Opera Steamboat makes statement by hiring only female conductors for this season
Opera Steamboat’s slate of conductors this summer is to be all female thanks to a recent grant from OPERA America.
For the grant’s inaugural year, OPERA America will subsidize up to 50% of the fee for a female stage director or conductor who is contracted for the first time by an opera company. As one of nine grant recipients, Opera Steamboat will hire Maria Sensi Sellner to conduct “The Barber of Seville,” to be performed Aug. 13 at Strings Music Pavilion.
Sensi Sellner has been conducting professionally for nearly two decades, beginning with a student orchestra at Carnegie Mellon University and then held positions with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and the Akron Symphony Orchestra. Her first experience conducting opera was in 2008, and it has been her main focus ever since.
She currently conducts a wide variety of repertoire in opera, orchestral and choral contexts, and is the artistic and general director of Resonance Works, the company she founded in 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
While there is still a long way to go to achieve equity, Sensi Sellner said especially in positions of creative leadership she hopes that soon it will not be unusual for a company to hire female conductors.
“In order to normalize this, it is important that women be hired and visible in these positions,” she said. “When children see people who look like them on our stages and in the pit, for them, it will not be so unusual, and then we can make true progress.”
Andres Cladera, general and artistic director of Opera Steamboat, said the organization applied for the grant earlier this year with an initiative to hire all female conductors for this summer’s season.
“We want to make a statement by hiring all women, and we are saying that women should be in positions of leadership,” Cladera said. “We want to give women in the conductor field a chance to be hired. To my knowledge, we are the only company to hire all women.”
In addition to Sensi Sellner, three other women will conduct operas this summer, including Emily Senturia, conducting “La Clemenza di Tito”; Dana Sadava, conducting both “The Magic Flute” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”; and Kristin Ditlow, conducting “The Marriage of Figaro.”
While it will be the first time with Opera Steamboat for all four women, each brings a lengthy background and excitement to again be working in person.
“This is a very important initiative and statement that Opera Steamboat is making,” Ditlow said. “Women are slowly getting more conducting opportunities, but historically, these positions and engagements have gone to men.”
Ditlow learned the art of conducting while working with opera companies first as a pianist-coach and then as a chorus master and assistant conductor. The experience, she said, helped her learn about musical style, how to work with singers and how to rehearse an orchestra.
Senturia has also worked as an assistant conductor, coach or pianist on over 50 productions.
“It is such a relief and joy to return to work in-person after the pandemic,” she said.
Sadava, who is on the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, conducts both opera and symphonic repertoire. She is also the artistic director of the Mill Valley Philharmonic and Pasadena Opera, both in California.
“Opera Steamboat’s initiative sends a powerful message that there are plenty of excellent female conductors out there, and we should be given equal consideration,” Sadava said. “If more companies follow Opera Steamboat’s lead, and also create other diversity initiatives throughout the industry, we could finally just focus on the music.”
Sophie Dingle is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. She can be reached through the editor.
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