Dallas Opera's Hart Institute attempts to correct gender inequality among conductors

The Hart Institute is celebrating its fifth year.

November 9, 2019, 10:21 AM

In the 2019-2020 season, between Los Angeles Opera, The Dallas Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, there are 53 conductor engagements. Of those 53 conductor appearances, five will be women.

"Historically speaking, it's a man on the podium leading an orchestra," said Lisa Bury, Dallas Opera's chief advancement and strategy officer. "There have been women, and very successful women, but the vast majority have been male, and in an era, i.e. the 21st century, it's time as an industry to collectively improve the ratio and work together to achieve gender parity at the podium."

That's why Dallas Opera founded the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, a two-week residency for about a half dozen conductors and, now, administrators, which culminates in a concert attended by members of the public as well as officials, agents and managers.

This year, the conductor fellows are Jane Kim, Marta Kluczyńska, Tiffany Chang, Tamara Dworetz, Molly Turner and Madeline Tsai. The participating administrators are Suzanne Vinnik, Kristen Bigham and Beverly Love. The showcase concert is on Saturday night.

The residency started five years ago and provides intensive training for experienced conductors who apply and are selected as well as contacts to key people in the opera industry. Even so, it took some time to gain interest for applications at first.

PHOTO: French conductor Alexandra Cravero at the 2016 Hart Institute at The Dallas Opera.
French conductor Alexandra Cravero at the 2016 Hart Institute at The Dallas Opera.
Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

"The first year we had to really, really advertise a lot and find advocates because the general consensus in the field was that there were no women conductors," said David Lomeli, a Mexican tenor who is now the director of artistic administration at Dallas.

When they did find strong candidates, Lomeli said, many women were unsure whether they should apply, telling him they didn't know if they were ready. So Lomeli set about personally calling and recruiting women -- "very similar to the 'Wolf of Wall Street' scene," he added -- to apply.

One of them was Lidiya Yankovskaya, who'd spent almost a decade working with smaller budget organizations.

She ultimately decided to apply in 2014.

"I felt that I had the experience," she said, "but didn't have the connections or the know-how to navigate the industry."

The Hart Institute, which now gets around 100 applications a year, provides a series of master classes for artistic training, "but that is only a portion of the training they receive," Ian Derrer, Dallas Opera's general director and CEO, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Lidiya Yankovskaya in concert at The Dallas Opera Hart Institute for Women Conductors in 2015.
Lidiya Yankovskaya in concert at The Dallas Opera Hart Institute for Women Conductors in 2015.
Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

The fellows also receive training in the business of conducting, including "how's your networking, how's your social media presence, how's your career strategy," according to Lomeli. They provide that, he said, "because we want them to be employed." To that end, they also produce videos of the showcase that the women can use in future applications.

The training also does not end after those two weeks. The institute maintains an alumni network and counsels them "on fees, which agent they should go with, should they take this booking over another booking, when should they plan a pregnancy, and we can work with managers on scheduling," and so on, Lomeli added.

But Dallas is also "always looking at ways to integrate alumni," Derrer said. And that's how French-American conductor Elizabeth Askren comes in. She was a fellow at the Hart Institute in 2016 and invited back this year to serve as faculty.

"There's such a follow-up and a dedication to the fellows that I think is really stellar and unique," she said, noting that she was also invited to come back to Dallas Opera as an assistant conductor for a mainstage production of "La boheme" and as a guest conductor for a family concert.

This year, she told ABC News, she's excited to give skill-oriented pointers, especially to younger colleagues who haven't had much experience in opera, which is common for women.

"Because I've been through what they're going through and I've sat in their seat," she added, "I can also understand what they might be going through psychologically."

PHOTO: Elizabeth Askren at the 2016 Hart Institute at The Dallas Opera.
Elizabeth Askren at the 2016 Hart Institute at The Dallas Opera.
Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

Since the Hart Institute's founding five years ago, Derrer said, the percentage of women conducting at top-tier U.S. opera companies has risen to about 14% from 4%.

