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First-Ever Training Institute For Female Opera Conductors Premieres In Dallas

Bill Zeeble
Australian Jessica Gethin conducts under the watch of conductor Emmanuel Villaume. He's leading this master class in the Dallas Opera's first-ever Institute for Women Conductors.

In a banner year of three new works from the Dallas Opera, the company this week launched a different kind of premiere: a weeklong Institute for Women Conductors.  

This school may be the only one of its kind in the world.

Jessica Gethin conducts the end of a musical passage by Verdi. At the piano are two opera conductors, including another Institute Fellow. The Dallas Opera’s music director, Emmanuel Villaume, is giving this master class.

“We talk about a tempo here… is that sometimes your beat is leaving you, because it’s a very strong beat, in a tempo that I don’t think you want,” Villaume says.

Gethin responds: “Yes, yes.”

Villaume continues: “So there are bubbles of tempo changes…”

Gethin is one of six Fellows in the Dallas Opera’s inaugural Institute for Women Conductors. She’s already an accomplished professional, having led Western Australia’s Perth Symphony since 2011. Now the married mother of two wants to tackle opera and sees advantages to this female-only institute.

“If you get on the podium in a master class with all males, before you even lay the baton down for the first beat, they’ve already pigeon-holed you as the female conductor," Gethin says. "Whereas when we sit down here it becomes more about the music and about the score. At least that’s how I hope it’s seen.”  

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Dallas Opera Music Director Emmanuel Villaume offers conducting tips to Jessica Gethin, a Fellow in the opera company's first Institute for Women Conductors.

Other Fellows see that and more.

Russian-born, Moscow-trained pianist Anna Skryleva has built a music career in Germany for the last 16 years. She’s a conductor there now. Through some of those years, she played piano during opera rehearsals and played here when Institute Fellow Gethin was conducting.

“It gives you a possibility to analyze the whole story of conducting from the other side," Skryleva says.

This week, Skryleva is also learning about yet another side of opera – management.

“In Europe, nobody teaches us about how does it work to lead a company," Skryleva says. "And I’m sure, to  be a conductor, if you are trying to get in a position of music director, and this is also my dream, you need to know the business, yes, how to manage."

Dallas Opera CEO Keith Cerny noticed for years a lack of women conductors or managers. He launched this institute to deepen the pool.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Anna Skryleva's at the piano taking direction from fellow Fellow Jessica Gethin. Before Skryleva became a conductor in Germany, she was a pianist for opera rehearsals.

“If you look at many fields that were historically dominated by men, accounting being one example, one of the arguments being made to advance women in that field was that in a sense, we as a society were losing out on half the talent pool," Cerny says. "We should not be excluding whole sectors from that talent search.”   

In the Institute’s case, that search led to 106 applicants from 26 countries. Based mostly on resumes and some videos, Cerny, Villaume and the Dallas Opera’s principal guest conductor, Nicole Paiement, chose the six fellows and four observers, all of whom are professional musicians.

Paiement wishes this kind of institute existed in her early years.  

“I’ve been very alone in my field,” Paiement says. “I don’t know a lot of women conductors and I think that’s very lovely to have that way of sharing, culturally and musically and artistically, and developing a relationship that I think can help.”

Another big help this week, says Villaume? The Fellows are conducting professional musicians, including singers and an orchestra.

“Time with orchestra is something very precious and expensive and you learn conducting by conducting, you have to do it again and again," Villaume says. "We are offering them real time with an orchestra and the possibility to then perform in a concert.” 

That concert caps off the week’s sessions Saturday. Next year’s Institute will last two weeks with a professional orchestra. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.