Fostering a new generation of women conductors in opera

Jessica CottisFri 26th July 2019

Conductor Jessica Cottis reports on a pioneering initiative at the Royal Opera House

In July this year the Royal Opera House, the Royal Philharmonic Society and the National Opera Studio launched an important new initiative to support and ensure an equitable future for female conductors. Run under the banner of ROH’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, this week-long course acted as a supportive educational environment where skills particular to conducting opera were developed, and also as a platform for women to engage with industry professionals.

Each of the 12 participant and six observer places were hotly contested, with applicants from across the globe. The standard was notably high.

The act of conducting has conventionally been viewed as archetypally male, ‘wrapped up in the mythologies of male power’, as Alex Ross wrote in 2013. More recently, the landscape has changed, and quite dramatically, with much talk and positive action to redress the gender disparity. Alice Farnham’s pioneering courses for women conductors, begun in 2014, have made a significant mark, and there is greater visibility at higher levels.

Yet, a general cry of ‘we need more female conductors’ still resonates. In reality, the issue is far more nuanced: where are all the women of colour, and what about class, for example? And how can any art form stay alive if it doesn’t in some way interact meaningfully with society today? It seems to me that a major part of any inequity has its roots in access. Whilst great work has been started at grassroots level, there remains a block for many emerging conductors. Many of the participants expressed doubt, not in their musical ideas, but in the knowledge that they didn’t have requisite experiences to allow them to progress to the next level, whether from an early stage career into something more established, or – in the case of two participants – from player-conductor to podium. 

And therein lies a causality dilemma. Conducting training is difficult: despite time spent developing technique and many hours spent learning scores, the real practical experience needs to happen with a practice room or study, with an actual orchestra. How can organisations hire emerging conductors who, while talented, don’t yet have the experience? And how can emerging conductors improve without being hired? How can an imbalance shift if everything stays just as it is? With very few women leading productions in British opera houses, initiatives such as this are vitally important, and this course was set up to provide significant opportunities for young women to grow as conductors in a supportive and nurturing creative environment. By working together all three organisations hope to effect some long overdue changes within the opera world.

The ROH course was encouraging, intense and highly focused. Throughout the week, the participants were coached on score preparation, technique, accompanied recitative, technical demands and complexity in new music, and aspects of the profession such as assistant conducting. The majority of the sessions were practical, with time spent working in-depth with singers and repetiteurs on Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito under the guidance of conductor Mark Shanahan and ROH Head of Music Richard Hetherington, and George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill with me. Crucially, towards the end of the week the participants worked with and received invaluable feedback from the brilliant musicians of Chroma and the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, with Benjamin himself dropping by to share insights into his compositional practice. On the business side, sessions were arranged with leading artist managers, and PR and career development professionals. 

I was particularly interested to explore with the participants the focus and quality of listening needed for high-level musical communication and leadership, as well as the cultivation of gestures that were authentic to their own physical and intellectual personalities. I wanted the experience to be centred around fostering an open, generous and collaborative approach to music-making, including sensing when to lead, and when to trust the players to carry the music themselves. By the end of the course, with input from all the mentors, singers, repetiteurs and orchestral musicians themselves, the participants were able to build their skills and confidence in a highly professional yet supportive setting.

The results were immense. Every single participant shone, and some truly remarkable transformations happened across the week, with many displaying a new freedom and ease of conducting. One of the participants summed it up perfectly on the last day: ‘I came feeling doubt about how I could ever move ahead [in the profession]. The only way we can learn conducting is by conducting and this course allowed me to do this at a high level. I feel like my horizons have broadened and I don’t doubt any more. Thanks for believing in us.’ Watch this space. 

The Women Conductors Course for opera took place from July 1-5 at the National Opera Studio in Wandsworth, and at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The course was free of charge, thanks to the support of Oak Foundation, and open to both UK and non-UK female applicants. A ballet course took place earlier this year, on May 18 and 19, at the Clore Studio, Royal Opera House, with six places available; for more information, visit roh.org.uk

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