This Week in Classical Music w/Randy Kinkel 6/21/19

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Alsop on Conducting as a Woman; 

Netrebko Flame War over Aida Blackface


It’s “This Week in Classical Music” – An update on what’s happening in the classical music world; I’m Randy Kinkel.


“I’ve been the first woman to do a lot of things, and I’m really proud, but I also think it’s … pathetic,” Marin Alsop, the first woman to lead a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, said.

Her point is that such ground should have been broken long before.

“The thing about trying to work as a woman 30 years ago, 35 years ago, is there were no opportunities,” said Ms. Alsop, who will soon be taking over the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. in order to create opportunities for other female musicians, she started a fellowship for women conductors


 “The great thing about the last two years is I feel empowered to speak out even further,” she said. “Now I feel at least I have company, and that there’s a safety net.”

Despite the progress made in recent years, she said, female conductors were still judged differently from their male counterparts while on the podium. “The thing about conducting is it’s all body language,” she said, and “our society interprets gesture very differently from men or from women.”

A delicate touch from a woman, for example, is often seen as weakness, when the same gesture from a man is seen as sensitive, she said. Unlike men, women conductors are “required to think twice about gesture because it’s not just the gesture, it’s how the musicians interpret the gesture.”

Another issue dear to her heart is how orchestras often don’t reflect their communities, particularly in Baltimore, where there was only one black musician in its orchestra when she started. And it is because children in underserved communities do not have the same opportunities to learn these instruments, Ms. Alsop said.

As a way to pave that road for these children, she and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra started an  after school music program that has grown from 30 students to about 1,500.“They’re going to change the face of classical music,” Ms. Alsop said of the students.

Anna Netrebko. But one of the Russian soprano’s recent Instagram posts, taken backstage during a performance of “Aida” at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre and showing off the diva’s makeup-darkened skin, may have been enough to get most any other opera singer to file for moral bankruptcy. 

“Beautiful singing!” wrote one follower under the photo. “But is the blackface really necessary?”  the conversation that resulted—sub-comments under one initial comment—fill nearly six pages.

“Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopien [sic] princess, for Verdi[‘s] greatest opera! YES!” Netrebko wrote.

The follower responded, “But it is inappropriate to paint yourself brown to portray the role. You don’t have to do this. Do you not understand that it is insensitive to people of color or do you just not care?”

“BS,” she added in the chain of comments, followed by the comment, “I am NOT gonna be a White AIDA!” Other critical commenters were blocked by the artist.

But the politics of staging a fictional opera are one thing—the optics of how singers respond to those staging choices in their off-hours is different.

“It’s a reminder that all this stuff is right under the surface,” says opera scholar and musicologist Imani Mosley, “It’s an issue that has real repercussions…even if it’s nice-looking and not perpetuating of derogatory black stereotypes.”  The stories may be fiction, but the cultures they represent aren’t. 


For more on these and other items and events, check out our website at, where you can also listen online; look for the podcasts page to subscribe to “This Week in Classical Music” Podcast. We’re also available on Itunes. For “This week in Classical Music”, I’m Randy Kinkel.