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Interview with Lisa Xanthopoulou, Coblenz, 25 May 2006


Anke Krump: Miss Xanthopoulou, how does a woman come to be a conductor? 


Lisa Xanthopoulou: I must go back a little to deal with this. The history of conducting starts when the size of the orchestra is growing ever larger and the instrumentation more complicated. This development took place over many decades, even centuries, and conductors began to create their own mythology around it. Actually, conducting is a matter of co-ordination and of service – the conductor serves the orchestra. He is not the powerful tyrant so often portrayed. But the myth persists. And it transforms itself: if someone today were to trample on an orchestra like Furtwängler, I believe few would choose him as a principal conductor. The attitude of the orchestra has changed. Bernstein is also part of the mythology. He represents a new generation established after the war. At that time, we must bear in mind, not so many people studied music as now. Then perhaps three people would apply for a position, even for a prestigious one. Today 150 apply for the same position. The difference is obvious at once. The 150 are less conceited than the three who would earlier have been candidates for the New York Philharmonic. I believe that the greater number is really the reason why present day conductors behave more modestly. The same goes for members of the orchestra. They are also selected from a great multitude and have become less presumptuous. On the other hand, they have for the same reason become more demanding: “I was chosen from 200 candidates, so I can claim to have a good conductor.“ Different factors come together. On one hand there is the increased modesty of men. On the other hand women, already exercising so many professions, are showing that they can also conduct. And so there are more and more women. Men become less presumptuous, women more assertive. Slowly an equilibrium is reached.

Anke Krump: Are women conductors, in your opinion, after all still the exception? 

Lisa Xanthopoulou: I think it is a process. We are still the exception because the proportion is not yet right. When in 80 theatres 2,5% of Principals are women they are exceptional! Then again there are female conductors who have no senior position – many already. They are no longer exceptional. Their numbers are growing so much that in ten years I believe we will feel that a woman conductor is quite normal. On the other hand the exceptional status has its benefits. People will always say: “Do you remember that Greek woman conductor a few years ago?” But who will remember a Greek man? 

Anke Krump: Does the press react positively? 

Lisa Xanthopoulou: The press always needs a good story. And we give it something journalists can use. Let them write what they like to write, because they will stop since sometimes the story does not sell. However, there is the type who, like many, writes amusingly about women. Many journalists emphasize not the skill, but rather the appearance or the prettiness. With primadonnas, it is not such a problem – they are divas, beautiful women, stunning, so with them it is a different story. With us conductors there is the lingering reflection of the power business I mentioned before. 

Anke Krump: Looking back at the establishment of female conductors, is there a difference between different countries? 

Lisa Xanthopoulou: I believe that the farther south you go the more male conductors you find. In Italy as far as I know there are almost only men. Here the typical differentiation of gender roles is still very strong. Also in conducting technique, in spite of all the variations in style, there is a slight difference: farther north it is more painstaking, farther south more emotional. 

Anke Krump: How would you describe the modern idea of the conductor's role? Does the power myth still apply? 

Lisa Xanthopoulou: Actually, a conductor should always know more than the musicians around him. A conductor must conduct a concert perfectly, conduct an opera perfectly, appear perfect, have a fantastic technique, know his music, and have a perfect ear. Twenty, thirty years ago it was otherwise. Today anyone who decides to study conducting must have the conviction to become a perfect musician – otherwise he has no chance. For every position there is a competition, for the competition there is a preliminary competition, and so on. It has become truly sporting. The conductor is expected not only to be perfectly trained, but also to be able to co-operate with the musicians. The climate is no longer one of authority but of respect. 

Anke Krump: Let us take away the matter of authority – what is left then of the myth? Isn't an essential feature of the classical working of an orchestra lost along with the authority? 

Lisa Xanthopoulou: Among musicians the myth of the maestro must and will disappear. For the public I believe the myth will survive: the marketing of the orchestra still makes play of this notion. I don't think the popular myth will vanish so quickly. 

Anke Krump: Will female conductors become as normal as female orchestral musicians? 

Lisa Xanthopoulou: Yes, of course. The more women there are who graduate from studying conducting, the less excuse there will be for men not to admit them to competitions and positions. It will also happen that a woman will take on a conducting class. 

Anke Krump: But examples are still lacking. 

Lisa Xanthopoulou: Obviously. 

Anke Krump: Until now it is above all in the amateur field that one encounters female conductors. 

Lisa Xanthopoulou: Yes, that is still based on the old way of thinking that a woman cannot make it in the ranks of the professionals. That is a hangover from social prejudice - 'It is genetically determined: a woman must be passive, in order a man to be a man.' That was also the case in marriage. In Greece a woman had to have a large dowry. The man came and saw how much money the daughter, or rather the father, had and then made his choice. Today, the woman also chooses which man to marry – if she actually wants to marry. I think that everything that happens in the world of music has a sociological foundation.

Anke Krump: What image do female conductors look to?

Lisa Xanthopoulou: Until now women have had almost only male examples. Unintentionally one accepted perhaps this or that conducting style. But the first beat is deep; the second is high – which has nothing to do with gender: it's unisex. You cannot say that a woman conducts in a masculine way. No: a man conducts as he must and women conduct as she must. The only thing I notice is that women conduct wide and high from above the breast; men have a lower centre of gravity. On the other hand, it is better in my experience as a conductor not to be too feminine. It detracts from the task. It's no longer a question of music but one of flirting. 

Anke Krump: Thank you very much.

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