Rising star, Holly Mathieson shares her wisdom about a conducting career in this extraordinarily honest interview. 'The road to this career is precipitous and emotionally scarring for even the most entitled young white man'
22 March 2018
image © K Rose
S: How did you get into conducting and establish your career?
HM: I was the school pianist at high school, and assisted Tecwyn Evans in conducting the school choir. He took leave for a period, and I took over. It didn't break! But the more nuanced story is connected to composition, actually. I studied with the head of composition at my city's university from the age of 14; He was also the conducting lecturer, and firmly believed that the two (conducting and composition) were both far better served when studied as a pair. I think he probably also recognised that I was naturally analytical, had strong aural skills, and was lucky to have a physical aptitude thanks to studying ballet very seriously. I now see that those three strands - piano, composition and ballet - form the foundations of my current work process.
S: How much of your work is in opera, and how does opera differ from the other genres in which you work?
HM: I started off in opera, so it really was 80% of my professional experience, until 2016. In contrast, I've been doing only orchestral work for the last 2 years. It's been interesting to have the two realms of conducting in very separate blocks that way, as it puts the differences into such clear and sharp relief. Opera is overwhelmingly more about relatedness (unless you're stepping in for rep shows, of course), collaboration and a slow-burn process. With straight orchestral work, you have as little as one 2-hour rehearsal on the day of the gig. There is no time to discover the piece together and tap into the players' musical identities in the same way. No time even to really process what happened in rehearsal and adjust. It's more exhilarating, and of course you get through mountains of repertoire very quickly. But I prefer the theatre. I've just done a 2-month tour with Scottish Ballet. It was an even more intimate working process than opera. The protection of these artists' bodies and, therefore, careers is literally in your hands. You become so attuned to their breathing and movements, that you start to register almost unconsciously if someone needs more or less time in a chain of steps. It's very similar to the way you start to "read" singers' breathing when you've worked with them alot. There's nothing like that in straight orchestral work, unless you work with, say, an intimate chamber orchestra for long periods.
S: What do you love about your job?
HM: Amazingly, still, the travel. I get excited every time I reach a nice airport (the outdoor swimming pool at Singapore Airport is one of my favourite places on earth!), and I feel the thrill every time the plane takes off. Also, I love exploring the cities I visit. I usually try to stay in an airbnb, rather than hotels, about a 30-45 minute walk from wherever I'm working, so that part of the project is living like a local, finding my favourite restaurants and cafes, and learning the natural tempo and thrum of the city.
Artistically, nothing can equal the feeling of meeting an orchestra that speaks the same gestural and musical language as you. It takes a huge amount of courage, I think, (or folly?!) to take all of your analysis and decision-making, and try to encapsulate it into this weird, codified physical expression, in the hope that 100 people you've probably never spoken to will understand what you mean - or at least find enough in it to inspire them towards their own unified interpretation. When it works, it's a beautiful communion of brains and bodies. When you can't make that link with each other, it's frustrating for all involved. That's where opera is great for a conductor - you have time to learn each others' languages, if that connection doesn't happen immediately. Ultimately, therefore, you learn from each other.
S: Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
HM: The only times my gender has influenced my work, I think, are on days when I have a particularly stressful rehearsal or show, and it coincides with a really heavy or painful day of my period. Suffice it to say, as hardcore as conducting a 3-hour opera or Stravinsky's Sacre is, it is even more so when you have the agony of an exploding uterus. That bites! The only other thing that occurs to me, is that I'm very wary of conflict, and often resort to passive agressive or submissive behaviour around certain personality types. A huge part of my development, as a human and a conductor, is learning that I'm allowed to be in the room, to have an opinion, to have a different point of view from the players. I don't need to change tack to keep them happy, if they're rolling their eyes or challenging what I'm asking for. It's a hard lesson for me. Now, whether that is to do with being raised as a girl, a New Zealander (I think we are naturally quite self-deprecating and deferential - though my British husband would probably spit his tea out if he read that statement) or simply the circumstances of my own childhood, I'm not sure. Possibly a mix of all of the above.
S: How have you seen attitudes towards women in the opera/music industry change over the years during your career, particularly for conductors?
