Alice Farnham is one of Britain's leading female conductors. She is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Women Conductors with the RPS - an award-winning programme to encourage women into the conducting profession.
11 June 2018
S: How did you get into conducting and establish your career?
AF: I was an Organ Scholar at Oxford University, and started conducting choirs, which led to choral works with orchestra and then into symphonic and operatic repertoire. 3 years studying in St Petersburg. Then followed years of assisting, chorus mastering, and prompting in big houses and guest conducting with smaller companies, youth companies, and many major ballet companies. It has been a slow but consistent progress into quite a firmly established career.
S: How much of your work is in opera, and how does opera differ from the other genres in which you work?
AF: About 75% of my work is in opera. The rehearsal periods are much longer and collaboration with the stage director and singers gives it a more team spirit to the process, which I love.
S: What do you love about your job?
AF: I love that I will never feel I have nothing more to learn. I am constantly honing my skills and understanding of music and how to communicate it. I am never bored.
S: Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
S: (How) have you seen attitudes towards women in the opera/music industry change over the years during your career, particularly for conductors?
AF: Not as fast as they should be. I think I spent longer in Assistant Conductor positions than many of my male colleagues, and that was as much to do with how I saw myself.
S: What do you think needs to be done in order to balance out the male to female conductor ratio?
AF: I am Co-founder and Artistic Director of Women Conductors with the Royal Philharmonic Society - an award winning programme encouraging women into the conducting profession. I have worked with more than 200 young female musicians and music students in workshops, and many of them are taking their conducting training further. Working at grass roots is key to this and now that a few women are enjoying more interesting conducting careers than a few years ago, the role-models are more prominent. Long-term I think this is going to have a very positive effect. (see http://www.womenconductors.org)
S: Do you think the theory that women are naturally less authoritative than men is a true? If so is this just nature, or is this something that is conditioned in us from early childhood?
AF: It depends what one means by authoritative. If we are talking about someone knowing a subject really well and being able to communicate that to a group, and encourage and lead a group to work well and collaborate together - then men and women are equally authoritative.
S: There is no shortage of female representation in middle management in opera, but why do you think it is so rare for women to progress beyond this stage into higher positions of power?
AF: Often women don’t put themselves into the position of applying for jobs they don’t think they are ready for, where as many men will apply regardless of whether they have those qualifications - this is a well researched fact. An added difficulty in this industry is that it is rare that jobs are advertised, and jobs tend to be given by word of mouth. In that way, they are more likely to stick to a known quantity and play safe.
S: Where would you like to be in 10 years from now?
AF: I would love a part-time Director of Music in an opera house, combined with freelance work, and a bit of conducting teaching.
S: What do you think are the biggest barriers are for conductors who have a family?
AF: Constant need to be travelling, working away from home, and the time needed to prepare scores (which is rarely paid).