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Leading the Way

Leading The Way

Meet just a few of the women bringing HGO audiences the thrilling season ahead.

Did you know that fewer than 10 percent of all conductors at major opera companies are female? The opera world must evolve to be inclusive of all talented conductors meriting a spot at the podium, and HGO is doing just that with its 2021-22 season, during which half of its operas will be conducted by women, a historic first for both the company and the industry as a whole.

“I look forward to a time when it is not newsworthy that half of a season’s podium time is privileged with women,” says HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers. “HGO welcomes the richness of this moment with these brilliant maestri.”

Adding to the significance of the moment is the arrival of HGO’s first female general director, Khori Dastoor, as well as the incredible creatives who will be coming on board this season to lead HGO productions in another male-dominated role, that of director.

“I think HGO hired the best people for the projects that they’re doing,” says Omer Ben Seadia, who directs the world premiere of The Snowy Day for HGO this December. “All of the women who are working at HGO this season have excelled at their profession. They are women with incredible resumes, and unbelievable experience, and a real impact on our industry. So having them at a major opera company just makes the most sense.” Hear, hear!

Opera Cues spoke with five conductors and directors leading the way at HGO this season. Some broke the glass ceiling themselves; others were fortunate not to have to. All were generous enough to share their stories.

 

Jane Glover - Conductor, Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Jane Glover - Conductor, Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Dame Jane Glover
Conductor, Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Growing up in England, Dame Jane Glover, not yet a Dame, thought she would pursue a career as an oboist. She went to the University of Oxford, where she studied music as an academic subject, but there was very little performance required as part of her degree. “Notwithstanding, we all made music all the time,” she says. “People were always putting on concerts and playing in concerts and conducting concerts and singing in concerts.”

 

Glover played her oboe “for all sorts of people” and sang in choirs “to a very high level.” “And then, after a bit, I started putting on concerts, and people came and played and sang for me too. And at that point, something felt familiar. And against all possible odds, I decided to try and pursue conducting. Amazing, really: I made it.”

She made that decision to pursue conducting more than 40 years ago. “You know, it really was quite lonely then,” Glover shares. “There really, really weren’t very many around then, if any. I’m the eldest, really, of the ones who are operating now. But I could not be more thrilled as to what has happened since I started because there are many, many more of us. Not enough yet, but it’s so much better than it was.”

Thinking back to the early challenges she faced, Glover recalls people writing “horribly invented things” about her. People writing about her shoes. People “looking at bits of my body and not my baton.” But she also had wonderful mentors and supporters. And, of course, her work at the podium stood for itself. Her career took off.

Somewhere in between engagements at the world’s great opera houses and appointments as Music Director of the London Mozart Players and Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, a position she still holds, Glover found the time to write. Her celebrated biography from 2005, Mozart’s Women, recounts the story of the composer’s life through the women who surrounded him.

“I write about the women that Mozart created because, actually, he writes some of the greatest roles for women that you find in opera. You have such Shakespearean complexity and depth and sophistication. And that all came from his experience of life, and he put it into his work.”

Glover is looking forward to conducting The Magic Flute at HGO, she says, “enormously,” almost two years after she was originally slated to do so, right at the pandemic’s onset. Mozart’s masterpiece is, by the way, the same opera that she conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013, becoming only the third woman in that company’s history to take the podium.

“It’s just ridiculous,” she says. “I was the first woman this century. But no, I had a great time. And I have to say I’m going back to the Met this coming season, and in that season, there are five women conductors on the roster.”

Thinking back over her career, Glover says she’s sure she lost opportunities because she’s a woman, but that there likely were times when she got jobs for the same reason, because of the “new factor.” “And both of those,” she says emphatically, “are wrong. The only thing that matters, the only reason I hope people now employ me to conduct, is that they think I’ll do a decent job. The only thing that matters is the quality of the music-making.”

 

Omer Ben Seadia
Director, Joel Thompson and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Snowy Day

Omer Ben Seadia started running about six years ago, during a stint in Houston serving as assistant director for HGO’s Madame Butterfly. She was living out of a suitcase, on the road, going from city to city, trying to stay sane. “And so I started running,” she says, “and it saved my life. It saved my whole being. It just gave me order, and it gave me a challenge, and it was something I could do in any city.” Five years later, she ran her first marathon right here in Bayou City: the Houston Marathon. And along the way, she became involved with a volunteer organization called Girls on the Run.

