Only days into her tenure as general director, Christina Scheppelmann strides swiftly through the Seattle Opera offices, greeting staffers by name. Her handshake is firm; her manner confident, pragmatic, and often blunt. In other words, she’s the kind of person who makes people feel comfortable that she’s in charge.
In early August, when she took the reins at Seattle Opera, Scheppelmann also became one of only two women heading up a major opera company in the United States. Only Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera, holds a similar position.
Scheppelmann wishes that weren’t such a big deal, both because she would rather talk about other things and because she would like it to be less of a novelty.
When it comes to women in opera leadership, “I’m sure there has been, often, discrimination. But if I put this in my head, I will not change the discrimination. I can only change it by proving that I’m doing a good job,” she said.
Why are there so few women at the top in classical music? “It is everything from acknowledged or unacknowledged bias on one end to a willingness to embrace the lifestyle on the other end. And everything in between,” said Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national nonprofit.
Scheppelmann has witnessed outright sexism. In her previous position as the artistic head of one of the top opera houses in Europe, the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, she hired Oksana Lyniv to conduct Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” in 2017. “There was one idiot who put on some social-media chat, ‘Oh, you know, women shouldn’t conduct Wagner.’” After an eye roll and a few choice words for that commenter, Scheppelmann dismisses him. “They’ll go away. As more women conduct and conduct well, it will shut them up automatically. But it takes a little time.”
In general, she and others say, the absence of women in top positions results more from systemic factors than intentional discrimination.
Rising to the highest levels in the arts means pushing through a series of lower-status, lower-paid jobs, often bouncing all over the planet. Arts managers work long hours but may not earn enough to afford a nanny or to have the other parent stay at home.
While she’s loved her career, “I think that in this job, it would have been financially too heavy of a burden to have a family, children, to do all these changes and to move around the world,” said Scheppelmann, who was the first director general of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman before her tenure in Barcelona.
Anna Edwards, music director at the Saratoga Orchestra on Whidbey Island, earned a doctorate in conducting at the University of Washington and wrote her dissertation on “Gender and the Symphonic Conductor.” She says women in classical music have faced discrimination based on everything from ideas about what authority should look like to their voices and their conducting styles.
They’ve also traditionally faced a dearth of supportive teachers and mentors. “For diversity in general, if you don’t have a mentor — someone who is going to help you on the journey — you’ll be much less successful,” Edwards said. But “with so few women in the upper echelons of music, there’s only so many people they can help.”
Another systemic issue: the fact that people tend to hire people they know, or at least people like them. Which means things only change when the men at the top start looking beyond their usual circle at a broader range of candidates.
When it comes to hiring, “Let’s mix it up a little bit,” Scheppelmann said. “Because otherwise we won’t identify the good women. You have to, I think, be open-minded enough to make sure you don’t always look at what you’ve always been looking at but go a little beyond.”
Operas versus orchestras
In some ways, women in opera are faring better than in orchestra leadership.
Throughout the U.S., women hold about 44% of top leadership positions at opera companies, according to research by Opera America. In the smallest companies, 65% of the company leaders are female.
“In opera, you have a lot of female roles. So you always had women in this business, because you had to,” Scheppelmann said.
After all, you can build an orchestra without women, but you can’t cast a major opera without sopranos and mezzos.
A recent article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology showed women holding about 17% of principal positions (the top position for a given type of instrument) in 40 large American and European orchestras, despite making up about 40% of players in those orchestras. Until well into the 20th century, professional orchestras were reluctant to even admit women — the Vienna Philharmonic famously did only in 1997.
Marin Alsop is the sole female music director among the 26 U.S. orchestras the nonprofit League of American Orchestras ranks by budget as top tier, or Group 1. Around the world, the situation is much the same — women music directors are rare at top-level organizations everywhere.
The generally male leadership at classical-music organizations may also be one reason concerts typically feature so few women composers. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, added two female composers to last season’s slate only after complaints from the community.
