Podium Politics: Conducting While Female

Judith Yan Photo by Johan Persson RESIZED
Conductor Judith Yan in a photo by Johan Persson

I’d love you to read this article that I did for Opera Canada that features six women at various points in their conducting careers.


A sampler:

— Canada’s biggest opera house itself used to have its own young conductors’ training program for a brief period in the late nineties and then again in the late noughts. Judith Yan, today the Artistic Director of Guelph Symphony Orchestra, was the first alumna. The COC residency was a crucial step in her career. “My mentor and teacher was Pierre Hétu, and Pierre was wonderful. In music, like any other industry, most of the education is passed down, and you learn the behaviour as well. How to do the job and how to handle different situations. And Maestro Hétu would bring me to the concerts and take me back stage–he knew everyone—and he would introduce me to the conductors, and he would coach me: this is what you say and this is how you behave, which is quite important.” Hétu was first to suggest that she meet Richard Bradshaw (“You would get along,” he had said to her), which soon did take place thanks to a conducting workshop that  Hétu organized.

— Composer Leslie Uyeda conducted five productions at the Vancouver Opera between the early nineties and early 2000s, and was VO’s Chorus Master up to 2005. “I recall being in a Masterclass given by Joan Dorneman from the Met, before I had given much thought to conducting. She said to all of us young coaches, ‘If you have an opinion, be a conductor.’ I guess I decided that I had opinions!” She became aware soon enough that forging a conducting career as a woman will be very different. “It seems that for a woman to have a conducting career, for the most part, she has to start her own organization or have a very influential backer.” Were the orchestras cooperative when she was starting out? “Not many of us were around! I knew I was pioneering to a certain extent, but being in Canada, the worst treatment I received from orchestras was silence. And one engagement did not necessarily lead to another. I think this is still a problem for many women. Someone has to promote you (other than an agent). If that doesn’t happen, it can be difficult.”

— [Kinza] Tyrrell has herself received comments on her appearance more times than any of her male colleagues in their lifetime. “Rather than hearing how good my languages were, or how well I cued or played, after a rehearsal I’d sometimes hear from some of my male colleagues how good I looked.” Feminine dress and relatively young appearance can work against a female conductor’s authority. “I see the respect my male colleagues get, even those younger than me.” There is an almost automatic respect for a male conductor or coach. “I am often friendly and humourous in rehearsals, and people like that I’m approachable and can break down what the maestro meant by what he said. But this kind of trouble-shooting is a conducting assistant’s work. It’ll be interesting to be the principal conductor and be the head.”

(Caron Daley’s take on why there are more women in choral conducting) “In choral setting it’s about a relationship, about teaching, you can crack a few jokes…You are also taking care of people’s bodies, care about the temperature and the humidity. There are also more amateur choirs than amateur orchestras. I think the basic premise is, anybody can learn to sing, whereas not everybody will be good with an instrument. When I’m in front of a professional orchestra, I’m not going to start with ‘Hi guys, how’s everybody doing.’ They are on the clock and rehearsals must be efficient. And even if it’s a professional choir I’m conducting, the rehearsal cannot be that driven. It has to be more about the person before me.

Tania Miller
Tania Miller, Victoria Symphony

2 thoughts on “Podium Politics: Conducting While Female

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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