 

Omer Ben Seadia - Director, Joel Thompson and  Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Snowy Day

Omer Ben Seadia - Director, Joel Thompson and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Snowy Day

“It’s geared towards young women, children, young girls, just in a group setting, to learn how to run, but mostly to connect and to form relationships,” Ben Seadia explains. “It’s more about the challenge, less about the physical kind of feat, but setting a goal, and working together, and practicing.”

Trace Ben Seadia’s career path, and it should come as no surprise that after discovering running, she wanted to share it with others. It’s something she’s done all along.

“I was always a feminist,” Ben Seadia shares. “I was born a feminist. I come from a long line of feminists.” She grew up in Israel in a theatrical family. Her dad was a theater director, her mom studied to be an actress, and as far back as she can remember, she wanted to direct, organizing cousins and friends according to their talents, and putting on shows.

“And then, when I grew up a little bit,” she says, “I realized that I really enjoyed the ability to think deeply about the world and about society and to be able to express intellectual ideas physically on stage through creating a world that sits on stage. And I found that concept very attractive.”

She went on to find success as an opera director, first in Israel and now in the States. Joel Thompson and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Snowy Day, which makes its world premiere this December after a year-long COVID delay, is the second opera she’ll direct for HGO, after making her company directorial debut with Tosca in 2016 and serving as assistant director on numerous other productions.

“HGO was the first major company I worked at out of school in the U.S.,” Ben Seadia remembers. “I was so intimidated, walking into that company and into that work. But it allowed for me to sort of witness a very high level of work and high level of artistry.”

Asked if, as she’s built her career, she’s faced barriers because she’s a woman, Ben Seadia becomes thoughtful. “The thing about that is, barriers are easier to tear down when they are clearly labeled,” she says. “However, many times, it’s a more subtle kind of barrier. And sometimes it’s external, and sometimes it’s internal. And I don’t think that it was ever presented to me in a clear-cut, labeled way. I think if it was, it might have been easier to deal with.”

Now that Ben Seadia is a mature artist, she’s able to view some of the challenges she’s faced more clearly. “And,” she says, “I’m actively working to make sure that the directors who are coming up behind me have an easier go at it.”

There are the women she mentors, and “lots and lots of women” who have helped her navigate her own career. And they have formed what she calls a band. “It’s not a club,” she says, “it’s not a clique. It’s a band anyone can join at any time.”

Despite the fact that every time she walks into a rehearsal room, “I challenge the concept of what a director looks like, and is like, just by my mere presence”—and despite all she is doing to change that—Ben Seadia is clear that in itself, her being a woman is not remarkable. “I don’t think that it makes me better. I don’t think it makes me more intuitive. I don’t think it makes me special. What is special or what is extraordinary is the work, the actual work.”

And the women doing that work, she says, “should aspire to the biggest houses, the biggest companies, the biggest projects.” Ben Seadia’s band is uniting to make that happen. “We often call each other and say, ‘hey, there’s a young director here. Can you talk to her? Can you get on a phone call with her?’ And I say this to my mentees all the time: ‘Pick up the phone. Call me. Call me about the big stuff. Call me about the little stuff.’ We are here for one another. There really, really is enough room for everyone.”

 

Lidiya Yankovskaya - Conductor, Bizet’s Carmen

Lidiya Yankovskaya - Conductor, Bizet’s Carmen

Lidiya Yankovskaya
Conductor, Bizet’s Carmen

If you want to see more talented women on the podium, here’s an idea: put them on the podium. “I started conducting when I was still a teenager,” says Lidiya Yankovskaya. “And the reason I started conducting is that somebody put me on the podium and said, ‘I think you might be good at this. You should try it.’ And it just felt right. And so I kept doing it.

Yankovskaya is originally from St. Petersburg, Russia. Her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was 9, fleeing anti-Semitism. “I grew up with a single mom,” she explains, “and we didn’t have any money.” But her mother always thought music was essential.

