Phoney row at Covent Garden over lack of women conductors

A rather sleepy season launch at the Royal Opera House was slightly enlivened yesterday by an arts reporter’s question about the absence of women conductors in main-stage productions.

Oliver Mears, the Royal Opera director, said quite reasonably that achieving a gender balance was a high priority but it was unlikely to happen overnight.

This was blown up into a Guardian headline: One female conductor ‘not acceptable ratio’, admits Royal Opera House

The article continued in admirable virtue-signalling style:

The Royal Opera’s director of opera, Oliver Mears, was asked if that was a good ratio. “No it is not an acceptable ratio at all … of course,” he said. “But this is something which is a long-term project. It’s not going to happen instantly and in the following years we have a much better ratio of female conductors and it is something which is is an absolute priority for us.”

All arts organisations in the UK are under intense – and, many would say, long overdue – scrutiny to translate words and aspirations on diversity into positive action.

Ah well, that’s journalism in 2019.


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    • The real problem is not the messenger but the message. The ROH has indeed dropped the ball on highly competent female conductors. That the willful omission is happening in real time under our noses and in “enlightened” London, as opposed to, say, somewhere in Siberia, is all the more puzzling, embarrasing and shameful.

    • It’s circulation these days is terrifyingly low…

      It’s underwritten by the Scott Trust (i think) but my goodness it’s lost alot of money in the last few years…I mean serious money, not just a few tens of millions.

      It seems intent on preaching more and more aggressively to fewer and fewer people.

      • The pages of the Grauniad contain more and more ‘sponsored content’ (from the William Gates Trust, the Atlantic Council, and other organisations with tubs to bash). Operating at a profit is just so passé these days! Cranking out the message is worth more to many people than making money. Any fool can make money – but only a few can wield influence for their poitical cause. Who do you think has been propping the Guardian up for so many loss-making years, hmm? 😉 Whose money produced ‘The Weakly Standard’ all those years… because it certainly wasn’t culled in from readers…

  • Enforced equality of outcome and Diversity before competence: the Marxist creed. Good luck with that.

    • There were circumstances in the past where that might have been true, when it was substantially more difficult for women to get any kind of a foothold on the conducting ladder. But that is no longer the case. There are now numerous woman conductors of the very highest quality. It is a matter now of giving them the work to do. Competence and diversity are not in conflict.

      • Good point. As there get to be more & more female conductors, the field becomes more crowded and true excellence becomes [more] necessary to win a position. So even if someplace is looking specifically for a woman, the winner is more & more likely to be really good.

        Kind of like back in the day, “female concert violinist” pretty much meant Erica Morini. She was fabulous, but she also didn’t have much competition in the “female” department (not that people were necessarily looking to book women back then). Nowadays, if someone says “we’re specifically looking for a female violin soloist,” there are oodles of fabulous players to choose from, and no need to compromise on quality.

  • The quota mindset is the way of the world. There are good reasons for it but it leads to some silly headlines and silly behaviour…

    I recently helped organise a seminar (in an unrelated field) that pulled together a panel from various stakeholder organisations.

    Two of them sent a man but at the same time said that they wouldn’t sit on a male-only panel!

  • It is good to see Jessica Cottis conducting a modern work. She is one of an ever increasing number of gifted female conductors coming into the scene in recent years. As their number increases so will their representation on stage. After all, until recently many orchestras did not even have female players let alone female conductors.

  • The sort of nonsense where competence takes second place to so-called ‘diversity’ as a priority.

    • Ah yes. If a man gets a job, it’s only because he’s good; if a woman gets a job, it’s only because she’s a woman.

      • We don’;t want conductors who are merely competent for ROH. We want the best. They should be selected because they are the best, regardless of gender, not to make up some diversity statistics nonsense.

    • Next you’ll tell there aren’t any competent female conductors?

      Some people don’t get it at all. By now I could name at least five women who’d deserve becoming hired by the ROH. However, the men there have missed the train and so it’s kind of “fair” they get the critic for it now.

  • Why should the ROH immediately stand to attention to the box-ticking brigade and give in to what is just a fashionable trend of hiring women conductors purely for their gender? Hire the established ones who’ve paid their dues in lesser houses. The ROH should be a reward, not a springboard.

    Opera is notoriously difficult to conduct well and a house such as the ROH should concentrate on quality first. There are enough incompetent male opera conductors around who’ve been parachuted into positions they’re incapable of honouring; to wilfully add to the pool for the sake of gender equality seems a little short-sighted, to say the least.

    • Congratulations – you’re just joined the club of mcps! Your attempt to sell that out there aren’t any competent female conductors shows that you’re either badly informed or a chauvinist.

      Unfortunately we women waited too long for men to get that we deserve equality and that we’re qualified to do certain jobs (sometimes we’re even more qualified because a woman still needs to be double as good as a man to get a job). Now we’re losing patience and insist on finally getting our chances.

      Just imagine it would be your daughter – very talented, hard-working – who’d want to become a conductor. Would you then still think it’s just good how it is?

    • John is longing for the Good Old Days of the 17th century – when the Monstrous Regiment of Women had to be kept out of theatres by Papal Decree. Better a castrated man than any kind of woman, eh?

      We are missing the point about female conductors. We need to be demanding the return of castration in opera houses. To keep moral rectitude foremost, just as it used to be. Start letting women in – and Lord knows where things might end?!

  • One might wonder why Simone Young, for example, has not conducted The Royal Opera since 2002… not that she’s been sitting at home twiddling her thumbs as she’s a regular in Munich, Berlin and Vienna.

