Lidiya Yankovskaya: ‘It was often people around my own age who were telling me that women shouldn’t conduct. I got hate mail’

Jessica Duchen
Thursday, April 4, 2024

Whether conducting the English National Opera, championing refugee musicians or supporting young composers, Russian-American Lidiya Yankovskaya is mindful of the profound connections to her heritage, cultural identity and artistic conscience

Lidiya Yankovskaya (photo: Todd Rosenberg)
Lidiya Yankovskaya (photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Few musicians can claim to have conducted more than 40 world premieres by the age of 38. Step forward Lidiya Yankovskaya, the outgoing music director of Chicago Opera Theater and named Chicagoan of the Year for 2020, when the Chicago Tribune praised her as ‘the very model of how to survive adversity, and also how to thrive in it’.
In her seven years in post, despite the onslaught of disruptive world events – maybe even because of them – she has spearheaded initiatives that variously cultivate new opera makers, female and diverse conductors and composers, and a new generation of artistic leaders.

She made her London debut in 2023, conducting Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs in a rare staging at English National Opera; earlier this year she returned for two concert performances with the company of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Now, though, she is entering a new era: she has resigned from Chicago Opera Theater (COT) to concentrate on opportunities further afield, and is leaving later this summer.

‘After I became a professional, some major conductors came out saying women shouldn’t be conductors. This wasn’t long ago, and it was multiple individuals in my life’

It seems startling to relinquish such a post, but Yankovskaya feels ready for the challenges ahead. She says she has a special affinity for Slavic music – last year she made her Santa Fe Opera debut with Dvorák’s Rusalka, and San Francisco Classical Voice remarked that she ‘conducted with both grace and romantic fervor’ – but there’s no limit to what she will tackle. Upcoming highlights for 2024 and 2025 include her Australian debut with Il trittico in Sydney, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell at Washington National Opera – another debut – and guest conducting in Rochester, Louisiana and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

‘It’s been wonderful,’ she says of her time at COT, speaking to me on Zoom from her home in Chicago. ‘It gave me a platform and an opportunity to develop this company that, when I got here, was ready for change. I’ve done some really interesting repertoire, which has been fantastic, and I feel it is in a good place now to be handed on to somebody else. I’m doing so much other work elsewhere now that I want to be able to split my time with more and more symphonic conducting. It’s time to embrace the next challenge.’

Yankovskaya was born into a Russian Jewish family in St Petersburg. Although they moved to the US when she was nine, she was exposed at a crucially early age to ‘really spectacular music making,’ which has proved a major influence.

‘St Petersburg is such a musically rich city – there are many performances of the highest calibre on any given night. I sang in the St Petersburg children’s chorus of radio and television, which was very intensive. And for the visual arts we went to the Hermitage every Saturday morning. When we moved to the United States, it was always a high priority to have access to arts on the highest level.’ Her grandfather had been a singer and her parents were keen amateur musicians. ‘Thanks to my mother’s encouragement, and her dedication in sitting with me and practising, I played piano and violin growing up.’


‘I was never encouraged to be a professional musician. It was in some ways discouraged and certainly no one thought it was a possibility’ (photo: Rand Lines)

After the USSR collapsed, the family left in 1995 as refugees and settled in Albany, New York. ‘That was to escape the anti-Semitism that was rife in Russia at the time,’ she says. ‘Like many Jews, we left when it was possible to do so.’ On their passports, ‘Jewish’ was given as a nationality.

‘I was never encouraged to be a professional musician. It was in some ways discouraged and certainly no one thought it was a possibility. Until the end of college I didn’t even admit to myself that I was going to go into music, but whenever I had a choice – I was studying music, philosophy and languages – I would choose music. I realised that it was the thing that I couldn’t live without. But I didn’t have any context of what the professional musical world looks like, or what it meant to become a musician. If I had really understood the practicalities, maybe I would have thought more about it!’

While studying at Vassar College and subsequently taking a Masters degree in conducting at Boston University, Yankovskaya started her own substantial ensemble of orchestral players and singers, focusing on contemporary music – this accounted for a slew of those numerous premieres. She was further nurtured through opportunities such as the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and two grants from the Solti Foundation. Along the way her mentors included such luminaries as Marin Alsop, Lorin Maazel and Vladimir Jurowski.

Alsop in particular has been a crucial inspiration and support; the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, a range of scholarships open to female conductors, brought a vital opportunity to gain both experience in conducting and solidarity with other women in the field. Up until then she had usually found herself one of few female participants, if not the only one, on every conducting course she had taken. Things have changed. ‘But still, there’s a misconception that we’ve changed things more than we have,’ she says. ‘That’s because we started in a place that was so bad.

‘After I became a professional, some major conductors came out saying women shouldn’t be conductors. This wasn’t long ago, and it was multiple individuals in my life. Most people I was assisting or studying with were older men and they were very supportive. It was often people around my own age who were telling me that women shouldn’t conduct. I got hate mail. One audience member used a fake email address and sent me a poem about how I should be in the kitchen or making children.’