HM: I think the situation for "Western" women in many realms of life was actually better for a while some decades ago. Then the 80s, 90s, 00s took much of feminism backwards - basically when we started seeing pop culture packaging femininity and feminism into cute, sugary consumables, things went downhill in quite a few areas of gendered life. I remember, for instance as a kid, there were just toys. These days, kids are forced to choose between the pink and blue version, and gender identity is so indelibly linked to capitalism. I nearly throw up when I walk past aisles of women's magazines, all with airbrushed, idealised images that not a single woman on the planet actually identifies with (including the woman in the image, as she's been so heavily photoshopped). I see young kids in universities and high schools with the most bizarre and, honestly, heartbreaking makeup rituals - thinking they need to come to class looking like an anime cartoon. It's surreal. How we are raised to configure our self-worth affects absolutely everything (as it does for men).
We will only be able to reflect in retrospect how that's affected our industry, I think. But certainly, I think this sudden rush to redress the balance of male and female conductors is resulting in some rash appointments, naive marketing and journalism, and ultimately may do as much harm as good in getting really great women conductors into the industry. I was asked in an interview recently, whether I think any young person with a hint of interest should give it a try, and I had to answer honestly "no". I cannot think of any other job that requires such a complex range of simultaneous cognitive processes - analytical, critical, creative, psychological, physical, and managerial to name but a few - in real time. And all of it is merely a means to an end; namely, the pursuit of a significant and robust musical idea. In many cases, the people best equipped to do that are often the ones who would not by nature be drawn to it as a young student. I'm always incredibly sceptical of people who say they knew as a kid that they wanted to be a conductor. It suggests to me that their reasons for doing it are more to do with the image of themselves at the front of the stage, rather than the actual processes involved. Of course I'm being a curmudgeon, apologies...!
S: What do you think needs to be done in order to balance out the male to female conductor ratio that we currently see in opera? What is already being done?
HM: In my opinion, it must be about quality and experience, rather than numbers and promotability. One of the most exciting current pre-professional conductors, in my opinion, is an unassuming woman in her 50s. She's played professionally all her life under fantastic conductors, has every piece of the major repertoire flowing through her veins as a result, and - more importantly - has been sitting there quietly analysing the works, and building an armoury of knowledge about the way to bow, breath, phrase, rehearse these works. By luck, she has a wonderfully direct, no bullshit technical and personal aptitude. She is the exact opposite of what orchestras want to put on a poster to sell their concerts. Not glamorous, no flowing hair, no designer clothes. Just a super-informed, musically mature woman from South-East London with a brain full of knowledge to share. I think we would be better to get 10 women like her into the professional circle over the next ten years, than 100 younger women without that level of musical development. This isn't to say that young women can't have ideas. But the process to grow people who will have the essential balance of knowledge, ideas and social nouse starts when they are preschoolers, and in every realm of life, it is usually boys who are given those essential ingredients. To really make a difference, in this and other high-skill industries and careers, we need to change the way we raise girls (and people of colour, and kids from underprivileged backgrounds), so that they're ready for careers like this when they get to university or college, rather than gathering the skills through life experience, while their male schoolmates step into these roles with greater confidence and rise through the ranks. That is a long-term process, so we need to be really patient.
I had a young woman contact me recently saying she wanted to get into orchestral conducting. I asked her the usual questions about which instruments and languages she'd studied, what her musical background was etc. It turned out she was about grade 4 on the piano, played a bit of guitar and liked singing in her college choir. I was really torn: part of me feels I should be encouraging all young people, especially young women, to pursue this, if they want to. But on the other hand, after a few emails back and forward, it became pretty evident that she had no real musical insight or knowledge, and - far more worryingly - no inclination whatsoever to develop that side of her work. She just liked the idea of being at the front, and connecting her body to music. I couldn't bring myself to recommend her to apply for the many wonderful masterclasses on offer at the moment, because actually I think we are better to have fewer people (male and female) training as conductors, but make sure they genuinely have the intellect, ears and ideas to do it well, and really give them a chance to grow. Perhaps that means that it will take longer to reach our overall (and absolutely admirable!) aim of a 50/50 split at the top end, but the change will be far more enduring and meaningful if the women being put into those positions really are good at what they do. I admit that will make me unpopular in some circles, but there are far too many orchestras and managers who would be delighted to use the mediocre or naive work of the one woman they hire in a season as evidence that women can't do the job. Marin Alsop has the right approach, I think - give really good women multiple chances to learn, make mistakes, and form themselves in safe situations with orchestras who know how to nourish and teach. The road to this career is precipitous and emotionally scarring for even the most entitled young white man. For the people standing in the dust behind him - those with a different gender, skin colour or social background - it is suicidal to even attempt it, without the sturdiest safety gear around you.
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?
