The Maestra Myth

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This weekend, New York experiences one of those rare moments of prescient timing: While Anne Manson leads the US premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Kommilitonen! at Juilliard, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra maestra Marin Alsop conducts her players and a cast of operatic soloists in Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher at Carnegie Hall. On some weekends, that’s two more female conductors than one normally sees.

Both operas feature revolutionary characters—from Davies’s Third Reich refusenik Sophie Scholl to Honegger’s French tween crusader—but the real revolution these coinciding performances represent is one that’s taken place on the podium and in the pit.

The topic of female conductors, especially in opera, has had no shortage of discussions in recent years. When Alsop took the helm of the BSO, she became the first woman to hold such a position with a major American orchestra. The appointment was met with initial resistance from the orchestra members, who felt that they had been left out of the greater decision-making process (differences have since been smoothed over), but outside of the Charm City institution, others hailed it as a major step for conductors in possession of two X-chromosomes—with the occasional reservation.

“I can’t help but feel frustrated about the continuing shortage of prominent female conductors,” wrote San Diego Union-Tribune classical critic Valerie Scher in 2005. “Why is it that in our supposedly enlightened age, when so many gender barriers have been broken, female conductors still have difficulty reaching the top of the profession? What needs to change in order for that to happen?”

Other journalists, like The Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, provided alternative insights: “Conducting, one might well think, is fundamentally a sadomasochistic ritual involving either virile young male turks whipping orchestras into frenzies with tapering batons of birch and maple, or sage old men waving their penis substitutes in front of a bunch of instrument-playing stiffs in irksome collars, before jetting to the other side of the world to do exactly the same thing in another cultural capital,” Jeffries wrote, tongue planted firmly in cheek, in 2005. “Viewed thus, conducting is an unsuitable job for a woman, particularly one who, like [Alsop], has childcare responsibilities.”

Six years later, has much changed? Or, if the fact that two women on prestigious podiums in New York this weekend is still an anomaly is any indication, are we still in a stage of arrested development?

Though the Met saw its first female conductors rather early on when Sarah Caldwell led a performance of La Traviata in 1976, just five years after conductor Eve Queler formed the Opera Orchestra of New York, the last decade has been filled with a jarring number of firsts globally: Baroque beauty Emmanuelle Haïm became the first woman to conduct at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2007, Chinese maestra Xian Zhang became Italy’s first female music director when she took over Milan’s Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra, and earlier this year Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki broke the bonds of La Scala’s 232-year-old boys’ club. Comparatively, Manson’s debut on the Salzburg Festival’s podium in 1994, the first for a woman, seems rather antiquated.

New music and new operas seem to indicate a more gender-blind territory. “I think generally living composers are really grateful to have their music played,” said Manson in a New Canon chat on Q2 Music last Friday (she conducted the world premiere recording of Philip Glass’s Orphée, released on Orange Mountain Music last year). “I don't think they are at all concerned whether the conductor is a man or a woman.”

There may be different concerns at play among older generations of music fans, but perhaps more overwhelming now isn’t the pushback a female conductor receives, but the pushback she gives towards the topic of gender politics at the podium.

“I don't really want to dwell on it too much, because it really doesn't mean anything,” Alsop told CNN in 2007. “Peoples’ need to focus on the fact that I'm a woman [is] really entirely irrelevant to what I do."

In last week’s New Canon chat, Manson agreed. “I wish there was not so much emphasis placed on this subject. I'm afraid I often run out of things to say about it!” she said, after noting. “It's very difficult to evaluate the impact of being a woman in this profession. Having always been one, it's hard for me to know whether I would be perceived differently or hired more frequently, or at a higher level, if I were exactly as I am in terms of ability, but a man.”

Manson also expressed surprise about there being no female music directors of any major opera company in this country. Perhaps that’s the next hurdle to clear, hopefully through talent over tokenism.

Sound off: Is gender relevant to the podium? Are we entering an age of gender-blind musical politics, or is there still much more work to be done? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.