A Maestro Need Not be a Mister

Advertisement / Publicité

The treatment of female conductors is
unfair, counterproductive
and must stop

There was a woman conducting at English National
Opera last
. Nothing unusual about that. There are now 64
in the United States with female music directors. The
Berlin Philharmonic,
which 17 years ago vehemently resisted Herbert
von Karajan’s attempt
to introduce a female clarinettist, has quietly
accepted Graziella
Contratto as assistant conductor. Both of London’s
opera houses
engaged women as music directors during the past decade
and Simone
Young has lately taken charge of Opera

On paper, it all looks admirably equitable.
Prejudice is a
thing of the past and any girl with a steady beat and
a head for
musical heights stands just as much chance of succeeding
as the
next likely lad.

But at the summit of this sensitive
occupation little has changed.
No world-class symphony orchestra has
yielded its top spot to
a woman. Of America’s 64 equal-opportunity
ensembles, one-third
are amateur or college bands and the rest are
remote or Midwestern.

Both women who were thrust into
London’s opera pits rapidly
came to grief. Sian Edwards endured such
distress at English National
Opera that now, five years later, she
cannot bring herself to
discuss it in public. When Edwards took up
the post in 1993, she
was a 34-year-old with old-school Russian
training and glowing
testimonials from Bernard Haitink and Michael
Tippett. Her St
Petersburg teacher, Ilya Musin, told me that she was
one of the
brightest prospects he had seen.

She had, however,
the misfortune of joining a weak new management,
callow and choleric,
which gave her little support, and more blame
than she deserved for
productions gone wrong. In November 1995,
she abruptly resigned,
citing “internal ENO reasons”
rather than the usual
“personal” grounds.

It has taken five years of
freelance grind to rebuild her European
career to the point where she
is a contender. Last month she returned
to ENO for the first time to
conduct a penitent orchestra, eager
to bury old

Andrea Quinn escaped faster and fitter from Covent
Quinn, 35, became music director of the Royal Ballet two
ago, after an impressive spell with the London Philharmonic
Orchestra. She promised to inject new music into dance
and make the ROH orchestra play better on ballet

The first sign of trouble came at the opening gala of
the new
house last December, which she delegated to a member of her
staff. The reasons given were that Quinn was saving herself
the full-length ballets, but her relations with the orchestra
been cruelly impaired.

Weeks earlier, a rehearsal of the
Ashley Page ballet “Hidden
Variables” had broken down amid
accusations that she had
not mastered Colin Matthews’ score. Quinn
admitted that she was
not fully prepared; she apologised to the
musicians, reduced her
schedule and returned to give admired
performances of Manon and
a Diaghilev tribute.

That would
have been the end of the matter had she been a man.
There is no
shortage of male conductors who turn up with a half-read
score and
get away with a self-deprecating grin and a round of
drinks. But with
a female conductor, orchestras are less tolerant.

anti-Quinn poison seeped from the ROH ranks, filling
the pens of some
hostile critics. The Royal Ballet bosses and
dancers backed her to
the hilt, but the ROH management, which
runs the orchestra refused to
get involved. In February Quinn
decided to quit. She was begged to
keep it quiet for fear of de-stabilizing
the broken rocking-horse
that is the English national opera house.

New York City
Ballet promptly reoffered her its baton, which
she had previously
declined. Quinn, who has refrained from airing
her ROH miseries,
persuaded her physician husband and two daughters
that life might be
sweeter in Manhattan. When news of her transfer
was released to the
New York Times, the ROH spun her departure
as a smart career move,
covering up its own failure to combat
sex discrimination. Quinn made
her debut at ENO June 28, conducting
the choreographer Mark Morris’s
staging of operas by Purcell and
Virgil Thomson.

The unequal
treatment of women on the podium is a running scandal.
The American
conductor Anne Manson, sometime assistant to Claudio
Abbado, formed
the Mecklenburgh Opera in London a decade ago to
perform modern and
esoteric chamber works. Her agent tried for
eight years to get her a
date with one of the big opera houses.
The response was: “We’ve
already got a woman doing something,
thank you.” Manson has
since returned home, to conduct the
Kansas City Symphony

The most visible of the ascendant Americans is
former Leonard
Bernstein pupil Marin Alsop, who directs the Colorado
and a chamber orchestra in New York. She has also been
principal guest conductor of the Royal Scottish National
and is reaping credit for its excellent recordings on

Whether Alsop can break through the glass ceiling to a
post with a metropolitan orchestra or opera house is barely
of conjecture. In present conditions, the odds are stacked
any woman reaching the top.

Musicians and managers
argue, with some validity, that none
of the female aspirants
possesses the technique of a Chailly,
the charisma of a Rattle, the
energy of a Gergiev, the brain of
a Barenboim or the passion of a
Jansons. Several of the women
are quick to talk themselves down
declaring, without being asked
that they are slow learners and poor

But conducting is not just a matter of musical
talent. The
conductor’s job is a cross between traffic cop,
philosopher, cabaret
act, social worker and company chairman. To draw
these strands
together requires confidence – and that is where women
are being

Every orchestral musician and manager
sees a cavalcade of would-be
maestros who might go one way or the
other. If they are men, they
tend to be given the benefit of the
doubt. Women seldom get a
second chance. Men are allowed to bluff
their way out of a tight
spot; women never. A man can sleep with half
the woodwind section;
a woman conductor cannot even have dinner with
the concert-master
without setting tongues wagging. Conducting is an
uneven playing
field for women, and it won’t be levelled

But podium talent has become so scarce that we
cannot afford
to ignore the gifts of half the human race. Positive
is no solution, nor is more legislation. What is
needed is increased
awareness. When the next Edwards or Quinn comes
under pressure,
music lovers must rally against antediluvian
prejudices and insist
that women conductors are accorded the
confidence they deserve.
They may be the best hope we’ve

Norman Lebrecht writes a regular column on music in
Daily Telegraph and La Scena Musicale Online, and
Sept. 13, will host
Lebrecht Live on BBC’s Radio 3
on the internet.

La dernière note est
une chronique consacrée
à l’actualité musicale.
/ The Final Note is a regular
column of commentary.


About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review // Norman Lebrecht est un rédacteur prolifique couvrant les événements musicaux et Slipped Disc, est un des plus populaires sites de nouvelles culturelles. Il anime The Lebrecht Interview sur la BBC Radio 3 et collabore à plusieurs publications, dont The Wall Street Journal et The Standpoint. Vous pouvez lire ses critiques de disques chaque vendredi.

Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.