 

“It was a special part of being a human to be trained in music and to understand music,” she says. “And so that was always a priority. Piano lessons were always provided for, musical opportunities, and I was driven as far as needed to be with the right teachers, and I was brought to concerts of a high level from before I can remember, regularly, and that was absolutely key.”

Some opportunities, though, remained out of reach. “And that’s a problem of how music education is structured in this country,” says Yankovskaya. “In Russia, where I started studying, that’s not a problem. Music education is much more accessible and holistic.”

Still, Yankovskaya was lucky that her high school in upstate New York had a massive music program and amazing teachers. She immersed herself in music, and then, all the way through undergrad and grad school, she remembers, “I kept conducting and conducting and conducting.”

Were there people who thought she should pursue a different path? Of course. “I had multiple people throughout my youth telling me that this is something I shouldn’t even be doing or shouldn’t be considering,” she remembers. Often they were other conductors, or other people studying conducting, which was hard to understand.

Some thought women might be able to conduct choruses, but never orchestras or opera. Or, Yankovskaya remembers, “sometimes there would be something very silly about the strength that’s required, which, I don’t know. Last time I checked, a baton is not very heavy. And it was absolutely absurd.”

None of that could stop someone who loved music as much as Yankovskaya did, or was as skilled on the podium. Today she is Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, the first female in the role, known for championing lesser-known Russian masterpieces and contemporary works.

She is also the founder of the Refuge Orchestra Project and has performed as a guest conductor with companies across the country. Carmen marks her much-anticipated HGO debut.

Yankovskaya is incredibly busy, of course, but she makes time to mentor young artists—”women and men and people of all backgrounds”—to foster more voices in opera, pass on the wisdom she’s gained, move the art form forward, and pay forward what her own beloved mentors have done for her, both before and after she launched her career.

“I conduct because there were also so many people who saw something in me and encouraged me,” she says, “be it my high school teachers, and conductors of the youth ensembles in which I played, and my piano teachers, my violin teacher, the people who said ‘you should really do this, you should try this, and here are some ideas, and here’s how you can take it on.’”

 

Eun Sun Kim
HGO Principal Guest Conductor Conductor, Puccini’s Turandot

Eun Sun Kim’s history with HGO has been eventful, to say the least. It can be traced back to 2014, when HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers saw her conduct in Vienna and was entranced by her extraordinary talents. He invited her to make her American debut with HGO in fall 2017—with no idea of the disruption to come from Hurricane Harvey, which would flood HGO out of its home at the Wortham only a few short weeks before Kim was set to conduct La traviata.

 

Eun Sun Kim - HGO Principal Guest Conductor Conductor, Puccini’s Turandot

Eun Sun Kim - HGO Principal Guest Conductor Conductor, Puccini’s Turandot

In the end, Kim made her debut conducting the opera at Resilience Theatre in the George R. Brown Convention Center, where HGO would stage its entire 2017-18 season. And she was a spectacular success: the New York Times, reviewing the production, called her “a major star.” Following that triumph, HGO named Kim its first principal guest conductor in 25 years, an appointment that would see her conduct one opera per year with the company starting during the 2019-20 season.

Her next engagement with HGO was for Strauss’s Salome—scheduled for April 2020, shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was, of course, canceled. “I was disappointed, of course, but c’est la vie,” Kim shares. “You really can’t predict anything in life! Having my debut after Harvey and then these cancellations during the pandemic only strengthened my ties with HGO.” During the alternative 2020-21 HGO Digital season, she instead conducted Mozart’s The Impresario, released in fall 2020.

Now, barring a new catastrophe, audiences will finally see Kim conduct the HGO Orchestra for a mainstage production at the company’s home theater this spring. “I am very much looking forward to being in the pit at the Wortham,” she says. “Even more so after having the experience of working ‘in’ the Wortham during The Impresario. That was a short period of time, but a truly joyful one!”

