It’s a man’s world? 10 Australian women who missed the memo

Celebrating International Women's Day



International Women’s Day is quickly becoming one of my favourite days of the year. March 8 is the date, and I’m already planning a busy schedule including but not limited to:

  • Scrolling through endless Google images of Meryl Streep;
  • Bowing repeatedly to a shrine of Marie Curie;
  • Watching this interview of Hillary Clinton talking about Julia Gillard on loop for approximately eight hours;
  • And – most importantly for us – celebrating women in music who I find endlessly inspiring.

This year, we’re drinking from the goblet of patriotism and celebrating 10 of Australia’s most trailblazing women in classical music.


10. Lisa Moore

Who would have thought “New York’s queen of avant-garde piano” (The New Yorker) would originally hail from humble Canberra? Lisa moved to NY in her mid-20s and became the founding pianist of outrageously influential American new music ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars. After touring with them for 16 years, Lisa revisited Australia to curate the Sounds Alive series of the Canberra International Music Festival in 2008.

Credit Tim Moore.

9. Jessica Cottis

Born in Sale in 1979, Jessica Cottis studied performance at the Australian National University and enjoyed a brief career as a professional organist in Australia and Europe – before repetitive strain injury reared its ugly head and led her down the conducting path instead. Within three years, Jessica was appointed Assistant Conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and had founded a new London-based opera company, Bloomsbury Opera. Jessica returned home in 2012 to take the role of Assistant Conductor at the orchestra, where she would remain for two years. In a 2014 interview with Harriet Cunningham, Jessica spoke for all of us when she voiced her concerns with the lack of prominent female conductors:

“We are by no means on equal footing. My really big question is when will we see a female chief conductor of, say, the Concertgebouw or the Berlin Philharmonic or the LSO or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? Or the Sydney Symphony Orchestra?”

Indeed. And if you’d like to learn more about her days as an emerging artist, check out our interview with Jessica.

Credit Timothy Jeffes/Sydney Symphony.

8. Liza Lim

The music of contemporary goddess Liza Lim represents everything that makes this country wonderful. Indigenous-Australian aesthetic, Asian ritual forms and Sufi poetry are just a few elements her colourful music has captured over the years. Liza was composer in residence with Sydney Symphony from 2005-2007 before moving to the United Kingdom in 2008. For the past nine years, Liza has been building the stellar reputation of the Centre for Research in New Music, which she directs at the University of Huddersfield. Some recently announced, super-exciting news is that Liza is returning to Australia this year to join the staff at the University of Sydney; her first academic role in Australia. She announced: “I am particularly looking forward to working with students participating in the Sydney Conservatorium’s unique development program for women composers”.


7. Cat Hope

Hailing from Western Australia, Cat Hope is an eclectic composer, sound artist, flautist, bassist, music researcher and overall badass woman in classical music. She directs new music ensemble Decibel (best known for their innovative electronic scores and fusion of acoustic and electronic sounds) and was featured on the 2000 compilation CD Extreme Music From Women. In 2014, Cat (plus everyone other thinking woman in Australia) was downright horrified by the public’s treatment of ex-Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She wrote:

“Things that just wouldn’t be said to a man in that position were said, and I spent a lot of time pondering this – it was difficult to believe this was happening in the place I lived and worked”

Cat decided to channel these feels into the creation of ‘After Julia’, a concert program comprising music of seven female composers, herself included. Each piece was inspired by one of the many issues that cropped up during Julia Gillard’s prime-ministership, no matter how hard she attempted to run the country like a boss. My favourite thing about this project, though, is that Julia joined Cat and her band live on stage during the ABC Classic FM broadcast. *Heart explodes with Australian/musical/feminist pride*. Cat has also helped raise awareness of violence against women in this bold performance project.

6. Nicolette Fraillon

Nicolette Fraillon was born and raised in Melbourne in a musical family, learning violin and piano as a child. She studied viola at the Melbourne Conservatorium and headed to Vienna after graduation to train as a conductor. Nicolette described this period in an interview on the Engaging Women blog:

“Certainly in the early to mid 1980s when the Vienna Phil was all men – the idea of a female conductor was totally taboo and in many of the institutions to which I applied for further study, when I went to pick up the application forms I was told: ‘You can apply, but they won’t let you in because you’re a woman. It’s not written policy but it’s unspoken and you haven’t got a hope'”

Because she has absolutely zero time for sexism, Nicolette’s professional conducting debut took place at the Nederlands Dans Theater, when — rather tellingly — another conductor had fallen ill. Since she went on to become Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Dutch National Ballet, she obviously knocked it out of the park. Nicolette returned to Australia in 1995 to conduct the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, making her the first Australian woman to conduct an Australian symphony orchestra. In 1998 she began working at Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and five years later became Chief Conductor, the company’s first female appointment of this role. At present, Nicolette is the only female music director of a ballet company in the entire world, a fact I find simultaneously awesome and depressing.

