When I was a 17-year-old violinist and pianist, a committed music educator asked me if I’d ever considered conducting. He invited me to lead from the piano, and eventually, to properly conduct a movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in performance. As soon as I was on the podium, I realized that this was my path. It was exhilarating to serve as a conduit for my peers’ music-making, to focus on the big picture, and to shape sound in this exceptionally collaborative way. By thoughtfully identifying potential in me and continuing to give me opportunities once I demonstrated aptitude and drive, this caring educator ensured a strong start to my trajectory as a conductor and musician. Without this early encouragement and experience, I likely would never have picked up a baton.
When I did not yet have the knowledge, connections, or awareness to pursue focused opportunities, this active encouragement steered me toward a professional career. With few female conductors in the public eye to serve as role models, I was exceptionally fortunate to have champions who intentionally propelled me forward. Today, I often still find myself the sole female voice in a room, and I see an even bigger lack of other types of diversity within my profession. How can we all work to bring a plurality of viewpoints to every area of our art form?
The American classical music industry’s funding and governance model makes us exceptionally averse to risk. In a typical season—3-4 mainstage operas or 6 subscription symphony programs—there is very little margin for error. Audience disappointment could very quickly mean the death of a donor-reliant organization, and industry leaders are under pressure to make choices that are perceived as safe and reliable. Often, this means hiring artists who fit the mold, adhering strictly to approaches that have worked in the past.
Compounding this conservative strategy, top-level hires are often chosen by board members, who generally are not industry experts and may feel insecure in their ability to select the right person. This uncertainty encourages safe choices that remind us of what we already know, further constricting the viewpoints represented in our field. In order to break this cycle, we must make an effort to go outside it.
The need for a plurality of voices within our field has become dire. If we do not begin to represent our communities and the world around us, our institutions cannot continue to evolve. As organizations across the nation attempt to deal with this issue, many continue to face roadblocks, despite incremental efforts. How do we break the cycle and move the culture of classical music into the 21st century?
I’ve had many wonderful conversations on these topics over the years, and would like to offer particular thanks to Jim Hirsch at Chicago Sinfonietta, Tracy Wilson and Julie Heard at Cincinnati Opera, and Afa Dworkin at Sphinx Organization for sharing their thoughts with me as I worked on this essay.
The Value of Diversity
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a diverse group of employees and leaders creates more successful – and profitable – companies. Studies within the corporate world have shown that a business model enriched by a variety of outlooks and experience can capitalize on more creative ideas, a deeper understanding of a wider range of consumers, and the introduction of new problem-solving methods. However, the traditional classical music industry faces a particular challenge: our model is largely built on finding individuals who can fit within an existing structure—musicians with particular technical skills, adhering to very specific stylistic conventions. This often means that musicians coming from outside an established training background must fold themselves into existing practices. As a result, rather than encouraging new ideas—as might be the case in a typical business model—non-conformist behavior is discouraged.
Jim Hirsch, CEO of Chicago Sinfonietta, has endorsed the value of bringing new styles of playing to the concert hall. One approach to tackling issues of diversity is simply acknowledging that there is not just one valid way to perform a given work. Consider the new interpretative ideas brought to standard repertoire by culturally specific organizations like Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. We tend to choose a single type of interpretation and believe that it is the only approach, but great art can come in different forms. We can see a clear representation of this by hearing performances on period instruments, or by comparing today’s practices to historical recordings. The way Mahler’s music was performed one hundred years ago is very far from our approach to it now. That older approach may be more ‘authentic,’ but it is not necessarily better. We have found something that speaks more clearly to our time and to our audiences, and that practice may continue to evolve.
Another, simpler way to increase a diversity of viewpoints in our performances is to promote and proliferate new work—to start with a plurality of viewpoints and ideas when first defining a piece of music. If a work of art embodies plurality from its nascence, it will likely continue to encourage diversity throughout its existence (see last week’s article on Shaping the American Operatic Canon).
The Porgy Problem
Opera companies have begun to make a concerted effort to promote a wider range of stories on their stages. Recently, operas about black baseball players and boxers, the wrongfully-accused Central Park Five, a black seamstress in New York, and the civil rights movement have necessitated the hiring more of more diverse on-stage talent. There have also been popular operas that feature gay and trans protagonists, individuals fleeing war in the Middle East, and more. It is wonderful that these new stories are making it to our stages. However, they are often accompanied by “The Porgy Problem”—the hiring of artists only for a racially specific project such as Porgy and Bess, while continuing to pass these artists over for standard work. While attempting to exercise plurality, companies are inadvertently creating a segregated environment within the artistic product.
