was in addition to our regular season.

I brought her back in  2014 to conduct Tod Machover‘s robot opera “Death and the Powers.” What was notable about that performance was that it was the first time in a full 40 years that we had a woman conductor on the podium. The previous time was Sarah Caldwell in 1974. And Nicole has had a whole string of successes with us. In fact, she’ll be conducting another contemporary opera with us in the spring of 2019.

Anne: I’d still like to know what the chances are that Dallas Opera will actually have a full-time lead conductor that’s a woman?

Well, we have a conductor now. And Emmanuel Villaume is under contract until 2022. But we’ll see where life takes us.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.