For the second issue of Ravinia magazine, we decided to commission local journalist Wynne Delacoma to write a piece about the phenomenon of woman conductors, prompted by this summer’s Ravinia debut of conductor Susanna Mälkki. Understandably, Mälkki, as well as Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony music director who has conducted at Ravinia for four seasons, prefer not to make an issue of it, rightfully contending that their actual conducting should speak for itself. But the infrequency with which today’s audiences experience woman on symphonic podiums makes it a subject worth exploring, and Wynne has written an insightful piece on it.
But it was while that issue of the magazine was still in production that I saw a television advertisement that makes clear how far women still have to go. The ad was for Fruit of the Loom underwear for women, and it features a shapely female conducting an orchestra while wearing only a T-shirt and panties. (I am not making this up.) Granted, at the end of the commercial, after a resounding cadence by the orchestra, her tuxedo pantsuit suddenly materializes as she turns to acknowledge the audience’s applause, but by then it’s a bit too late; we’ve already watched her in her undies vigorously waving a baton and wildly tossing her wind-swept hair in a manner more suitable for a Garnier Fructis shampoo commercial than a conducting gig. It’s as if she were conducting the orchestra with her billowing mane rather than a baton. So much for taking women seriously on the podium.
I shouldn’t have been surprised; Madison Avenue regularly mangles classical music as it aims at an ever-lower common denominator in its target audience. Another current example is for Dairy Queen, in which a woman enjoying a Blizzard in a waffle cone says, “So when DQ asked me how I would tell the world . . .” and they cut to her in a very poorly fitting costume for Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring cycle singing—no, shrieking—a high note before they cut back to her saying, “It sounds better in Italian.” It’s bad enough that they mistakenly think all operas are in Italian even though Wagner’s operas are written in German. It’s the idiotic stereotype being perpetrated that the only image of opera the American public will recognize is a woman in a horned helmet with blond braids and metallic breastplates. Brünnhilde is merely one character in one opera cycle, and a cycle that, due to its enormous demands, is very rarely produced, at that. It’s like assuming that every football player kneels and prays like Tim Tebow before every play, or that every novel ever written involves a boy named Harry Potter at an academy for young wizards.
I’m sure the advertising executives figure no one, other than a handful of opera nerds, will notice. But the fact is that one doesn’t try to be accurate for the people who won’t notice; you try to be accurate for the people who will. German director Erich von Stroheim was once asked why he went to such lengths and expense to be totally accurate in every detail of his films, and he explained that if he showed a surgeon performing an operation, and that doctor picked up the wrong implement, every doctor in the audience would notice the mistake. Unfortunately, von Stroheim didn’t direct the commercial for Dairy Queen.
Associate Director of Communications, Publications