Salvador Salas
Salvador Salas

Conducting to conquer prejudice

  • They are still a rare sight in the masculine world of conducting, but that doesn’t stop them. Five female conductors talk of their experiences

They speak with real passion about what they do, describing it not as a profession, but as a life. The adrenaline rush which comes from standing in front of a music stand, with dozens of pairs of eyes watching every movement of your hands, is like no other. However, if you happen to be a woman, a conductor’s life is not an easy one.

“I am constantly knocking on doors, and when they shut them in my face I wait for a while and then knock again,” jokes Silvia Olivero, who is 42 and a veteran on the stage of concert halls in Malaga.

Eloísa Domínguez, who is 26 and has just qualified, says it cheers her up to hear that she is not the only one in that situation, but she is also surprised that women are still “looking for a place” after so many years. “That’s right,” says Silvia. As 39-year-old María Ángeles Rozas explains, “as a woman, there is no way to access first division orchestras; it’s very difficult.” Not that that stops them trying.

“This is like a sport. You can’t give up because if you do then you lose,” says María del Mar Muñoz Varo, who is 31. “And when you’ve caught the conducting bug, you can’t get rid of it,” says Mariló Carrillo, 41.

These five female orchestra conductors from Malaga talk about their experience in a discipline in which there are far more people looking for posts than there are positions available. They have to be brave, but contacts are important as well. “Sometimes contacts and talent go together, and sometimes they don’t,” says Eloísa.

It is still unusual for a woman to be involved in such a traditionally masculine world. “I can’t wait to get wrinkles and grey hair, to see if some of them respect me more and stop referring to me as ‘girl’,” says Silvia.

Make no mistake: they don’t feel sorry for themselves, and they don’t want anyone else to pity them either. In fact, although people still ask why they want to conduct orchestras, all five are making a living from music, through concerts, conducting bands, teaching new generations and becoming involved in ambitious projects. However, the reality is clear: not one woman is the senior conductor of a large orchestra in Andalucía. Only three have conducted the Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra in its 26 years of existence, and one of them was María del Mar, in the ‘La Filarmónica frente al Mar’ cycle, at the Edgar Neville auditorium. In the 2018/19 programme, Lucía Martín will be doing the same.

Thirteen pupils in ten years

They are seen less on stage because fewer females decide to focus their career on this aspect: in the past ten years, only 13 girls registered for this course at the Senior Conservatory of Malaga (the only one in Andalucía to offer it), and this year there are no girls at all among the five student conductors.

These women insist that ability has nothing to do with gender. “The important thing is to conduct with strong, clear and expressive movements. It makes no difference whether it is a woman’s arm or a man’s arm holding the baton,” says María Ángeles, who teaches large groups at the Senior Conservatory of Jaén. She says that in terms of educational level men and women are equal.

“It is only a question of time before people think it is normal for women to conduct and it will no longer cause so much comment,” says María del Mar. There is still a way to go, though, and their own experiences and the way in which they tackle their profession reflects that.

Silvia says that has been met with responses such as “It can’t be this year because we have already had a woman,” or “When I said I was looking for a Spanish conductor, Imeant a man, not a woman.”

“If they think I’m not capable of doing the job then let them call me an idiot or whatever, but they don’t do that. The reason they give is that I’m a woman,” she says. She is the only female in the conducting department of the Senior Conservatory Orchestra of Malaga, the first to conduct Las Flores music band and has been a guest conductor for several orchestras elsewhere in Spain and in Romania (it is not unusual for conductors from Malaga to visit Romania thanks to the mediation of the former conductor of the OFM, Octav Calleya, who also teaches at the Conservatory).

Silvia defines the way she behaves in front of an orchestra very clearly: “The clothes I put on are medium size and my conducting technique is large size,” she says. She doesn’t want to attract attention so she sticks to clothes which are as neutral as possible, hoping that the public and the musicians see her as a person doing their job, not as a man or a woman.

“I don’t dress in feminine clothes because people would judge me for being female. I just want them to watch the baton,” says Eloisa.

Not all of the women agree, however. María del Mar believes discretion is necessary for all conductors, male or female. “If a conductor turned up in bright coloured clothes, everyone would laugh at him,” she argues. “I have felt more judged by women than by men.”

“There have always been people like that, though,” says Mariló Carrillo, who has never considered letting her gender interfere with her plans. She says she has experienced positive discrimation, too: a couple of months ago she conducted a concert in Valcea (Romania) for Women’s Day and will be going back next year, this time to Macau, for another event linked to women.

Conducting and teaching

The women all combine conducting and teaching, because the latter is a more stable job and one tends to lead to the other.

“I have a vocation for teaching, but I need to conduct because the more I do it the more I can teach,” says Eloisa, who teaches at the Triarte studio and also conducts two bands in Granada.

It may still be difficult for women to conduct philharmonic orchestras, but it is more common with smaller groups of this type. “It is an interesting experience too,” says Silvia.

Without a professional symphony orchestra, teaching also gives them the chance to conduct the musicians around them. For example, María del Mar conducts the orchestra at the Gonzalo Martín Tenllado Conservatory, where she also teaches. Two months ago she left the Professional Youth Orchestra of Malaga (JOPMA) for another educational project: creating an orchestral academy.

María Ángeles has conducted 17 concerts so far this year with pupils from the Senior Conservatory in Jaén. “For me, this is my life and I love it. I’m not crying over the fact that I’m not conducting a philharmonic,” she insists.

They all say that an orchestra, no matter which one, is “the best instrument that exists,” with an unlimited “versatility, range of colours and expressive ability.” They find happiness in going on stage and leading the music of this machine, “with the only musical instrument which makes no sound,” the baton.

And up there, on stage with the music, gender doesn’t matter.