    • It’s reasonable to query the statistics but it’s tougher when it comes to individuals. After all there could be many, many reasons, none related to gender discrimination….

    • I have witnessed two female conductors at Covent Garden. Jane Glover was always supremely competent, whereas Simone Young was always bad, hair flying, arms flailing, clearly not knowing what she was doing. She may be a regular in the German-speaking world, but, unless she has improved immeasurably since 2002, we really cannot have her back in London.

    • Simone Young, Marin Alsop, younger women like the wonderful Speranza Scapucci (who’s got more opera experience by now as a lot of male conductors) – there’s certainly no lack of talented females, so the ROH must become asked why none of these ladies were hired.

  • I am really tired of all this press about lack of female conductors here and there. Why should the Royal Opera hire more women when they have plenty of capable male conductors?

    • As a revolutionary idea, why not hire people who are good, regardless of gender, race etc. But it will never catch on.

    • Because the lack of women at the ROH stinks like discrimination?
      No one can deny that there a lot of highly talented, well educated and by now even experienced women conductors out there. So why is none of them hired at ROH?

      • Actually, there are not a lot of female conductors with lots of experience, certainly not enough to go round all the major opera houses. There are, however, many female conductors near the start of their careers; for some of them it may be a little too early in their career (as it will be for some of the men). Things are changing, but it will take time. And the ROH really would like things to change: pretty much all the orchestras in London are looking to give opportunities to women if they can.

  • I would like to see more minorities represented. As a black african-british musician I find discouraging that all the conductors are white.

    • IMO there’s a big issue with trying to solve diversity problems at the ROH level. One should start further upstream with programs that increase the number of under represented musicians in the field.

      Screened auditions have helped combat outright discrimination, but if there simply aren’t more than a couple of black african-british violists/bassoonists/tuba etc. players out there the chances of advancement aren’t very good as the level of competition for the few existing jobs is so insanely intense. Good luck!

    • Sorry highgate, but I am afraid I have to disagree with what you seem to imply. Most of the conductors come from overseas, so very few British conductors are hired anyway. Out of those few, if we choose *randomly* from the population, then it is very unlikely that a black-British person will be on the podium.

      I think it unhelpful to always see this kind of thing as discrimination. There really is a chance that you could be that person on the podium. It will, however, take a lot of talent, hard-work, and *luck* to get there. (The US, however, seems to be a different kettle-of-fish.)

  • So in London-
    All ARTIStIC AND FINANCIAL LEADERSHIP AT BOTH ENO AND ROH IS MALE.-NOT ONE WOMAN IS A MAJOR DECISION MAKER- look at the websites and confirm. Mears is failing just like the others And female opera critics are too few sidelined in favour of old male critics who are unbelievablely aggressive to any woman who does anything other than an ´acceptably´ traditional production. I go to everything and this has been going on for years and we all know it. why would any talented woman even bother trying to work in opera in any artistic capacity- music or creative? Every decision maker and culture gate keeper in opera in the capital is male! In TAX FUNDED ORGANISATIONS !! Who is running the boards ? White older men. I am a boring white old man myself and if I find this a disgrace then any thinking audience member does . The mysoginy in the comments below is horrendous. When you’re accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression obviously . The title of this article is equally sexist. it is not a phoney row it is the pointing out of a FACT that should be answered. the guardian should blow this whole disgrace wide open. opera has been ignored while theatre has been investigated. its opera´s turn now as the industry is unable to behave ethically on this issue.there are many many good female conductors and directors who are working in international houses at the highest level and producing better results than the hum drum and dire stuff that is the vast quantity of Eno and roh stuff. I keep going and paying for it more fool me. I don’t understand why boards keep appointing these men who have no track record of success to run opera houses ? if people are saying in comments ´opera is really difficult to conduct therefore we need experienced conductors´, then how much harder is it to be the artistic head of opera and why do then these huge jobs not need any level of international track record?. it is much harder to run an opera house than it is to conduct one opera so why should inexperience be the one qualification that boards find irresistible ?

    • As an old white male myself, clearly aware of all the privilege that has bestowed on me throughout my life, I have sadly given up reading rants like this which tell us in true Dr Heinz Kiosk style that “WE ARE ALL GUILTY” But then I am far too old for the re-education that is now required before we are seemingly allowed to pay our money extorted from some exploited minority to attend blatantly misogynistic institution s like ROH.

  • As long as expressions such as “acceptable ratio” are used, the quality does indeed become secondary at best and that is a shame.

  • It seems to have been overlooked that (correct me if I’m wrong) Mirga Grazinyte Tyla was down to conduct Jenufa but withdrew to make her workload more manageable.

    This leaves ROH with a pretty much inverted PR position on the issue for this season…

  • I sort of agree. In the new ROH season just announced, Pappy is implausibly down to conduct, along with other works, Elektra (hm) and Fidelio (gulp). Given what we know of his conducting, his strengths and weaknesses (and with whatever happened between him and the orchestra during that shoddy Ring this season still clogging my ears) I am not expecting much.

  • Mears goes too far — for an institution such as Covent Garden, there should be only one “absolute priority”, and that is artistic quality. Unless Mears wishes to imply that gender balance takes precedence over artistry, he should show restraint in his use of an adjective such as “absolute” — it becomes meaningless if overused.

    In any case, a lopsided gender ratio of conductors in just *one* season is perfectly acceptable. As anybody with a modicum of statistical acumen would know, you need a far bigger sample than the roster of conductors for one season at one institution before you start making accusations of prejudice. And, whilst there are indeed a lot of excellent female conductors, the fact remains that conducting is still a male-dominated profession, so *some* imbalance is still to be expected even over many seasons in many institutions.

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