Bruno Mantovani on female conductors

Christoph Weigel (1698) Ständebuch Page title: Der Kantor (Dirigent)The ques­tion of gender in­equity in clas­sical music is hardly a new one and just a few days ago, Alex Ross posted in the New Yorker in­cluding some more re­cent up­set­ting com­ments from Russian con­ductors about their fe­male coun­ter­parts. Meanwhile in the fran­co­phone world, there has been heated de­bate about re­marks made this week by Bruno Mantovani, composer and — more im­port­antly in this con­text — dir­ector of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris, in an in­ter­view with France Musique:

I won’t elab­orate on my own feel­ings here, I’ve done that enough in other fora, but in the in­terest of this being avail­able to those who don’t speak French, here is a trans­lated tran­script of his re­marks (with thanks to Fabienne Séveillac for the French transcription):

I am a tiny bit… dis­turbed by all the talk about parity, or about pos­itive dis­crim­in­a­tion. Er, there are few fe­male con­ductors it’s true; there are few African conductors…

If we begin to deal with cat­egories, we will have dif­fi­culty re­specting the fact that there are stand­ards, com­pet­i­tions and also am­bi­tions that can be very dif­ferent for a man or for a woman.

As you know, the aims of an or­chestra dir­ector, of a con­ductor are com­plic­ated. We ob­vi­ously en­courage everyone to apply to join the con­ducting class so that we have as many con­ductors as pos­sible to provide for French and in­ter­na­tional or­ches­tras, but women aren’t ne­ces­sarily in­ter­ested, and neither can I put a bay­onet be­hind every fe­male stu­dent at the con­ser­vatoire, whether com­poser or in­stru­ment­alist, who might have the ca­pa­cities for con­ducting, to force them to choose this career!

There is also the problem of ma­ter­nity that raises its head; a woman… erm… who wants to have chil­dren… erm… will have a hard time having a ca­reer as a con­ductor, which can change tack ab­ruptly overnight for sev­eral months…and then after having dealt with… I was going to say taste­lessly the after-sales ser­vice of ma­ter­nity, that is to say, raising a child at a dis­tance, it isn’t simple, so you tell me that men are in the same situ­ation, but des­pite everything, the re­la­tion­ship of a child to its mother is not that of a child to its father.

There is also some­times even a physiolo­gical re­straint… erm… the pro­fes­sion of a con­ductor is a pro­fes­sion that is par­tic­u­larly testing phys­ic­ally; some­times women are dis­cour­aged by the very phys­ical as­pect: con­ducting, taking a plane, taking an­other plane, con­ducting again… is quite chal­len­ging, … so there is ab­so­lutely no neg­ative dis­crim­in­a­tion, and it is for this that one might at­tack the con­ser­vatoire, the Opéra de Paris or I don’t know which in­sti­tu­tion, but I don’t know if there should also be a pos­itive discrimination.

For me, the only dis­crim­in­a­tion, no matter in which dis­cip­line, is the en­trance exam or com­pet­i­tion.

This short clip sparked a lot of de­bate and today, feeling it ne­ces­sary to ex­plain him­self, Mantovani used the CNSMdP Facebook page to issue a de­fensive, cla­ri­fying state­ment, which I trans­late below:

Where are the women in clas­sical music? Continuation and end

Just as ‘there is no love, only demon­stra­tions of love’, I think that there is no mach­ismo, only demon­stra­tions of mach­ismo, or better still, that there is no anti-machismo, only demon­stra­tions of anti-machismo. The in­ter­view I gave to France Musqiue as dir­ector of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse on the pres­ence of women in the con­ducting pro­fes­sion has been cre­ating con­tro­versy on so­cial net­works. It is first in my role as a com­poser that I would like to re­mind all those who are ready to par­ti­cipate in such easy public con­dem­na­tion, that the au­thor of these lines has ded­ic­ated four works to Laurence Equilbey, has re­corded a CD with Susanna Mälkki, has re­quested that the Opéra de Paris en­gage this latter for his first stage work at the Bastille opera, and is cur­rently working on a me­lo­drama with Claire Gibault. There are only demon­stra­tions, I said, and here are some ir­re­fut­able demon­stra­tions, that should already be enough to si­lence the ill-informed prosecutors.

That being said, the idi­otic and un­founded con­tro­versy con­cerning my­self should not dis­tract from an in­ter­esting de­bate, and here the dir­ector of the Conservatoire will be able to ad­dress the re­marks ex­citing the blo­go­sphere. (I take the op­por­tunity to men­tion that the CNSMdP is one of the rare in­sti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tions where one finds an ab­so­lute bal­ance between male and fe­male stu­dents.) I gave the journ­alist from France Musique around twenty minutes of in­ter­view time, of which they re­tained only one minute, and if it is im­possible to have ac­cess to the en­tirety of that ex­change, here is ap­prox­im­ately what we touched upon.

The ques­tion of quotas of women in the con­ducting class was raised. First of all, I said that the con­ducting class has not been ex­clus­ively mas­cu­line for a long time. Several fe­male stu­dents have com­pleted their studies re­cently (most re­cently, Alexandra Cravero bril­liantly com­pleted her mas­ters dip­loma in 2011 and was em­ployed on an opera pro­duc­tion at the CNSMdP the fol­lowing year). In my opinion, a system of quotas in neither de­sir­able nor ap­pro­priate at a school. It is the quality of can­did­ates at the en­trance exam that is im­portant, not their sex, or their geo­graph­ical origin. (Incidentally, people seem re­l­at­ively rarely upset about the al­most total ab­sence of black or North-African con­ductors, some­thing I for one find troub­ling.) It would be in­ac­cept­able to put in place the least dis­crim­in­a­tion at the en­trance exam stage, be it pos­itive or negative.