"I think mostly it's prejudice," Lomeli said about opera's general lack of gender equity in musical leadership. "The amount of mediocre men that are out there trying out, figuring it out and getting podium time -- and sometimes very important podium time -- just so they learn, is accepted. But it's not accepted if a woman is not Jackie Robinson right away at the first at-bat."

The people ABC News spoke with all pointed to the predominately male makeup of opera companies' administrative leadership, boards of directors and major donors.

"The people who are making decisions in organizations are male, and there's male leadership on the podium -- you know, change takes time," Bury said.

If somebody says that they can't find (women conductors), that makes me wonder where it is that they've looked.

And then there are financial questions. Operas are expensive and companies have said they're lacking in funding, especially with lower ticket sales as younger generations fail to tune in.

"No opera house can afford to have a production that's a flop," Yankovskaya said. "That means that everybody is always being as safe and as careful as possible in ensuring that those productions are as great as possible. Well, when we're being careful and safe, we tend to also go with what we know."

Yankovskaya said this also contributes to the dearth of nonwhite conductors. But "once you have one, it helps others," she said, noting Gustavo Dudamel is helping open the door for Hispanic conductors and Marin Alsop for women.

PHOTO: In this picture taken on February 20, 2019, US conductor Marin Alsop (top C), 62, conducts the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra.
In this picture taken on February 20, 2019, US conductor Marin Alsop (top C), 62, conducts the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, the Diocesan Boys' School Orchestra and the Diocesan Girls' School Orchestra as they play US composer Leonard Bernstein's 'Candide Overture' during an open rehearsal for their Hong Kong Arts Festival performance the following night in Hong Kong.
Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Perhaps younger generations would tune in if opera started reflecting the more gender-equal realities of the 21st century. Bury said the Dallas public has been eager to donate to help the Hart Institute carry on its work, and Lomeli pointed to the attention -- from both the public and other institutions -- the company gets because of the program.

"Unfortunately or fortunately, [other opera companies] haven't seen that our model can be extremely successful," he said. "We get constantly publicized by mainstream media because we're different, we're special, and we're relevant today in a world where the forces of evil and good -- as I say -- are battling really badly. We want to play for 'The Avengers.'"

The situation for female conductors "is changing, slowly but surely," Askren said. Derrer said Dallas and the Hart Institute have become a resource for other companies looking to hire women.

Still, the excuse perpetuates that there just aren't women conducting.

"If somebody says that they can't find [women conductors], that makes me wonder where it is that they've looked," Bury said. "There are women conductors at every music conservatory across this country."

"I would say, 'Call The Dallas Opera and they'll be happy to show you to scores of very talented and capable conductors who will be happy to do the project they're looking for.' I think that's absolutely hogwash," Askren said.

By increasing female leadership at the podium, Derrer said, more people will see women as leaders in the music industry and beyond, and "that fact alone is a major thing." Those women can then move upwards, become leaders within companies, and bring even more change.

PHOTO: Monika Wolinska of Poland conducting, from the 2017 Hart Institute Concert at The Dallas Opera.
Monika Wolinska of Poland conducting, from the 2017 Hart Institute Concert at The Dallas Opera.
Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

But more than that, by bringing more women to podiums, audiences get to not miss out on quality musical interpretation.

"I have seen magical nights in the concerts of the Hart when you see women leading 80 people in the orchestra and the singers and just making our audience wild, and it was not because they were women. It was because they were incredible, capable leaders and musicians," Lomeli said.

"In Mexico, where I grew up, women didn't have even the chance to say what they wanted to say artistically, ever," he said. "So it's a very dear cause for me to maybe pay back a little bit to my abuela what she couldn't do when she wanted to be a musician. Maybe now, we are preventing that and maybe helping another person and making their dreams come true."

As for Yankovskaya, since attending Hart five years ago, she's become the music director of the Chicago Opera Theater.

"Unfortunately," she said, "I'm currently the only female music director of any multi-million dollar company in this country. Hopefully that will change, very soon."