The importance of actively battling this segregated approach to programming became apparent during the casting process for Chicago Opera Theater’s upcoming season. COT’s audition announcement always includes a statement of interest in artists from underrepresented backgrounds, but this season also features the world premiere of Dan Shore’s opera Freedom Ride, which follows a young African American woman during the Civil Rights Movement. The audition pool leading up to Freedom Ride included more superb artists of color than I had heard in the last several years combined. Sadly, artists’ or managers’ assumption that we would only want them for this project often limited the audition repertoire presented or included on their resumes.
As we were casting a leading role in Freedom Ride, a manager reached out to us about an outstanding singer who turned out not to be the right fit for the proposed role. At the time, I was actively seeking someone for a Russian-language project down the line. This singer seemed ideal, but since the agent did not propose her for anything other than Freedom Ride, I assumed she either was not available or did not have the requisite Russian language background.
I found the singer exceptional and decided to inquire. I am glad I did – not only was she available, she had sung this very Russian role before. This incident confirmed the importance of making a concerted effort to seek out diversity for every production.
In conversation with colleagues who specialize in DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) issues, one theme surfaced again and again: intentionality. This idea, of going out of one’s way to create opportunities for diversity, resonates strongly for me. My own career was greatly affected by others’ commitment to this concept.
The conductor who first pushed me onto the podium, college conducting teachers who generously gave me lessons at no cost, mentors who came to my rehearsals and performances to offer feedback – all allowed me to try, to fail, and to learn from the experience. Established conductors overlooked my youth and relative inexperience, giving me opportunities to lead and to learn. They put me in front of major ensembles, in positions for which I would never have deemed myself qualified, and would never have sought out on my own. In every case, a leader’s intentional choice to give me an opportunity to prove myself allowed me to move forward in my career. Without these opportunities to work in environments that pushed my musical boundaries, I would never have grown as an artist.
Now, as I seek out young artists for various positions, I try to make a point of looking outside the box. Though it is impossible to be aware of the entire field of options and some of the best candidates may fly under the radar, it is our responsibility as artistic leaders to anticipate this and seek out those individuals whose plurality will make them an asset to the room, even if their differences give hesitation. Music is an inherently collaborative art form – and collaboration is made stronger through diversity.
Intentionality in Action
Alongside individual industry leaders, institutions can ensure that intentionality is at the core of their practice. At Chicago Opera Theater, we have taken some basic steps as an organization to put this concept into action. The first has been to include diversity initiatives in our strategic plan, which forces us to regularly examine and track whether our staff, board, artists, and audiences represent the diversity of our city. We have engaged in active dialogue on these issues by joining a cohort of companies, including Minnesota Opera, for annual conversations and sharing of ideas. We are actively working to recruit a highly varied pool of applicants for staff positions, our Young Artist Program, and our Vanguard Composer Residency. We believe it is important to make the changes from the inside out—focusing not only on who is seen on our stages, but also on ensuring that behind-the-scenes decision-makers represent a variety of communities. To ensure that our progressively diverse team is able to communicate and work together productively, we are including cultural sensitivity and harassment training in this season’s activities.
These actions are a start, but there is still a long way to go.
Programs and Initiatives
Albeit slowly, the field is trying to change. Organizations like Sphinx and Opera America, initiatives like Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion and National Sawdust’s Hildegard Competition, and programs like The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia Fellowship are all moving the needle. In addition to grants and mentorships for women and people of color, these programs meet three critical needs: institutional recognition for those who fall outside institutional norms, the creation of a sense of community for those who feel marginalized, and training for groups that have been denied access to certain resources.
Of these, I feel the greatest impact of diversity-geared initiatives is recognition. When I took part in The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute, I already had a decade of highly varied experience under my belt, but was having trouble getting noticed by larger organizations and agencies. In searching for new management, I reached out to many individuals and institutions, only to be ignored or quickly brushed off. It was understandable—managers get hundreds of emails from artists; I did not fit a typical profile and they had not heard of me. However, the Hart Institute resources included mentorship by a retired leader from a major artist management firm. He was impressed by my resume, and immediately asked why I wasn’t represented by a bigger agency. When I told him that, lacking connections with major decision-makers in the field, I was having trouble getting management agencies to notice me, he suggested I write again, but this time including his name in the subject line. Suddenly, every agency I had emailed before responded—to messages with the exact same materials and content. Within a few weeks, I was choosing between four leading management companies.
Those of us in a position of power can easily make a difference by serving as references for emerging artists, making an effort to actively advocate for artists from a plurality of backgrounds. For an under-appreciated artist deserving of recognition, intentional advocacy and acknowledgment from a leading institution can make an enormous impact.