As it happens, Yankovskaya and her husband Daniel Schwarz, a lawyer, do have two small children. Three days after giving birth to the second, she was back on the conducting podium. She has been infuriated by attitudes in the industry towards women with families. ‘When I got the job at Chicago Opera Theatre, five organisations of different sizes and profiles, including major ones, had been interviewing me. COT was the only place at which my interview process did not start with: “Do you have children? Are you planning to? How will that impact your career?” It’s not even legal in the US to ask that question in an interview!’

Some female conductors react with horror or fury when ‘the women conductors thing’ comes up in a discussion – as if to mention it would exacerbate the problem. Yankovskaya is quite the opposite. ‘It no longer feels like I am making a political statement by even talking about the issue,’ she says. ‘It used to be that if you mentioned it even in the softest terms, you immediately became “an activist for women’s rights”. That’s no longer the case.

‘And also, it is not the only topic of conversation. Once when I was very young, I was assisting Maazel at the Castleton Festival, and there were 12 conductors, among whom I was the only woman. They invited a major manager from Europe to come and talk to us. He seemed really interested in my work and took me to lunch. So I sat down with him and he said, “You know, you conduct very well. But what’s really great is, I love the way you dress, it’s not too masculine or too feminine”. I sat there for 20 minutes while he talked about my clothes rather than my conducting.

‘Again, that doesn’t usually happen now. A decade later, no one says to me directly that women can’t or shouldn’t conduct. Maybe they don’t dare. When audience members approach me and raise the subject, it’s usually because they’re happy that there’s a woman on the podium, not because they believe that women shouldn’t be there. People acknowledge that there is a problem now, and as a result they talk about it. You don’t have this kind of blatant or direct discrimination. That’s a huge change. And that’s great.’

There is another cause especially close to Yankovskaya’s heart: her Refugee Orchestra Project, which spotlights the cultural and societal relevance of refugees through music. It began with the Syrian refugee crisis, but has since grown to international proportions, with concerts in London, Boston, Washington, DC, and at the United Nations. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made it all the more personal for Yankovskaya, who had been a refugee from Russia herself, still has relations in Ukraine and used to spend her childhood summer holidays there. The orchestra now welcomes Ukrainian performers alongside its many other nationalities.

‘I was horrified by the xenophobic rhetoric I was hearing in the US, from politicians and others,’ she says. ‘It was shocking, because the US is thought of as a country of immigrants. There was all this xenophobia and I thought: what can I do about it? The beautiful thing about music is that there are already so many people from across the world, many of whom are refugees, who can come together to perform. I joined forces with a number of colleagues to do a fundraising concert for refugee aid and to raise awareness. It was so successful that we carried on. We focus on music by refugee composers from across time. In some cases, that’s living composers and in others it’s composers that people forget have been refugees, like Chopin!’

It’s hard to imagine where Yankovskaya finds the time and energy for so many different musical commitments – but she seems to have a limitless supply. At Chicago, she has been especially hands-on in developing new operatic work for a new century. She commissioned 11 new operas, including Joby Talbot’s Everest and Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick. ‘We’ve had a wonderful opportunity because in the US right now there’s been such a renaissance of opera making,’ she says. ‘In the last decade and a half, there have been more and more composers writing exciting, high-level work. Not all of it is making it across the Pond, unfortunately.

‘At COT we have had a lot of flexibility in terms of how and what we programme. We have focused not just on developing new pieces, but on giving opportunities to the most promising composers for the kind of training, experience and support they need to create successful work.’ She founded the Vanguard Initiative, to provide composers with the hands-on, behind-the-scenes theatrical and musical immersion that they need. ‘The composers who have been most successful in opera are people who’ve had that kind of experience.’

Heggie is the perfect example: ‘Jake was a pianist, he worked with singers, he accompanied rehearsals and he worked in the marketing department at San Francisco Opera. So he saw all of the behind-the-scenes action and got this experience in an organic way. That played a major role in his first opera being successful, and now many, many more. But very few people have those opportunities.’ Despite leaving COT later this summer, Yankovskaya says she will still be involved with the Vanguard Initiative, at least for the season ahead.

She picks out Justine Chen’s The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, which she premiered last year, as one she hopes will go on to have a long and satisfying existence. ‘For Turing we had a whole series of workshops, partnering with American Lyric Theater. Before it was performed, the piece went through many, many changes that were essential to its success – and it was a great success. It’s a phenomenal work. But that doesn’t just happen overnight, and no matter how brilliant or experienced the composer is, it can’t just happen in their head somewhere in a closed room, because that’s not what opera is.’

There are very few entrepreneurial movers and shakers in the opera world quite like Yankovskaya: someone who, if she sees that something is needed, goes out to create it, whatever effort it takes. Musical America once commented about her at COT: ‘Attention should be paid’. Clearly it was. Now the world is fast becoming her oyster. 

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Opera Now. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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