HM: The latter, absolutely. It's not even about being authoritative, as I don't see conducting as an authoritative role, necessarily, more one of enabling. I think the problem is that girls are often not raised to have big ideas, to think critically, or to make demands. So we learn to be less authoritative. But also, in the process of learning to "woman", we are taught specific ways to be authoritative, most of which have huge, and deeply embedded cultural resonances. I was very lucky to study with Paavo Jarvi one summer - he is a tremendous teacher for women. He has no awkwardness about the gender issues - physical and psychological - and actually opens you up to the tremendous power you have in your female-ness, rather than trying to shut it down. We were all watching one of my female colleagues take to the podium in one session. She was smart, confident, incredibly well-prepared and had good ears. But something was irksome and no-one could quite put their finger on what it was. You noticed she was on the podium, in some way, which is never a good thing. Anyway, Paavo noticed that every time she wanted to make point, gesturally, she leaned forward and cocked her head to the side slightly, and made the point with a pointed left hand at the person intended. He got it in a nutshell. That gesture, from a woman, equals school ma'am. It immediately shuts people off. And when we then reflected on authoritative movements for women, we realised so many of them actually scream "mummy telling you off", or "nagging wife" - all of these deep, culturally embedded messages. Real or not, they're there, and we must find ways around them in our line of work, for that unbroken, uncluttered communication with orchestras to function. I should add, there are plethora things for male conductors to consider too! But in the case of women and people of colour, these things have been culturally linked to social inferiority for centuries. We can't undo that in a few decades, especially without quite substantial social reform.
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?
HM: My guess is that it is to do with the same processes that I talked about earlier - The ingredients for being a leader in any field are nurtured in very few girls. So our opening up to our potential, and developing of those social and mental facilities starts when our male colleagues are already in their first positions. Also, and especially in the UK, nepotism is so rife that it's almost a badge of pride. The more diverse we make our political landscape, the sooner it will spread into other areas, I hope. When I tried to explain to a Swedish colleague that most of the UK's political heavyweights come from a tiny number of schools and universities, he was incredulous.
S: Where would you like to be in 10 years from now?
HM: I'm not particularly fussed about the specifics, but I hope I will be working with like-minded people who enjoy a collaborative, adventurous and healthy artistic process; still doing a fair amount of work with children and young people; and still waking up each day excited about the next flight. I also hope I will have carved out a life that includes hobbies (I'm desperate to take up pottery), gardening and time to have a cuppa in bed in the morning with my husband. I have zero interest in doing classical music 100% of my waking hours until I drop, and can't imagine that such a lifestyle grows interesting music-makers.
S: What do you think are the biggest barriers for conductors who have families.
HM: The amount of travel is prohibitive, as are the number of hours required to study, not to mention the space and quiet needed to to so. My husband and I are both conductors. We see each other sometimes as little as one night in a fortnight - and our careers are only just starting to bud, so we’re prepared for it to become even less. We are very realistic about what that means for our domestic life. We simply wouldn't want to bring a child up in that environment, unless something drastic changed in our circumstances. Every ounce of energy and attention goes into our study and work, and supporting each other.
[Update: As for many people, Covid provided the drastic change in circumstances! We have a little girl due in late June 2022. During the pandemic, we shifted our work patterns to consist of longer patches of work settled in fewer places, for which we now insist on travelling together, rather than being separated for months at a time. So she will be coming to the east coast of Canada with us for 5 weeks when she's 3 months old, followed by 7 weeks in Denmark, while I do some long patches of conducting. Jon will be on primary parent duty in those months. I've then cleared my diary of any International touring until mid-spring, when we'll go back to Canada. So in between those trips, we'll swap duties - Jon can sink his teeth into projects, and bubs and I can have a our time together at home. It's a welcome change!]
S: Which operatic heroines interest you, and which bore you?
HM: If I struggle with anything in opera and ballet, it is the depictions of women - so many of them are fetishised caricatures of a bloke's sexual desires. However, oddly, I find Butterfly a tremendously touching character and if I had continued singing, I would have loved to be Janáček's Vixen - I've always identified with her very strongly: Physically and mentally capable, canny,pragmatic, yet still very vulnerable. She is a tremendously well-rounded and perfectly-drawn character. In contrast, it is one of my most vehement lifetime ambitions to never conduct Gilbert and Sullivan.
S: Which women in the opera industry do you admire?
HM: Joyce DiDonato is a powerhouse of energy, experimentation, intellect and empathy. I love everything about her to bits, and it would be a beyond my wildest dreams to accompany her one day, and try to imbibe some of whatever wild juice she's on.