I remember a favorite old college T-shirt, yellow with blue lettering, proudly proclaiming “a century of women on top” (this from a women’s college), which finally got so shredded from overuse that I had to throw it out. Back when I first got that shirt, which is a long time ago now, I think I would have been shocked to consider how little headway women have made at the very top echelons of the arts. I got thinking about this after a spate of articles on the topic appeared in major newspapers last week in L.A., Washington, D.C., and London. The theme of all these articles was how few women are employed as top-level theater directors, choreographers receiving big commissions, and music directors of major orchestras.
Ironically, these articles—which appeared in The Guardian (choreographers) and The Los Angeles Times (music directors) and The Washington Post (theater directors)—appeared the same week that the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice aired on SundayArts. This Orfeo features two of the opera world’s leading female singers, mezzo Stephanie Blythe and soprano Danielle De Niese, in the title roles. (The irony, of course, is that the role of Orfeo was originally sung by a castrato male singer, a situation that resulted from barring women by law from singing onstage; nowadays it can be sung by a female mezzo or a [surgically intact] male countertenor. The motto for 2009 when it comes to opera performers might be one of cutthroat equal opportunity: may the best performers get the juiciest parts!)
In the Guardian article, Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of London’s Sadler’s Wells, which commissions a lot of new dance, was quoted on the topic of where all the women choreographers are. “It is something to do with women not being as assertive in that field. It’s not that I don’t want to commission them…. Choreography is still male dominated. It is something I am aware of, but I can’t make the programme representative for the sake of it. I have to choose the best.” This spurred a long blog post, “Why ‘the Best’ Are So Often Male,” by Laura Collins-Hughes who makes references to the old Lawrence Summers comments (you surely remember his famous remarks about women’s lack of “aptitude” in science and engineering).
Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Peter Marks’s piece discussed the slowly evolving situation with female theater directors, including people like Diane Paulus, Susan Stroman, and Marcia Milgrom Dodge (who at age 54 is directing Ragtime in D.C.—making her the first woman to direct a major musical produced by the Kennedy Center). And Chloe Veltman’s piece in The Los Angeles Times discussed the very slowly increasing number of women who are music directors at the country’s largest orchestras. One of the people quoted in Veltman’s article is Sarah Ioannides, music director of symphony orchestras in El Paso and Spartanburg, South Carolina. “A while ago, I auditioned for a music director position and was one of two finalists,” says Ioannides. “I didn’t get the job. Later, I found out from a board member that the executive director didn’t want a woman on the podium for its 50th-anniversary season.”
Perhaps my advice to talented young women considering careers as directors and choreographers would be the same as that given to Orfeo in Gluck’s opera: Don’t Look Back. It might be enough to scare you off.