Women leaders in classical music speak

The “Women leaders in classical music speak” panel discussion was live streamed on Facebook on 12 March 2021 as part of the 2021 edition of the Francophonie Festival in Singapore. In line with this year’s theme, the panel discussion was anchored around gender equality in the classical music industry. Altogether, the panel was presented by the embassies of France and Romania in Singapore in partnership with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.


  • Adeline Wong, Singapore-based Malaysian composer and Senior Lecturer in Composition at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music and President of the Malaysian Composers Collective
  • Nancy Yuen, Singaporean soprano, and Artistic Director of Singapore Lyric Opera
  • Mihaela Cesa-Goje, Romanian conductor and Professor in conducting at the Gheorghe Dima National Music Academy in Cluj Napoca, Romania
  • Claire Gibault Founder and artistic director, the Paris Mozart Orchestra; Co-director, La Maestra – Competition and Academy for Women Conductors.


  • Christel Hon, Senior Producer at Esplanade
Executive summary:

Largely dominated by male figures in Europe and Asia, the classical music industry presents challenges to navigate for women wishing to reach leadership positions. It is especially true for women to reach leadership position as composers, performers, and conductors. The panel presented perspectives from those three angles.


Watch the full video on Facebook here.

  1. Female composers

In bringing up a meaningful experience where she worked with a Wayang Kulit ensemble (Kelantan, Malaysia) and the PUSAKA organisation in a project commissioned by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Adeline Wong articulated the multi-faceted challenges faced on the job. In this project, the challenge of teaching and composing music in a male-dominated group as a female composer was compounded by the significant differences in Western and traditional Malay music. For instance, the Western tradition of sticking to notations clashed with the improvised nature of Malay music. Above these challenges, the Wayang Kulit musicians faced performance anxiety during the rehearsal in a classical music concert hall, a setting outside of their comfort zone. Ultimately, everyone came together to make the show a success enabled by her leadership in the final lap. In the end, a real connection was forged when all the musicians realised that they shared the same passion for their art no matter the differences in music traditions, beliefs, values or gender. This experience was also crucial to her professional development as Adeline felt that she matured as a composer.

If one looks to strict orchestral programming, there is an imbalance in the number of female composers featured to that of male composers. With that said, the realm of composition extends beyond this to chamber music, choral music, and fieldwork, among others. Hence, if one takes a wider view, we see that there is room for female composers to manoeuvre. Moreover, women composers are given more opportunities than before despite the constant need to improve to bridge the gender disparity.


  1. Performers

For Nancy Yuen, an opera singer, there have always been more male roles than female ones. For instance, there tends to be only one leading role for sopranos in most operas whereas there are numerous male roles as tenors and baritones. This makes the competition for limited female roles fierce and challenging to attain. Apart from the availability of opportunities, the themes and topics of opera can often be misogynistic and sexist.

Nancy also brought up a few instances where she experienced some form of discrimination. For example, she revealed the comments she received during auditions for “wearing the wrong dress” which had nothing to do with her performance and remarks about how to be a woman from male directors. She observed that she has never come across a female general manager or director throughout her career as those roles tend to be filled by men. With regards to pay, she was once paid half the fee of the leading male when she played Cio-cio-san in Madame Butterfly despite singing much more notes than him.

As an artistic director of the Singapore Lyric Opera and the only woman in a male-dominated environment, she does not play the female card and sticks to strict professionalism in line with her belief that it is the quality of work that counts.


  1. Conductors

Christel Hon maintained that the gender imbalance in the profession of conducting is still appalling despite improvements across time. In the last decade, there has been an explosion in the number of female conductors. Nevertheless, in a 2019 ranking of top-100 conductors, only 8 were female.

For Mihaela Cesa-Goje, conducting is a long journey during which she received tremendous support from a female mentor Marin Alsop, who has now created a fellowship for women conductors: Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. She had also been part of the Dallas Opera Project as a recipient of The Hart Institute for Woman Conductors that provides tailored guidance and spotlight at the beginning of a female musicians’ professional career.

She also highlighted the big gap between graduating and embarking on a professional career as a conductor by highlighting the disparity in male and female principal conductors and music directors. Instead of occupying full-time positions, most female conductors fill guest conductor roles. Working off this issue, there is a need to offer more opportunities which can come in the form of assistantships for young conductors and building programmes that offer professional guidance to have more female conductors. Mihaela brought up the example of the Gheorghe Dima International Competition for conducting and composition, that she is leading which mixes learning and competing for its participants. This encompassed receiving feedback and working directly with members of the jury while competing which heightened the learning process. Elsewhere, organising music festivals could be an inlet to bring people together and raise awareness such that different projects may garner greater support from the authorities.

Claire Gibault recounted her experiences facing multiple challenges as a female conductor despite her immense success having won her first prize at 23 and being the first woman to conduct the Filarmonica della Scala Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. For instance, she remarked that the comparison of her achievement as the first female conductor in La Scalla to that of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon was ridiculous as it seemed to portray her role as extraordinary to the extent of being freakish. Claire also shared the challenges she faced applying for the position of music director in multiple French orchestras. Despite her track record of conducting acclaimed concerts internationally, she was not even considered. This motivated Claire to create her orchestra which she found was the best way for women to fill the role of a conductor. Inspired by her experience with Claudio Abbado, with whom she co-founded the Orchestra Mozart di Bologna, she created the Paris Mozart Orchestra whose members would co-sign a code of ethics against all kinds of discrimination and enshrine a principle of gender equality among section leaders.

For Claire, creating La Maestra, an international conducting competition with a complementary Academy that is co-organised by the Paris Mozart Orchestra and Philharmonie de Paris, was a chance to support and elevate the role of women in the world of conducting by creating greater opportunities. First organised in 2020, the competition was a resounding success that attracted 220 applicants from 51 different nationalities. As she looks to organise its second edition at the Paris Philharmonie, Claire sees the competition as an exciting and dynamic expression of her confidence in the bright future of women conductors. Bringing it back to her individual experiences, she now experiments with new methods and musical forms instead of simply trying to match her peers and fit in. Finally, she concluded with her belief that everyone will have a lot to gain with women in key positions.

Piecing together aspects of the discussion centred on the role of women in the classical music industry, Nancy, Adeline and Mihaela affirmed the need to do one’s best, put forward a high quality of work and be proactive in creating a space for women.


  1. Questions/Q&As
  • Question: According to your experiences in different countries, should there be more affirmative action in the classical music industry?

Mihaela expressed her reservations towards introducing such policies and maintained the need for honest competition which values the quality of the work and a musician’s achievements beyond factoring in someone’s gender. For her, it is a question of getting key decision-makers to look their way.


The moderator, Christel, concluded that we should be spending more time and energy on higher-level musical ideas and well-considered decision-making practices. This should be complemented by greater opportunities for music creation, good and equal work practices from musicians to administrators, and the need to educate the new generation of artists while engaging the next generation of audiences.

She also noted that taking the swipe at one’s gender or race or colour is counter-productive and would not move classical music into the future. In line with this, she outlined two ways of moving forward that have been brought up by the panel: changing the mindset of men through education and instilling the value of gender equality for all in the coming generations. It is strength in unity that can facilitate this process and helps.