Alsop working with conductor Tianyi Lu.EXPAND
Alsop working with conductor Tianyi Lu.
courtesy Dallas Opera

Creating Space: The Dallas Opera’s Institute for Women Conductors Passes the Baton

Maestra Marin Alsop is sitting near the harpist. She’s leaning back with her index finger resting across her cheek, observing the interaction between conductor Chaowen Ting and the orchestra. You can tell she wants more than she’s getting from this overture. Alsop gestures a cutoff and walks toward the podium.

“Do you need those glasses?” she asks Ting.

“Well, I’m legally blind without them,” Ting responds.

“Perfect,” says Alsop. “I want you to take them off and set them down. And this time, put your hands behind your back. Conduct the piece using just your face.”

Ting doesn’t buckle despite her proximity to Maestra Alsop, an international rock star of the trade who is also the first woman to helm a major American orchestra. In fact, Ting appears more determined in spite of it, ripping through Mozart’s "Idomeneo" with wild-eyed enthusiasm. She whips her head around in the direction of the sound, stretching and shrinking her facial features to grow or diminish its build. The orchestra follows suit, matching its energy to that of its human baton.

When finished, there’s a silent moment. Then, the room breaks into applause. The younger conductor looked transformed. Stronger. Freer, even.

This masterclass is a part of The Dallas Opera’s initiative, The Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors. One of only three freestanding programs worldwide designed to add gender balance to the podium, this two-week immersive environment is the only one on the globe with an exclusive focus on opera music. In its second year, the project is a manifestation of TDO’s Kern Wildenthal general director and CEO, Keith Cerny, and their determined vision to see more women in classical music’s highest and most respected roles.

The program allows for 10 women to be selected out of more than 150 applicants. They’re flown in, put up and booked in workshops all day, each day. Six are performing and four observing, and all are treated to facetime and education with Alsop, as well as Italian powerhouse conductor Carlo Montanaro, Dallas Opera’s own principal guest conductor Nicole Paiement (The Lighthouse, Everest, Death and the Powers), and established English conductors Alice Farnham and Renato Balsadonna, plus seminars on leadership and personal branding. Maybe most important of all, they’re provided with an invaluable tool: a major opera orchestra to practice on.

While the gender compositions of orchestras have improved since the '70s and '80s, as blind auditions were introduced (where musicians audition behind a screen), those very top roles where an artistic vision is seen through — conducting and composing — are still almost always given to men.

Cerny and The Dallas Opera want to create space, to add more points of view and perspectives to the podium, and in turn, the programming of opera houses worldwide. Their institute culminates in a live performance on Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Winspear Opera House. That’s where you can see six women play their orchestras live, in Dallas’ formal opera house.

The Observer spoke with Maestra Alsop the day after her masterclass. In addition to being music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, she also guest conducts for some of the world’s most esteemed orchestras; is director of the Graduate Conducting Program at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins; is active in outreach, launching programs in Baltimore for children and amateur adult performers; and is a frequent contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition.

She also runs her own fellowship program for women conductors called the Taki Concordia, a program partially funded by her own MacArthur fellowship grant. There’s more, but you get the idea: She’s a total badass.

Still I had to know: Where did she come up with that idea to make Ting pogo around, conducting blindly, without the use of her arms?

“It just seemed in the moment that it might free her,” says Alsop, thinking back. “You know, I try things like that.”

She tells me about the time she put a paper bag over the head of a student at the Peabody Institute. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going to kill him by accident,’” she jokes. But you know what? It worked.

What’s tough to grasp until watching accomplished conductors like Alsop and Montanaro and Paiement work with their students is how large a role the subconscious plays in conducting. For Alsop, freeing up those mental barricades directly lessens the student’s need to modulate and temper her response. Once that’s removed, the conductor can really cut loose and express herself through her room’s music.

“And the issues that we discussed yesterday are issues that will crop up in other places in their lives; even in their interpersonal relationships. The things I’m saying are not a surprise to them,” explains Alsop. “Maybe some of the technical things … but the fundamental issue of being free. Looking at people. Connecting. Those are issues we are struggling with as human beings. I find it quite fascinating: the psychological component to it.”

For women, that psychological component isn’t a closed circuit within their orchestral interaction. There’s also an audience watching them, and a theory of Alsop’s is that a lot of audiences are unsure how to process that new experience. Women on podiums are extremely rare, both historically and in contemporary opera houses and music halls.

“Conducting is a metaphor for who we are, and our field is a little microcosm of the broader society … and the role of women in our society, and of women in the ultimate authority role. This is essentially what conducting is: being the boss.

“So I think that it’s a very complicated issue, but I think one of the factors that people don’t speak about is the comfort level of people seeing women in these roles. I think the more we see women in these roles, the more comfortable we become as a society.”

Another interesting angle here is the focus on opera music. Opera’s golden oldies can be — well — kinda lousy for women. Many, when done traditionally, just don’t hold up to our current standards for acceptable representations of gender and minorities. But having good artistic control, even of an older piece of music, can shift empowerment within a storyline. (A Carmen can be powerful and empowered, or she can be passed around.)

Allowing more perspectives to guide the baton can only improve the ways we tell those old tales.

But within the world of conducting at large, bias is constantly being revealed.

In 2013, a flurry of comments erupted that showed how deeply nested contemporary classical music is in the old world of thinking. Young Russian maestro Vasily Petrenko told an interviewer that musicians, “react better when they have a man in front of them.” He added, “A sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift toward something else.”

Soon after, a composer and director of the Paris Conservatory of Music and Dance said this on French radio: “Sometimes women are discouraged by the very physical aspect. Conducting, taking a plane, taking another plane, conducting again.”

Lumping onto those sentiments came an interview by Alsop’s Baltimore predecessor, conductor Yuri Temirkanov, in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. It was found and translated by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross. Here’s a quick excerpt.

Q.: In your opinion, could a woman conduct?
A.: In my view, no.

Q.: Why not?!
A.: I don’t know if it’s God’s will, or nature’s, that women give birth and men do not. That’s something that no one takes offense at. But if you say that a woman can’t conduct, then everyone’s offended. As Marx said, in response to the question, “What’s your favorite virtue in a woman?”—“Weakness.” And this is correct. The important thing is, a woman should be beautiful, likable, attractive. Musicians will look at her and be distracted from the music!

(It goes on. But you get the gist, right?)

So why does that matter? While blind auditions can give balance to unperceived hiring bias, so much of landing conducting gigs is intimately linked with opportunity. Mentorship. Someone taking a chance on an unknown kid.

This is part of what makes The Dallas Opera’s effort so valuable. This institute opens doors and helps the world’s most talented women make connections within their field while refining their practice. TDO is even committed to bringing back some alumni for guest conducting and assistant conducting roles in the future.

Hopefully through the ongoing efforts like the Institute for Women Conductors and Alsop’s Taki Concordia fellowship, we’ll not only grow accustomed to seeing women on podiums, we’ll begin to notice when they’re absent.

“Just seeing more women [conducting] will change the paradigm, ultimately,” assures Alsop. “I’m confident of this.”

Join the Institute for Women Conductors at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night at the Winspear Opera House. Tickets are $10. Visit dallasopera.org. This year’s participants are: Elizabeth Askren, Mihaela Cesa-Goje, Alexandra Cravero, Tianyi Lu, Chaowen Ting and Zoe Zeniodi.

Want even more? Also on Saturday you can watch the Met’s simulcast of L’amour De Loin, when for the first time since 1903, the famous house performs a work composed by a woman. It screens at 11:55 a.m. at AMC Northpark in Dallas and AMC Village on the Parkway 9.

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