A Sense of Community
For me, one of the most valuable results of programs like the Hart Institute has been the opportunity to build a community of other conductors who have had similar challenges and experiences. The camaraderie that forms among a cohort can help build an essential network among artists. The existence of a cohort also ensures that an artist does not feel the constant pressure of being “the other,” or the burden of representing an entire race, gender, or culture. Building a supportive community allows an artist to flourish.
The importance of community-building goes beyond what we see on stage. In some of my earliest leadership roles—as Music Director at Harvard University’s Lowell House Opera and at Juventas New Music Ensemble—I worked in partnership with incredible female directors on the administrative side. These were women my age, whom I admired and from whom I learned a great deal. My colleagues were my role models and my biggest champions. In all levels of our organizations, ensuring that our artists find individuals who are like them—people with whom they can immediately find common ground on a visceral level—is essential. The more inclusive our environments, the more connections can be created among administrators, boards, audiences, artists, and our immediate communities.
At Cincinnati Opera, along with several other companies, this concept of community is also used in a broader sense. By hiring affiliate artists who are well-connected within a certain cultural sphere, an organization can use that artist’s network to identify and attract top talent. In Cincinnati, bass Morris Robinson emerged as a regular collaborator with a knack for establishing rapport with just about anyone—whether an opera connoisseur or a total novice. Robinson is also seen as a major role model for many African American opera artists, and is very aware of the top emerging talent. The company hired Robinson as Artistic Advisor—a role that involves him in many aspects of the organization’s artistic vision and outreach.
Eric Owens serves in a similar role at the Glimmerglass Festival, where the company benefits from the combination of his exceptional experience and expertise in opera with his access to a larger network of artists who may otherwise be overlooked. Both Robinson and Owens are operatic giants, who would be assets to any organization regardless of their race, but their backgrounds serve additional benefits—bringing new perspectives, new networks, and greater access to new communities for these organizations.
Networks can also be built through lasting institutional partnerships. At Chicago Opera Theater, we are using the shared thematic goals in the opera Freedom Ride to partner with Chicago Sinfonietta, who will serve as the orchestra for this production. The hope is that this partnership will expose us to new players whom we can bring back for many future productions.
The responsibility is on us all
Though the need for institutional changes can feel overwhelming, there is much we can do as individuals. Artists can use their influence, experience, and knowledge of various networks to make a difference. We can make a point of encouraging and mentoring emerging professionals who face the same challenges we faced early in our careers. We can recommend our colleagues to others in the field. We can promote and perform relevant and forward-thinking programs.
Consider your own daily artistic choices:
What is the makeup of the students in your private teaching studio, and have you made an effort to seek out students who are representative of your community?
When programming a recital, are you (and your students) including works by composers of varied backgrounds, just as you would make sure to include works by composers of various periods?
If you are a stage director, when deciding on the place and time to set a standard work, do you consider non-traditional narratives, and do you take the time to present these narratives in an informed way?
As a librettist or composer, do you seek out subject matter outside mainstream narratives?
When making recommendations of artists for gigs, do you include individuals of varied backgrounds, just as you would include individuals of various strengths, so those hiring have a fuller gamut of choices?
About which artists do you speak to non-musicians?
Whose social media posts are you sharing?
Think of your personal network of colleagues and friends – is it representative of our world?
To whom do you go for advice or to share your latest achievements?
No single action will be enough. However, if each one of us takes ownership of these issues, committing ourselves—intentionally—to a diverse industry on every level, we can make a difference. Symphonic and operatic performance are examples of revolutionary artistic achievement. If we actively choose to work, again and again, to create plurality within our art form, we can ensure that this momentous artistry has the widest reach possible, and continues to captivate audiences through relatable, relevant and meaningful experiences. Homogeneity will alienate us from our constituents and push us into elitist obscurity. Plurality, on the other hand, has the potential to build a lasting link between creators, artists, producers, and audiences, ensuring that the awesome power of our art form persistently resonates across all social, cultural, economic, regional—human–boundaries, allowing music to fully embody its greatest strength—the ability to unify.
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Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya is a fiercely committed advocate for Russian masterpieces, operatic rarities, and contemporary works on the leading edge of classical music. With more than 40 world premieres, including 16 operas, to her credit, she serves as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater and Artistic Director of Refugee Orchestra Project and COT’s Vanguard Initiative. Lidiya is a sought-after speaker who has been engaged by League of American Orchestras, Opera America, and World Opera Forum.