That said, I am de­lighted by the en­trance into the pre­par­atory class for con­ducting (known as ‘ini­ti­ation’) of two young women for the aca­demic year which is be­gin­ning, and I really hope that they will be able to enter the ad­vanced class at the end of their cur­rent course.

During the in­ter­view, I also stressed the fact that many women are not in­ter­ested in the con­ducting pro­fes­sion, and that the en­cour­age­ment of an in­sti­tu­tion has its limits. One cannot force a person to en­gage with one ca­reer or another.

Regarding the po­ten­tial reasons for this lack of in­terest (and I stress the ad­jective ‘po­ten­tial’, be­cause — not being a woman my­self — my re­marks are at once a per­sonal opinion, but also a syn­thesis of state­ments made by women), I men­tioned ma­ter­nity, a ques­tion that often poses it­self at the same time as a conductor’s ca­reer is be­gin­ning (between 27 and 35 years old). With the ‘ser­vice après-vente’ [after-sales ser­vice, or cus­tomer ser­vice] of ma­ter­nity (an un­for­tu­nate turn of phrase, I admit, but it is also ad­miss­ible to have a sense of hu­mour when dis­cussing ser­ious sub­jects), I said that only with dif­fi­culty could a mother com­bine an in­ter­na­tional ca­reer as a con­ductor (very dif­ferent from the level of in­volve­ment of an in­stru­ment­alist, be­cause playing a con­certo or a re­cital does not in­volve a week of re­hearsals) with a re­cent birth. The re­la­tion­ship of a child to its mother is not the same as that to its father and denying this from be­hind an an­gelic egal­it­ari­anism is rather dis­tant from reality.

Finally, and this is surely the most im­portant, I re­peatedly stressed the fact that the situ­ation has already evolved a lot. Who could have ima­gined 20 years ago that one day it would be a woman (Marin Aslop [sic]) who would con­duct the closing con­cert of the Proms? Likewise, the fact that having con­ducted my ballet Siddharta, Susanna Mälkki was asked back to the Opéra de Paris, shows that the old, macho habits of cer­tain or­ches­tras have com­pletely dis­ap­peared. Of course, we are far from parity, but once again, this idea has no rel­ev­ance for me in the cur­rent state of af­fairs, and it is too early to be able to en­visage it. But the op­timism is real.

Putting me on trial for mach­ismo (which gives rise to quite vile opin­ions con­cerning my person on so­cial net­works and which do no honour to those who hold them) is sim­ul­tan­eously un­just and un­jus­ti­fied. France Musique, a sta­tion in the Radio France group, is a channel linked to two won­derful or­ches­tras where we cannot say that the bal­ance of in­vited con­ductors is par­tic­u­larly well re­spected. This is normal for the time being, and the situ­ation will no doubt evolve with time. In any case, whether it as a com­poser or as dir­ector of an in­sti­tu­tion of higher edu­ca­tion, I hope to par­ti­cipate in the emer­gence of fe­male con­ductors with ef­fi­ciency and ap­pro­pri­ate­ness, far from the eph­em­eral pas­sion that ex­cites sterile de­bates where any­thing goes, even the basest tawdriness.

Bruno Mantovani
Director of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et Danse de Paris

While on this topic, com­poser Clara Iannotta draws my at­ten­tion to the fol­lowing doc­u­ment pro­duced by the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques: ‘Où sont les femmes ?’ (PDF). It is an im­press­ively com­pre­hensive survey doc­u­menting gender (im)balances in a variety of theatre and opera con­texts in France. Collaborations with fe­male artists at various French in­sti­tu­tions reg­u­larly ac­count for less than 15% of that organisation’s work.

6 October, 8pm: The trans­la­tions have been re­vised in a couple of small de­tails after some feedback.

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Sunday, 6 October 2013 at 10:28 pm, filed under Odds & Ends. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted Tuesday, 8 October 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    He should have stopped after the 3rd para­graph (as dis­played in English trans­la­tion). That much is true. But then he con­tinued speaking…

  2. Alison Ames
    Posted Tuesday, 15 October 2013 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Dear Sir,
    many of the 20th century’s great con­ductors, who in turn had many stu­dents, studied with a deeply gifted FRENCH WOMAN. MARIN ALSOP studied with Leonard Bernstein, who studied with Aaron Copland, who studied with — drum­roll, please: NADIA BOULANGER!

One Trackback

  1. By The Pantograph Punch — Internet Histories | 14 October on Sunday, 13 October 2013 at 11:09 pm

    […] Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (who, quelle sur­prise, is a white, middle aged man) was re­cently quoted as saying that, amongst other reasons there aren’t more fe­male con­ductors is […]

  • Microbiography

    Chris Swithinbank is a British-Dutch com­poser who works with both acoustic in­stru­ments and elec­tronic sounds. He is cur­rently a stu­dent at Harvard University with Chaya Czernowin.
    Full Biography »

  • Hear