Her dream job: conductor

In art, whether you are a man or woman plays an ever less-important role. A female director or male director, a female pianist or male pianist, a sculptor or sculptress, a female writer or male writer — who really cares? What people focus on is the quality of the work. But if a woman stands on the conductor's podium, that still stirs up a lot of attention.

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Authors: Cuini Amelio Ortiz & Hector Navarrete
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In this segment, three female conductors talk about their work: Simon Young, the General Manager and Music Director of the Hamburg State Opera as well as Music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra; Catherine Rückwardt, the General Director of Music at the City Theatre of Mainz; and Shi-Yeon Sung, a student of conducting at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin.

The career of conductor is one of the last bastions of men, aside perhaps from Formula 1. The poet Elias Canetti has said, "There is no clearer image for power than the activity of the conductor." And in fact, a woman on the conductor's stand is still an unusual sight.

There are more than 500 women conductors worldwide—but not in leading positions. Their activities remain inconspicuous for the most part, within the realms of choir and church music.

In 2002 there were 76 opera houses with regular programs in Germany. Of the 76 General Directors of Music, only two were female: Catherine Rückwardt, the General Director of the Mainz State Theatre, and Karen Kamensek, active in the same position at the Freiburg Opera since 2002. In addition, of the 34 independent symphony orchestras in Germany today, only one is led by a woman: Romely Pfund has been the General Director of the Bergen Symphony Orchestra of Solingen/Remscheid since 1998. In the past 25 years in Germany, only seven managing positions have been assigned to a woman. Simone Young's carrier as conductor is truly unique. Today, the Australian is the General Manager and Music Director of the Hamburg State Opera and Music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. She was the Music Director of the Sydney Opera, has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, and has also received the Medal of the Order of Australia and been named Chevalier des Arts et Lettres in France. In Weimar on March 22nd, 2005, she was also awarded the Goethe Medal of the Goethe-Institut.

Catherine Rückwardt is the General Director of Music at the City Theatre of Mainz. She is the first woman to become the head choral director of a major German opera house, the Frankfurt Opera. In 1999 she was awarded the Zonta Kunstpreis (Arts Award).

Shi-Yeon Sung, from Korea, studies at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin. She came to Germany in the mid-1990s to fulfill her dream of becoming a conductor. Her unusual level of talent recognized by her instructors, she has been receiving special support: the Conductor's Forum is the support program for young talent of the German Music Council. The goal of the assistance is to support exceptionally talented young conductors to prepare for eventually taking over positions of responsibility on the German and international music scene; scholarship holders regularly take part in master courses under the leadership of internationally recognized conductors and in co-operation with renowned orchestras. In addition, the Conductor's Forum advocates on behalf of its stipend holders for assistant positions and concerts. At present, the percentage of female stipend holders is about 25 percent, and the number is rising.

Despite everything, the few internationally recognized female conductors—such as Simone Young, Marin Alsop or Julia Jones—continue to be viewed as exceptions. "In this profession," says Elke Mascha Blankenburg, conductor and author of the book Dirigentinnen im 20. Jahrhundert ("Female Conductors of the 20th Century"), "the power of men is still unbroken."

In the 19th Century, the myth was founded of the lionized maestro to whom the orchestra dutifully submits; today, the sovereign patriarchal power at the conductor's podium as represented by Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler or Herbert von Karajan remains the model. But even in this last bastion, perceptions will change as quality asserts itself.
Goethe-Institut e. V. 2006
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