One sunny afternoon last November, full of eager anticipation, I boarded a plane bound for Dallas where I was excited to begin a two-week residency in The Dallas Opera’s Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors. Having been part of the program the previous year as an observer, I was thrilled to have been invited back as one of the six selected conductors in 2017.

A comprehensive professional development program for conductors, TDO’s Hart Institute is distinctive in that it champions and promotes the work of female conductors. As my original article on the topic of women conductors highlighted, while undoubtedly there is much progress being made, there remains some way to go before a more representative gender balance in the field of orchestral conducting becomes the norm.

Carolyn Watson, Hart Institute, Women ConductorsAustralian conductor Carolyn Watson. Photo © Karen Almond

Now in its fourth year, the program is soliciting applications for the November residency in which participants work intensively with TDO orchestra and singers whilst being mentored by maestri including TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement and other leading international figures. Conductors also benefit from sessions on leadership, navigating the media and liaising with artist managers among a wide variety of seminar topics centered around the business of conducting. Making a five-year commitment to each conductor, the Institute also includes ongoing professional advice, networking sessions and summer residency opportunities such as last month’s at The Juilliard School in New York.

This Juilliard session, an extension of the original Institute, offered the opportunity for conductors to lead an array of talented young singers under the guidance of master opera coach, Anthony Manoli and TDO conductor Nicole Paiement. Professional sessions included seminars with industry heavyweights – Matthew Epstein, Aaron Grant, Jeffrey Larson, Ana de Archuleta and Robert Gilder. The opportunity to speak to and network with these leading figures on the US scene was particularly valuable, especially for conductors residing abroad, or in the case of myself, as a fairly recent import to the United States.

The original concept for the HIWC stemmed from Keith Cerny, former CEO of the Dallas Opera. With Cerny’s departure last season the program now boasts leadership of a different vein as Dallas Opera’s Casting and Hart Institute Manager David Lomeli steps into the role. Lomeli brings a depth of personal experience to the position – a successful singer, he enjoyed an international career before moving into opera administration. Having worked at an elite level with conductors including Dudamel, Janssons, Thielemann, and van Zweden, Lomeli has been very ‘hands on’ to date, guiding and mentoring conductors with helpful insights and advice from a singer’s perspective.

In 2017 the Hart Institute also included for the first time a cohort of artistic administrators – professionals working in a variety of leadership roles in opera companies throughout the United States. By incorporating these members, the Hart Institute continues to successfully expand its original mission and commitment to the development of a network of highly trained opera professionals… who just happen to be female.

To date, HIWC participants have been drawn from throughout the United States, UK, Australia, France, Poland, Germany, New Zealand, Greece, Romania, Colombia and Brazil. Successive years have seen a steady rise in the number of applicants, who last year, numbered 161 and represented some thirty-three nations. The reach of the HIWC continues to expand globally and this, arguably, is one of the most encouraging developments.

One factor which has been cited as a possible ‘explanation’ for the lack of women in top conducting positions is an apparent absence of mentors, one aspect the recent wave of women-only conducting masterclasses aims to address. Formal courses of orchestral conducting study in conservatories and universities tend to be led by men; in Australia for example, the higher education sector in this discipline is exclusively male-dominated. The situation in Europe is not dissimilar although Sian Edwards, Head of Conducting at London’s Royal Academy of Music is a notable exception. Marin Alsop, herself a prominent voice on the gender issue, is ever one to lead by example. In addition to the Taki Concordia Fellowship and Southbank Centre Masterclasses specifically for women conductors, Alsop recently assumed direction of the graduate program in orchestral conducting at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory – the first woman to lead a program of doctoral level study in orchestral conducting in the United States.

The week after my final performance with the Dallas Opera Orchestra last November, I was invited to interview for the post of Director of Orchestral Studies at The University of Kansas. A nationally ranked School of Music, the University of Kansas has a long tradition of musical and orchestral excellence. It was therefore a great honor to have been offered this position, which I commence in August. As I recently mentioned to US national conducting podcast Podium Time, my appointment has seen a 100% increase in the number of women heading up doctoral programs of study in orchestral conducting in the US for in addition to Marin Alsop at Peabody, there is now myself at KU.

So while the IWC undoubtedly offers the potential to effect positive advancement on the careers of those selected, its sphere of influence is much more significant. The Institute champions the very existence of women conductors and as a prominent American opera house The Dallas Opera has taken a leading role in promoting, engaging and mentoring female conductors. The Hart Institute is paving the way regarding how the music profession approaches and considers women – women in general, but particularly women in leadership positions, women in opera and of course, conductors. As the recent impact of the #metoo movement has illustrated, this collective value cannot be understated.