If you live in a large city, you may have heard of the Tuba Christmas concert. As the name implies, the production involves Christmas carols played exclusively on Tubas, or related instruments, such as Sousaphones or Euphoniums. The first such concert was held in New York in 1974 and has spread to cities large and small across America.
While attending one such concert on Christmas Eve in Dallas, I noticed a huge gender imbalance in the musicians. Of the 200 or so players, not more than 1 to 2% were females.
Well, I’m sure there are perfectly good physiological reasons why women don’t play the Tuba (it’s heavy to lug around, it requires a lot of lung power), so it’s not surprising that there are so few female Tuba players.
So why is there no push to encourage more women to play the Tuba? Where’s the outrage? If 50% of the population is female, then shouldn’t that be reflected in the demographics of Tuba players? Why are there no female-only programs for Tuba players so they can master the instrument free of any intimidating male influence?
Well, despite the sheer size of the Tuba, it is not a prominent instrument, such as the Violin or the Piano. Aside from beer-garden oompah bands, the Tuba is mostly relegated to the background. There are few, if any, options for Tuba soloists, and if there are any tuba concertos out there, I’ve never heard of them. Every orchestra needs someone to play the tuba, but it is a low-status instrument, so no one cares about gender parity. Let the men dominate.
The feminist strategy is to take the high ground. Literally and figuratively, the highest ground in the orchestra is the conductor’s podium. And this is the current feminist objective. To be sure, there are enablers out there.
In 2015, the Dallas Opera announced a 20-year program to recruit and groom women conductors. The Program was the brainchild of one Keith Cerny, Ph.D., General Director, and CEO of the Dallas Opera. “I have observed in many different settings the challenges that women face in establishing themselves in traditionally male-dominated fields,” he observed. Of course, the battlefields of achievement have long been littered with the dead or crippled bodies of male washouts, but there’s plenty more where they came from, right?
“My mother and several of her friends were among the first women to be admitted to Ph.D. programs in physics and chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley,” Cerny continued. “This experience gave me some important early exposure to the challenges facing women in academia at that time.”
Naturally, Cerny can’t do it all by himself. The Dallas Opera, like almost all arts programs, depends on subsidies. Even the famed La Scala Opera in Milan depends on government support.
So it’s no surprise that the Dallas Opera also depends on more than ticket sales, and local nabobs play a big part. The formal name of the women-only program is the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors. The Harts are a local power couple with lengthy resumes listing membership on various boards of local institutions.
Support for the program was also provided by the Richard and Enika Schultze Foundation (named after another local power couple). Baker Botts, LLP, a Houston-headquartered, international, silk-stocking law firm (725 attorneys, 14 offices) that specializes in antitrust, bankruptcy, mergers, taxation, and other corporate matters. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a tax-free NGO ($5-6 billion endowment) named after the Pittsburgh banker, industrialist, and former Secretary of the Treasury. And The Arts Community Alliance (TACA), which includes an artist-in-residence fund which currently underwrites the presence of one Nicole Paiement, the Dallas Opera’s Principal Guest Conductor, and supposedly a role model for the female applicants in the conductor program.
So all this female-friendliness is not the result of sit-ins by obese, shrieking, baton-wielding, purple-haired prima donnas. It has the imprimatur of the establishment. Call it gender equity, gender parity, gender balance, or whatever; it is no longer a leftist pipedream. It is now an entrenched subset of the broader diversity fetish that is a routine component of corporatespeak. The social and managerial elites have clasped these concepts to their bosom! So any social climber who aspires to elite status would do well to join the amen corner.
Any way you slice it, a female-only program reeks of affirmative action, but that term has acquired a bit of a stigma in recent years, so it is only rarely mentioned, particularly by people who have benefitted from it.
Ironically, Opera is already a heavily gynocentric universe. Without breaking down all the roles in all the operas ever staged, I think it’s safe to say that females are hardly under-represented on stage. Female-oriented themes are rife, as romance and passion are front and center in the most popular Operas. In a sense, Opera is a romance novel writ large with musical accompaniment, so there is no shortage of high-profile roles for divas. “Opera is when…a tenor and soprano want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.” That quip comes from “Opera Plots in One Sentence” on the classical music forum brightcecilia.com.
So female vocalists have nothing to complain about, but the same applies to female musicians. The blind audition process, in which musicians are heard and not seen, has resulted in more female musicians in orchestras than ever, and if a 50/50 ratio is never reached, it would be disingenuous to find fault with the audition process.
Obviously, the blind audition process would never work for a conductor as the musicians have to see the conductor. So the auditioning conductor’s sex cannot be concealed. Of course, when a no-men-allowed policy is instituted, there’s no need to guess.
I’m not a musician or a musicologist, and I couldn’t begin to judge the relative merits of a group of conducting candidates, male, female, or mixed. Even if I listened to the same piece of music played back-to-back by two different conductors, I don’t know that I could make a judgment call. Indeed, I have listened to CDs and records of the same symphony and don’t hear much difference.
Of course, one does not see the conductor while listening to recorded music. To a large degree, the conductor’s role is symbolic. He stands on an elevated platform at the front and center of the stage. (This is less obvious in opera where the performers are on stage, and the orchestra and conductor are in a pit.)
So the push for women conductors is largely symbolic. There are plenty of female vocalists and musicians. There’s no shortage of women behind the scenes doing administration, fund-raising, and other tasks. For good measure, the Dallas Opera has a Women’s Board (I scoured the website to see if they had a Men’s Board but couldn’t find one…must have been an oversight).
But it is not enough to be in control; one must be seen to be in control. When the lights go down, the conductor is the most visible member of the orchestra. A lack of female conductors means a lack of visible female supervision. So women are put on the fast track and paraded around like show dogs.
The Dallas Opera is a 501(c) (i.e., tax-free) organization, and while I’m no tax lawyer, I believe such organizations are obliged to follow the law of the land, in other words, not to engage in sex discrimination. The “minority outreach” they mention in their tax return posted online may be acceptable, but I don’t see how they can get away with a program that openly discriminates against half the population. Talk about institutionalized sexism!
It would be interesting to see what would happen if a group of aspiring male conductors applied to the program and were turned away. Sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Did the lawyers at Baker Botts sign off on this program or what?
But I guess I shouldn’t be too critical, seeing as “The Dallas Opera is committed to producing opera of uncompromising quality, enriching the life of the community, and embracing its diverse, cultural heritage.” At least, that’s how they describe themselves on their tax return. You can see how they might think they can do no wrong since they are so pure of heart.
Ultimately, the program is much ado about nothing. There aren’t that many opera companies; consequently, there are few openings for opera conductors. So selecting six promising female conductors every year for 20 years isn’t going to produce much bang for the buck. Ultimately, even if the conductors are capable, they may be stigmatized as quota queens and subject to more scrutiny than their male counterparts.
In the world of opera, the only program less likely to produce results would be a program to foster female composers. The ultimate big daddies of opera are the composers, and there aren’t many mommies out there.
Oh, wait a minute…this just in.
The National Opera America Center has announced the results of its new Opera Grants for Female Composers program. Eight female composers have just been awarded $100,000 ($12,500 apiece)!
Another lawsuit waiting to be filed?