BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
When I heard the news that Elizabeth Scott would conduct Handel’s Messiah at the Sydney Opera House, I must admit I was a little surprised. Surprised to learn she is the first female Australian conductor ever to present this work on the Concert Hall stage.
Elizabeth, who will lead 650 voices in this performance with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, will be breaking ground with this momentous event. But why has this ground taken so long to break, anyway?
We ask Elizabeth what she reckons about working in a male-dominated field, and why it’s taken so long for an Australian woman to conduct this popular work in one of our biggest venues.
Elizabeth, thanks for the chat ahead of your upcoming gig, in which you’ll present Messiah with SPC this Christmas season.
I am incredibly excited. It is such an honour to be able to bring Messiah to life this Christmas for audiences in Sydney with such a wonderful team of choristers, soloists and musicians.
It’s a huge production – and one that also marks your role as the very first female Australian conductor to present this on the Concert Hall stage. What does this achievement mean to you?
I am lucky enough to have conducted many times on the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall platform, but never anything of this magnitude. I am very grateful to have been entrusted with this piece, and to have so many singers and musicians working with me. This is certainly a career highlight for me!
Why do you think it has taken so long – until this very performance – for an Australian woman to conduct Messiah at SOH?
There is no doubt that conducting still remains a male-dominated field, although I’m not sure the statistic stands with choral conducting. As in most leadership roles across the world, it is a relatively new thing for women to be holding the reins, but we are certainly seeing more and more women excelling as conductors.
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs has a very long tradition of performing Messiah at the Sydney Opera House every Christmas (and more recently every second year), and these performances have always been led by highly regarded conductors, including British conductor Jane Glover. They certainly haven’t been avoiding female conductors, it’s just that there are more male conductors on the circuit.
How have you found experiences of sexism as a female pursuing conducting in this country, in a time when the broader classical music industry reports that 6 in 10 workers experience discrimination and harassment?
I am horrified by this statistic. No one should experience discrimination or harassment. But let’s be honest – we live in a sexist, racist and discriminative world. I don’t feel that I have been personally discriminated against because of my gender – I honesty believe that to succeed, you have to be the best at your craft, regardless of sex, age, race and religion. I’ve been given many opportunities throughout my life for which I am very grateful, and I don’t feel that those decisions have been based on me being female or not.
Why do you think there is discrimination at all against female conductors? Just recently, an interview was published in which big-name male conductor Mariss Jansons had said: ‘Women conductors are not my cup of tea’. What is a ‘woman conductor’?
Comments like that are not helpful, but conducting has historically been a male-dominated profession. Conductors are leaders, and there are still certainly more male leaders in the world than female.
But the tide is turning, and I think we will see more and more females leading countries, and leading our orchestras in the future.
How can young women entering the industry pursue their dreams in the face of these industry challenges?
Young women need to be the best that they can be. Study hard, work hard, be professional, be the best – don’t give anyone the opportunity to say that they could do better. Young men entering the industry should do the same. Excelling shouldn’t have anything to do with gender.
Image supplied. Credit: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios.