Generally, when we think about shattering glass ceilings, we don’t usually start with “orchestra conductor” as the career in most dire need of feminist reform. But while attending the International Festival of Films on Art over spring break, I learned about the laborious journey of female conductors from a 2016 German documentary entitled “Maestras — The Long Journey of Women to the Podium.” The film follows the events of the 2016 Lucerne Festival, devoted that year to the promotion of female conductors. The theme was “PrimaDonna” — both an operatic pun and an aria to the women leading the music. Prominent first maestras of world-class orchestras — from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Sylvia Caduff to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s young Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla — discussed the steep difficulties they faced in taking up the long-sanctified baton.
The scarcity of maestras in the international music world is a testament to its enduring conservative attitude toward interpretation and performance. By nature, a conductor deals in aesthetics and performance, forms of expression traditionally subject to the gendered expectations of audiences and critics. In interviews, conductor after conductor shared experiences of the public’s instinctive resistance to the sight of a woman at the head of an orchestra. Many were pressured in media appearances to advertise their “femininity” within the visibility they received as conductors. All faced an impossible task: To reconcile their publicized womanhood with a career that already demanded high performative awareness.
At one point, a conductor wondered, “How do I be faithful to the art and take care of a family?” I burst into tears, reminded of the numerous cautionary conversations I’ve had with professors about this very dilemma and the still greater number of moments I’ve agonized about it alone. When another conductor spoke of the disparaging comments from every new orchestra she led about her appearance and ability during their first rehearsal, I recalled the unsettling self-consciousness I once experienced when finding myself the only female voice in a room.
In many spaces, being a woman automatically means being exceptional. The “Prima Donna” theme evokes a term both technical and pejorative, capturing the sense of exceptionalism women in traditionally male positions often face. Especially in elite academic spaces like Yale, a woman may experience an awareness of being a “prima donna” as the instant novelty of her presence raises rarefied, unforgiving expectations. It is as if every woman who steps up to the podium does so for the first time.
What was more striking than the “prima donna” effect, however, was how these conductors gracefully navigated it. Each was aware of both her exceptionality and her obligations to future generations of female conductors, neither emphasizing nor downplaying her womanhood. “We don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Hey, I’m a woman! What am I going to do?’” said Canadian conductor Barbara Hannigan. “It’s not the way we work. Everyone is just working.” Her devotion to the music occupied her awareness in a way that left little room for anxiety. She fully embodied her own artistic interpretation without having to cite “womanhood” as the inspiration. And the more she normalized her approach, the more others did, too.
Returning to Yale and the expectations of academia after break, I found these maestras inspiring examples for all women whose presence has been interpreted as a conspicuous statement. Although the documentary specifically dealt with conducting, the way that these women handled the pressure of stigmatization is relatable to any woman entering a competitive, traditionally male-dominated field.
Many women feel tempted to address their exceptionalism in spaces by obsessively emphasizing, internally or overtly, their womanhood. Perhaps the solution to the anxiety of the “prima donna” is, as the conductors suggest, to leave the mentality at the door. It is often debilitating to oneself and one’s work to carry this anxiety into work, and antithetical to the project of normalizing female leadership. I myself discovered last year that I felt far more comfortable and better able to “perform” when I ceased to mentally tag every one of my contributions as “woman.” More than that, the sense of ahistorical alienation that pervades the “prima donna” mentality disregards the work that has been and is done by female professors, mentors and colleagues every day to further female inclusion.
The journey to the podium is undeniably long. Yet as long as we strive to be outstanding rather than to stand out, we all have hope for a virtuosa performance.