Composers and conductors: women take the baton

Towards equality. Women are becoming more visible on the Malaga classical music scene, working with ensembles, premiering their own works and with a greater presence on concert programmes


When the Malaga Philharmonic Society was founded a century and a half ago, women were not permitted to be members. Their presence was only ever contemplated if they were "the wife of" somebody. Now, 80 per cent of members are women and in most cases it is the men who are accompanying them. The city's oldest musical institution, the most conservative because of its long history, has noted that times are changing and has reflected this in its programming. This season female performers and composers are taking centre stage in an agenda traditionally dominated by men, a clue that something is changing in society and, therefore, in classical music.

This is corroborated by the eight women who have gathered together on the stage of the Cervantes Theatre for this interview, eight professionals in conducting and composing in Malaga, the fields in which gender equality is most resistant. They belong to different generations - there are nearly 20 years between some of them - but they all radiate a sense of optimism.

María del Mar Muñoz was chosen a few weeks ago to conduct the Malaga Opera Choir in one of the most ambitious opera seasons since the break during the pandemic; the Malaga Philharmonic Orchestra is including a work by Diana Pérez Custodio in its subscription programme at the Cervantes Theatre; Reyes Oteo will premiere a piece with the Philharmonic Society at the Unicaja María Cristina concert room this season, and Silvia Olivero has coordinated a book dedicated exclusively to contemporary female composers from Andalucía.

A book features 16 female composers from Andalucía and one woman, María del Mar Muñoz, is to conduct the Opera Choir

Olivero, Pérez Custodio and Oteo feature in this book, which is published by Monte Victoria, together with Isabel Royán, Ana Blanco, Cristina Gallego and Inmaculada Godoy –all of whom live in Malaga– and another five women composers from the region. Each accompanies her curriculum vitae with a piano score to reflect "the state of musical creation in Andalucía".

"We are close to being able to abandon compensatory mechanisms now," says Reyes Oteo (Seville, 1982), a composer and electronic luthier with the ability to create music with her body through sensors on the skin. Their challenge these days is to make their presence normal, and not have to pressure anyone to include them in their programming. The aim is to reach a situation in which "nobody comments on the names," says composer Inmaculada Godoy (Málaga, 1972). "Because now, sadly, people think of us on International Women's Day, but we conduct orchestras 365 days of the year," says Silvia Olivero (Malaga, 1975), a pioneer in her field in the province.

Reflection of society

Diana Pérez Custodio (Algeciras, 1970) can justifiably claim to be a veteran composer, with 200 pieces to her name. She says women have always played an important role, but now they are starting to become more visible. "Women working in music is nothing more than a reflection of society. As things change to make life more livable, we are able to consider choosing this type of profession, which has always been particularly complicated for us," she says.

Teaching is something they have in common. "We all know what culture is like in Spain. You have to do something else in order to make a living and do this in your spare time. If you add motherhood into the equation... the less help you have, he more difficult it is," says Pérez Custodio.

"But when you are a mother you organise yourself just as a conductor who is a father does. We have to get away from those stereotypes where they decide for you what you are able to do," insists Olivero.

When these women speak, they often repeat one word: confidence. "There is a lack of confidence in our work," says Isabel Royán (Malaga, 1983), who specialises in composing for cinema, videogames and multimedia. "They still demand more portfolio, more experience from us, and at times it seems that male composers don't need so much background behind them," she says.

"They question you. Let's say a male conductor comes along and they take it for granted that he knows how to do his job, and when you get up on stage they say 'let's see what you can do', or 'let's see how you do it' or even 'let's see if you can do it'," says Olivero. This is a problem of social eductation: "The position of conductor implies an authority and society still supposes that authority is masculine," she says.

This is why it is still very difficult for women to access professional orchestras. The vast majority of female conductors work with semi-professional groups or ensembles.

"We have to demonstrate much more that we are prepared," says Ana Blanco (Granada, 1987), composer and the conductor of the Municipal Band of Álora. This situation, as Cristina Gallego (Granada, 1989) explains, becomes even more difficult if a woman is young. "A young woman isn't trusted as much as a young man, even when doing the same job," she says.


Yet despite the obstacles they still have to overcome, they all realise that the reality today is very different to that of just a few years ago, thanks to the many women who have fought this battle before them.

"I have never felt excluded, nor have I received disparaging comments or insinuations," admits María del Mar Muñoz (Malaga, 1985), who is starting along a new path in opera by conducting the Malaga Opera Choir.

"And this year two women won the Goya for best original music," exclaims Royán.

The new generations also have a decisive ally: social media. As Blanco says, online tools enable them to handle their own publicity and promotion and make themselves visible. And Gallego says there are now more women as role models for those studying at music conservatories.

But at this point a barrier appears and it deserves to be analysed: there are many female students, even a majority sometimes at the professional level of music education, but the numbers decline when they enter the Higher Conservatory.

"When it is time to push ahead with a career, they fall by the wayside," says Godoy, who teaches at the Martín Tenllado. Of the 347 students in last year's course at the Higher Conservatory in Malaga, there were 144 women and 203 men. And more than half of the women were studying just three specialities: piano, violin or singing, where they are double or even triple the number of men.

However, their presence is practically negligible in the Conducting and Composing department: 47 men compared with seven women (four studying composition and three conducting). The difference fluctuates slightly each year, but there are no signs of the gap closing in the near future. "The question is why these inequalities occur in these subjects, where it all comes down to the students' personal choice," says Reyes Oteo, who teaches Composition at the Higher Conservatory and is the equality coordinator.

Perhaps the answer lies in the slow and gradual integration of women into positions of responsibility, on stage, in the content of music studies and in the teaching centres themselves. They are more visible nowadays, yes, but still not enough. In this same department of Composition and Conducting, there are only three female teachers compared with ten men.

"It will take a bit of time. But the first women conductors and composers are inspiring and showing the way for girls, who are encouraged by it and see that it is possible to do this, that we're not weirdos because we're doing something that isn't traditional for women. We are lucky because we are experiencing this change for ourselves. I feel important to be here, making progress together with my colleagues," says Muñoz. And they all applaud.

female students enrolled last year to study Conducting and Composition at the Higher Conservatory in Malaga, compared with 47 male students, a difference that has remained practically unchanged in recent years and shows that there is still a long way to go.