5. Dulcie Holland AM

You may know her as the author of the iconic Master Your Theory series, but did you know Dulcie Holland was also an incredibly prolific composer? She was one of the few female composers in the mid-20th Century to produce a symphony. Born in Sydney in 1913, Dulcie studied composition at the NSW Conservatorium with Roy Agnew and Alfred Hill, two Australian powerhouses of 20th Century music. After graduation, Dulcie spent three years studying with John Ireland at the Royal College in London but moved back to Australia when World War II broke out. Just so she didn’t miss out on anything, Dulcie went back to the United Kingdom after the war to spend a year studying serialism with Hungarian-born Matyas Seiber. What a gal.

4. Louise Hanson-Dyer

Strong-willed and generous, Louise Hanson-Dyer was an unparalleled promoter of French, English and Australian music in the 20th Century. Melbourne-born Louise had always been fascinated by French culture and moved with her husband James Dyer to Paris in 1928. In 1931, she collaborated with the renowned French musicologist Henry Prunières on a historical collected edition. Unfortunately, the pair ended up in court when Monsieur Prunières underestimated how seriously Louise took her business and claimed sole authorship of the publication. Almost as if she was trying to prove a point, Louise established her own highly successful publishing house the very next year. She ran Éditions de l’Oiseau Lyre until her death in 1962, when her sizeable Australian estate was generously bequeathed to the University of Melbourne.

Louise Dyer, photographed in 1920 by Spencer Shier.

3. Peggy Glanville-Hicks

I wish I could say, ‘you can’t spell Australian women in classical music without P.G.H.’, but unfortunately this is not the case. At all. Still, Peggy is a truly immense figure in our history, being the first Australian woman to make her name as an opera composer. Born in Melbourne in 1912, Peggy learned music from an early age and went on to study composition with Vaughan Williams and Nadia Boulanger. By 1938, Sir Adrian Boult was conducting her Choral Suite at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in London: an event which had never featured Australian music before. The same thing happened 10 years later at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam, when the Concertgebouw performed her Concertino da Camera. By this time, Peggy had moved to America, where from 1948 to 1958 she was one of the New York Herald Tribune’s most outstanding music critics, holding her own in an all-male press club.

Upon her death in 1990, Peggy established a fund and residency program for young composers at her old house in Sydney’s inner-east, which continues to inspire some of Australia’s finest. Of her time in Peggy’s house, treasured Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin said: “I felt nurtured by the environment and the history of what she had achieved. I felt her spirit around me and was compelled and buoyed by both her kindness and brilliance”.

2. Margaret Sutherland

Margaret Sutherland is, in my opinion, the quintessential Australian female composer. Born in Adelaide in 1897, Margaret and her family moved to Melbourne when she was four years old (the year of Federation, for those of you playing at home). Apart from a two-year trip around London and Vienna, she resided in good old Melbourne for the rest of her life. At age 51, Margaret divorced her psychiatrist husband, who told her “composing music was a sign of mental illness in a woman” (good riddance). Her mission was to stress the importance of new music and Australian composers and she wasn’t going to let sexism get in her way. After all, Margaret was the embodiment of music in Melbourne, being a driving force behind the creation of the Arts Centre and having her say on the advisory committees of UNESCO, the Council for Education, Music and the Arts, the Australian Music Fund and the National Gallery of Victoria. She also trailblazed her way into our history books by writing The Young Kabbarli, the first Australian opera to be recorded right here in Oz.

1. Simone Young

A veritable plethora of firsts have punctuated the international career of Simone Young. A Sydney girl, Simone studied at the Sydney Conservatorium and started out as a repetiteur at Opera Australia in 1983. Three years later, she became not only the first woman but also the youngest resident conductor they’d ever appointed. Fast-forward a few years and Maestro Simone is the first woman to conduct the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera Bastille and the Vienna Philharmonic (the latter being particularly impressive, as this institution notoriously favours the Y-chromosome). But wait, it gets better: Simone was five months pregnant when she made her debut at The Met and kept conducting up until a month before giving birth, proving that having ovaries literally does not affect your conducting ability whatsoever. Simone regularly returns to Australia to guest conduct our major orchestras and in recent years has released CDs of Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle with the Hamburg Philharmonic, which are obviously the first female-led recordings of this work because, duh, she’s Simone Young.

Credit Monika Rittershaus.


Want to read about more trailblazers in Australia? Check out our Women in Music section, and visit us again for inspiring interviews throughout the month!

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