Kim is originally from Korea, where she started playing piano at age 4. She took up conducting while studying composition in Seoul, after one of her teachers encouraged her to try it. In 2008, Kim won first prize in the Lopez Cobos International Opera Conductors Competition; she was already a favorite in Europe when she made her American debut with HGO. After that, her star continued to rise and rise, and at the end of 2019 she made history—and headline after headline—as not only the first woman music director of San Francisco Opera (SFO), but the first woman music director, period, of an opera company of its budget, size, and prestige.

It’s clear that for Kim, laser focused as she is on making music, all the attention paid to her gender can be distracting. Asked whether she looks forward to a day when women conducting half of all the operas in a given season, at a company like HGO, is no longer noteworthy, she says, “the quantity matters much less to me than the quality. When excellent musicians can get fair opportunities regardless of their gender, I think we are headed in the right direction!”

Still, she knows she’s inspired other women, and defied antiquated expectations of what a conductor should look like, not only with her gender but her age. As she told the San Francisco Chronicle around the time of her appointment at SFO, there have been occasions when she’s walked into the pit and felt musicians regarding her “as if I were a violinist arriving late to the performance. But then I give my downbeat and we go ahead.”

An interview she gave the New York Times is also illuminating. She shared that her barrier-breaking Korean grandmother, a doctor, was long described as a “female doctor” instead of just a “doctor,” although that changed within her lifetime. “So I’m grateful to be the first ‘female music director,” Kim told the paper. “But I also look forward to a future where the next generation will be called just ‘conductor.”

 

Francesca Zambello - Director, Poulenc’s  Dialogues of the Carmelites

Francesca Zambello - Director, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites

Francesca Zambello
Director, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites

Francesca Zambello’s incredible career as a director has unfolded over decades, on the stages of opera and theater companies around the world. And a key turning point took place right here in Houston, with her 1984 American debut, after HGO’s then General Director David Gockley asked her to direct Fidelio, in a production starring Hildegard Behrens, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

“The set was all set in a prison made of chain link fences with just a staircase that rolled around between the fences, a surveillance bridge, and a Jeep,” she remembers.

 

“At that time, doing something outside the norm was considered so novel and so different, yet now this is standard thinking! … For me, it was one of my first great directing experiences, and so pivotal in launching me to other productions in other countries and theaters.”

But Zambello’s path to success wasn’t always easy. “There were many roadblocks along the way,” she shares. “There were many people who did not want to hire me, nor did they want to help me. I was the only woman in the room on countless productions. Often there were encounters that were unpleasant and sexist. I would be lying if I said these experiences did not happen.”

She remembers a time when she was sharing a production office with eight men—and one toilet. “One of the men said to me, ‘Don’t think because you are here, we are going to put the seat down.’” But despite such brutal experiences, Zambello adds, she was fortunate that “there were some people, like David Gockley, who believed in me and my directing skills and artistic leadership, who engaged me.”

And when barriers went up, Zambello found ways to overcome them. “I always thought just be yourself, just create an atmosphere among people that is harmonious, loving, and collaborative. And that often became the solution.”

Now general and artistic director of Glimmerglass Festival and artistic director of Washington National Opera, Zambello makes a point of hiring and mentoring other women directors. Asked if she’s happy progress has been made toward parity in the industry, she says, “Yes, but it is still slow-going, and we also need to focus more on diversity.”

Of course, through the mere fact of its existence, Zambello’s own career has cut a path for others. Omer Ben Seadia, director of The Snowy Day this season for HGO, told Opera Cues, “Luckily, because of women like Francesca Zambello, because of the generation above me, I’m not the first one to walk into the room.” Hearing of this, Zambello said, “I’m very pleased that my accomplishments and sometimes challenges have paved the way for other female directors to be able to more easily find acceptance and validation.”

Since her long-ago debut with HGO, Zambello has returned to Houston to direct 22 times—23 counting the opera she leads here this season, Dialogues of the Carmelites, which, Zambello says, she never tires of directing. “At the very core, this is a simple and powerful tale of these women who hold on to their beliefs,” she shares. “It is a lesson in the power of the human spirit against evil. The lesson never gets tired. It never loses feeling like a contemporary story.”

Catherine Matusow

About the author

Catherine Matusow

Catherine Matusow is Editor in Chief at Houston Grand Opera.

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