May 26th, 2024

Met Opera hosts 4 female conductors in landmark week. From its founding to 2016, there were only 4

By Ronald Blum, The Associated Press on May 7, 2024.

NEW YORK (AP) – Oksana Lyniv, Speranza Scappucci, Marin Alsop and Xian Zhang filled their lockers in the guest conductors’ dressing room off the Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra pit. Just four women had led the orchestra from 1883 through 2016, but four took the baton in a landmark week from April 19-26.

“Maybe I’ll say it because they’re probably a bit too shy to say,” declared Alsop, at 67 the senior member of the group. “It has to not be unusual for it to be part of the fabric. It takes a long time for society to get comfortable with different things, and our industry is very conservative.”

Lyniv led Puccini’s “Turandot” on April 19, and Scappucci conducted Puccini’s “La Rondine” the following day. Alsop was in the pit for the Met premiere of John Adams’ “El Niño” on April 23, and Zhang helmed Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” on April 26.

“It’s like a different woman conductor arrived in New York simultaneously,” Lyniv said. “Now I can say it’s much easier to build a career than 20 years ago, 25 years ago, when I was a student and just started.”

Even family had pushed Lyniv to reconsider her career pursuit.

“There are no examples of successful female conductors,” she recalled being told. “Maybe you will conduct maximum a school orchestra or church choirs.”

When Susanna Mälkki made her Met debut in 2016, she became just the fourth female conductor in the company’s 133-year history after Sarah Caldwell, who debuted in 1976, Simone Young (1996) and Jane Glover (2013). The total has risen to 14 women, among them Keri-Lynn Wilson, wife of Met general manager Peter Gelb.

“There’s been a deliberate effort by major companies to create more opportunities for female conductors and I think it was overdue,” Gelb said. “Opera is changing, and it’s changing for the better by embracing a wider range of talents both on the stage and in the pit.”

A specific event opened doors and put a spotlight on the lack of equity in hiring.

“Because of MeToo,” Alsop said of the social movement that began in 2017. “It’s not as though everyone became enlightened suddenly. It had to get instigated. It had to catch fire. It’s no good to have one. You have to have a plethora.”

Like many musicians of her generation, Alsop was inspired by Leonard Bernstein, the first American to lead a major U.S. symphony.

“I saw Bernstein conduct when I was 9. I was more impressed with him talking to us, the audience, when he turned around. I remember him jumping around a lot, and I thought that was very cool,” Alsop said. “My dad took me to the concert, and I said, `Oh, dad, I want to be the conductor.”² He said, `Great.”² Never changed my mind.”

Scappucci, 51, was born in Rome and accompanied her older sister to piano lessons on the ground floor of their building with neighbor Maria Borzatti.

“After six months, the teacher called my mom and said, `Signora Scappucci, Gioia, she’s going to be great at languages,” the conductor recalled, “but I’ve observed the little one. I think she has a very good ear for music, so I’d like to teach her instead.”˜”

Speranza studied piano at the Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia and Juilliard, where she took a class in coaching singers. Valued for her Italian background, she was hired by U.S. companies as a coach. She became Riccardo Muti’s assistant to the Salzburg Festival, then moved into conducting and from 2017-22 was music director of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie.

Scappucci became the first Italian woman to conduct at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 2022, and in 2025-26, she starts as principal guest conductor of London’s Royal Opera. She is in her third season as co-presenter of the Italian TV show “La gioia della musica (The joy of music).”

Lyniv, 46, was born in Ukraine to a family of musicians. She studied piano and flute. At 18, she had to conduct the student orchestra as part of the curriculum. A retired professor walked up to her.

“He said to me: `You are not a Toscanini, but you have a great future,”˜” she recalled, a reference to conducting great Arturo Toscanini.

Lyniv finished third at the 2004 Gustav Mahler conducting competition. She attended the Dresden Academy of Music, became an assistant at Odessa’s National Theatre in Odessa, then Kirill Petrenko’s at the Bavarian State Opera. She was hired as chief conductor of the Graz Opera from 2017-20, and in 2021, became the first woman to conduct at Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival in Germany. In 2022, she took over as music director of Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the first woman to lead an Italian opera house.

Born in China, Zhang started playing piano at 3 but at 16 was told by a teacher that her hands were too small. She went to Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music and was invited by a teacher to step in to conduct Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” at 19 with the China National Opera Orchestra. Two of her three conducting teachers back then were women.

“I was so naive. Because I saw them working so much, I never thought this is very unusual,” Zhang said. “Much later, I realized that’s not the case.”

She attended the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music, won the Maazel/Vilar International Conductors’ Competition in 2002 and was hired as the New York Philharmonic’s assistant conductor and later associate. Zhang became music director of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra from 2005-07 and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi from 2009-16 and has held the role with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra since 2016.

Preparing the next generation, Lyniv founded the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in 2016. Alsop in 2002 started a conducting fellowship that awards $25,000 and has assisted 36 women conductors.

“It’s a good moment but I also am cognizant of what’s going on in the world around us and how women’s rights are taken away overnight, and that happens all the time,” Alsop said. “So, we have to really remain strong and vigilant about the future generations.”

Share this story:

25
-24
Subscribe
Notify of
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments