Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Women Taking The Stand: Lidiya Yankovskaya

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Photo by Angel Leung Photo Arts

Walking into Tisserie Bakery in Midtown I am immediately surrounded by a sea of businessmen and women wearing suits. But there is a different kind of suit sitting in the back corner. Wearing it is an innovator in opera, a development that seems long overdue. As I approach female conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, one of the many burning questions I have for her centers around suits. Why do we care so much about what women are wearing and less about what they are doing? A question we all think, but never ask.

Is the typical power suit necessary for female conductors or part of the systematic sexism? She reminds me that this element in opera is a double standard. Lidiya says, “no one cares to talk about what a man is wearing when he conducts.”

Where are you from, and how has that shaped you as a woman and a musician?
I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, but moved to the states when I was a kid, which ended up creating a perfect balance for me in many ways.

In Russia, the music education and general culture of music appreciation is fantastic. Since the fall of communism, many things have gotten better for women and other things not so much. In the 1980’s there were more female doctors, engineers, and scientists than men. There were many women in positions of leadership, which is not currently case. When I go to Russia now, people openly tell me that women should not be conductors. How men see women intellectually is one thing, but when it then comes to something physical, like conducting, that’s when you really start to see the sexism come out.

Is the sexism the hardest part of being a woman in a male dominated industry?
There are actually a lot of women who conduct. If you look at most high school music teachers or choral conductors, there are women. The issue at hand is the higher up you go - say, The Metropolitan Opera or a major symphonic orchestra – the fewer females there are.

I think the reason for this is a combination of factors, but mostly I think girls in our culture are often raised to be more insecure or self-critical. You need a large amount of confidence in order to lead people and not second-guess yourself all the time.

I also think when you are in charge of many people or elements, you can’t afford to take time off or not be available one hundred percent of the time. So, many women feel unjustly pushed away from the top because of their desire to maybe have a family or dedicate a little more time to the home life. I read an article that used a great analogy: A woman comes into a job interview and says, “I have two kids and every morning I wake up at 5 am, make them lunch, and get them to school, and every evening I make them a healthy meal, read to them, and occasionally they get sick and I will need to tend to them.” Immediately, the person hiring thinks this woman is going to be difficult. Then a man comes in and says, “I’m a marathon runner. Every morning I wake up at 5 am to run, and every evening I cook a really healthy meal and run some more. A few times a week I have physical therapy and I may need to take a little time off.” And the interviewer thinks, “Oh wow, this guy is dedicated!” Those discriminations aside, I have found the hardest part for women is just getting your foot in the door, but once you do, you do your job well. Even people with strong prejudices just care that you do your job well.

Do you think this confidence building must begin at a young age?
Absolutely. The thing about learning how to conduct is that you have to actually do it. I was very fortunate to have some teachers and mentors in high school that encouraged me to get up there and lead, who saw that I liked it and that it came naturally to me. I was very lucky to be encouraged early on.

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What is some advice you could give to young singers?
I think in today’s world, it’s really important for a singer to be flexible, in a variety of ways. To be flexible in how they approach the creative process, to be flexible in terms of repertoire, flexibility in what kind of gigs you will take... I think a lot of young singers cut themselves off from potential success by simply limiting what kind of repertoire they are willing to do or what kind of jobs they will take. If you only take top dollar gigs, well, you might miss someone really important in the audience or be left out of an artistically fulfilling experience. But truly, the number one thing is being prepared and professional. It’s such a simple notion, but it will take you so far.

Lidiya Yankovskaya has recently been named an inaugural member of the Institute for Women Conductors at the Dallas Opera. Out of the 103 applicants, Lidiya and five other women were chosen to become residents of the program, which aims to address the obstacles females may face in the beginning their careers as conductors. To read more about it, visit dallasopera.org/learn.