Once Edwards became a music director, she started seeking out women composers. “I’ve really gotten to know a lot of composers that I’m horrified that I’ve never heard of before, people doing interesting, beautiful, totally accessible work.”
This is one area where the Seattle Symphony stacks up better than many. Its upcoming season (including both mainstage concerts, as well as performances at its new Octave 9 space) features works by 18 women composers, and seven of its 14 world premieres are by women. The SSO has also brought in a growing number of female guest conductors; in the upcoming season, four will take the podium. And earlier this year, the symphony announced Lina Gonzalez-Granados as Conducting Fellow — part of its training and mentoring program to shape future music directors. It’s a position Carolyn Kuan held a few years ago; she’s now music director of the Hartford Symphony.
Climbing the ranks
The situation at the largest companies might be grim, but women are quickly climbing the ranks at many of the nation’s small and mid-size companies.
Edwards has seen the evolution from the inside. Ten years ago, despite having been a professional violinist and music teacher for 25 years, “I could have named maybe two or three people who were women conductors. There’s been an amazing change.”
Since her dissertation was published in 2015, “at the top, it hasn’t changed at all. However, at the middle level, that’s where you’ve seen that change.”
While Alsop is alone among Group 1 orchestras, there are three women music directors each in Groups 2 (which has 19 U.S. orchestras) and 3 (29 orchestras). The number is higher in lower budget tiers.
One example: Symphony Tacoma, where both the music director, Sarah Ioannides, and general director, Karina Bharne, are women. That situation is “not as common as it should be, but it’s getting more common,” said Bharne, who was hired last year after having worked for other organizations around the country.
Bharne calls Ioannides “a great role model,” recalling hearing from the mother of a young girl who, after seeing Ioannides on the podium, decided she wanted to be a conductor when she grew up.
“She’s very collaborative — she listens to the community,” Bharne said.
Edwards says “having a variety of people in leadership positions gives you different vantage points.” Without women, “You’re missing out on an entire 50% of ways of thinking.”
Women head many semiprofessional and community orchestras regionally, including the Ballard Civic Orchestra (with Paula Nava Madrigal at the helm) and Seattle Symphonic Band (Erin Keeton-Howard).
Opera America, the LAO and other organizations are trying to combat the lack of diversity in leadership roles. For the past few years, the LAO’s Women Composers Readings and Commissions program has commissioned work from women composers, pieces later played by major orchestras. Its latest national conference was largely themed around increasing diversity and included a session on “Championing Women Composers.”
The league also has a section on its website giving advice on how to avoid sexual harassment — a big topic in the news right now. Opera star and Los Angeles Opera general director Plácido Domingo is facing sexual-harassment allegations, and the Cleveland Orchestra fired its concertmaster and principal trombonist after a sexual-misconduct investigation.
“We are the change”
How much their success in smaller organizations leads to more women at larger companies remains to be seen. But talented conductors are rising through the ranks. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, now music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, was an associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Susanna Mälkki is the L.A. Phil’s principal guest conductor
Things are changing on a broader level, too. “Modern life allows many things that, 60 or 70 years ago, were not possible. … It seems trivial, but it’s huge,” Scheppelmann said.
Those developments include everything from household appliances that reduce housework to the concept of day care to fathers taking a more active parenting role.
Edwards says that research shows a growing acceptance of women leaders in all kinds of fields. “Once you have an opportunity to work with a female, whether you like them or don’t like them, your opinion of having a female leader changes.”
She’s working hard at doing her part. She founded the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra, which matches amateur musicians with professionals, partly with the aim of mentoring less experienced musicians. She programs a diverse set of composers for the orchestra’s concerts. In the conducting camps she holds on Whidbey Island each year, she tries to keep the ratio of men to women roughly equal.
“I feel like I’m in a unique position — you feel you’ve been part of getting the word out there,” Edwards said. “That kind of enthusiasm is what makes it happen. We are the change.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct name of the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra and to reflect that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is now music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England.