The Memphis Symphony Orchestra has one of the most gender equal rosters among symphonies in the United States. Membership is nearly equally split between genders with over thirty female members—six of which hold principal positions. Not only are females well represented in the orchestra itself, but also women are frequently featured as guest solo performers. In the 2008-2009 season, seven out of eighteen scheduled guest musicians are female.
Women in the MSO have also defied traditionally gendered instrument assignments for men and women. While women tend to hold more positions in the category of string instruments, nothing bars them from playing a brass or woodwind instrument. For example, Jennifer Rhodes is principal bassoon player, and Karen Busler is principal flutist. Historically women have been restricted to instruments such as the piano, harpsichord, or the virginal—all instruments that flatter the female form. However, by the end of the twentieth century, it had become completely acceptable for women to play all manner of string, woodwind, and brass instruments—instruments that require them to distort their bodies or faces. This fact is indicative of the substantial progress that society has made towards a non-gendered, inclusive musical experience.
Susan Enger has played the trumpet for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra since 1994 and can personally attest that the MSO is a progressive institution working towards gender neutrality. When asked about her musical experience as a woman she responded, “This is going to be pretty boring, but I don't feel like I've ever encountered sex discrimination in the classical music world. I've been a professional musician since 1978. I would like to believe that people in the arts are more open minded than most. The Memphis Symphony is made up of at least 50% women, and there are no gender specific areas, among musicians or administration. The MSO uses a screen for all preliminary rounds of auditions, and sometimes final rounds as well. I started playing at age 11 in my school band program. I actually wanted to play oboe, but the band director steered me toward choosing a brass instrument. I was not the only girl in the band who played trumpet. I have also had many students over the years, and would say that nearly half have been girls, so the notion that the trumpet is a masculine domain is a misconception.” Her positive experience is one that is shared with other female orchestra members and is encouraging to women in younger generations.
Ms. Enger participated in blind screen auditions while pursuing her position at Memphis Symphony Orchestra. These auditions are a common practice at most auditions and are instituted to prevent the discrimination of one’s abilities based on their gender. In the past orchestras were frequently accused of being biased towards male musicians. Seats within an orchestra are limited. Men would recommend other males for their seats when they left or when other seats became vacant. History tells us that in the case that a woman did get an audition, she would likely be subject to the possibility of gender discrimination. At the beginning of the 20th Century women were rejected from the all male dominated symphony orchestras, which provided steady employment and higher pay, as well as benefits. As a result, women were limited to employment as solo violinists. Women did not begin to make steady progress into symphony orchestras until the 1940’s and gained substantial momentum in the 1960’s with the introduction of blind auditions. Blind screens were not in widespread use until the 1970’s and 1980’s, but their effects are undeniable. The implementation of screened auditions is considered the primary cause for a one-third proportional increase in the number of women populating orchestras across the country.
The presence of a female concertmaster at the Memphis Symphony is an accomplishment in which women can take particular pride. As the concertmaster, not only does Susanna Perry Gilmore play the violin, she is also responsible for tuning the orchestra, communicating directly with the conductor, as well as leading the string section. Ms. Gilmore has held this prestigious position since 1997, and throughout her career she has be praised with multiple awards and recognitions. Her position and acclaim represent the ability of women to successfully hold prominent positions of authority within the orchestra. Until recent decades, essentially all conductors and concertmasters were men. At the MSO, Ms. Gilmore is joined by several other female section leaders. Most would argue that the music world still has quite a long road toward gender equality; however, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra should be considered to be an exception.
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Luna Nova (www.lunanova.org) is a new-music ensemble made up of seven performers from across the country. Since its founding in 2002 Luna Nova has given over fifty concerts in colleges, churches, and museums in a variety of locations in the eastern and southern United States. The mission of the ensemble is to perform masterpieces of 20th century music as well as new works by emerging composers. In addition it offers educational opportunities for young composers and performers through lectures, master classes, and private instruction. Beginning 2007 it became the core ensemble for the Belvedere Chamber Music Festival in Memphis.
In 2002 Patricia Gray was leading the music program for the Associated Colleges of the South. Her aim was to promote collaborative projects that gave small music departments in liberal arts colleges like Rhodes College in Memphis resources that they were not likely to have on their own. Since composers in these departments are frequently professionally isolated she offered them a chance to collaborate with their peers in similar institutions. The thing that is most valuable to faculty composers is getting very high quality professional performances and recordings of their works. A summer music festival that combined music technology workshops and performances seemed to be an attractive option.
Central to the success of the festival was the creation of a permanent ensemble of made up of exceptionally fine players. These were largely members of symphony orchestras who were experienced in playing a great deal of contemporary music and who could produce very polished performances of new music quickly. They chose the name Luna Nova and began to set up performances. By 2006 the Luna Nova ensemble had built its own identity quite apart from the ACS. The organization was named Luna Nova Music and its first big project with the creation of the Belvedere Chamber Music Festival (belvederefestival.org.) The board of Luna Nova Music, Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and the Beethoven Club of Memphis joined together to produce the first festival in 2007.
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Opera Memphis was founded in 1956 by a group of prominent local men, including Philip Belz and Walter Chandler, who wished to produce regional operas. Despite the fact that women did not play a dominant role in the foundation of the company, there is no doubt that they have had a significant impact on its development nonetheless. Both professional female singers and administrators alike have played vital roles in helping the company to grow, gain prestige, and attract new audiences.
Although Opera Memphis was initially made up of local singers and directors, it gradually began to expand to the point where famous singers were being recruited from across the globe. Renata Scotto, for instance, was an Italian Soprano who came to Opera Memphis in 1978 following her American debut with the Cincinnati Opera. As the title character in Bellini’s tragic opera Norma, Scotto helped to make the 1978-1979 season “the most brilliant and prestigious season in Opera Memphis history” up to that point. In 1980, however, she temporarily left Opera Memphis after the company substituted Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, despite the fact that she would have remained in the lead role and that “the Puccini work [had] been a staple of her career.” The substitution had been made due to various production problems, namely Scotto’s limited availability for rehearsals and the difficulty of constructing sets for Adriana. Nonetheless, while these distinguished singers, others of whom included Florence Quivar, Beverly Sills, and Dame Joan Sutherland, were contracted for principal roles, local Memphians continued to make up the Opera Memphis Chorus as well as the orchestra which accompanied the singers.
As Opera Memphis continued to expand, they also began to include more women in their administrative staff. In 1981, Anne Atherton Randolph was hired by the Board of Directors as Executive Director, Opera Memphis’s top position, on an “emergency basis” after the unexpected resignation of Charles H. Chappell. At the time that Randolph was hired, Opera Memphis was in the midst of a financial crisis. She was able, however, to bring the company from seventy thousand dollars in debt to five thousand dollars out of debt. Achieving this goal was significant not only for Opera Memphis, but also for Randolph as a woman in the career world. As she stated, “It was important for me as a young woman in an executive position to prove fiscal credibility before I could do anything else.” Following this financial revamping, Randolph was also responsible for much of the modernization of Opera Memphis. As she stated, “Opera has an elitist stigma we are trying to erase. The season next year is designed for people not used to the opera.” Thus, in order to gain a new following, she ensured that the upcoming season included productions such as Susannah, a folk-opera which took place in rural Tennessee, in addition to traditional programs such as Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s Abduction, and a special concert by Renata Scotto. Furthermore, she introduced a “blue jean night” and lowered the price of selected tickets in order to attract a younger and more casual crowd.
Other women who have held positions of power in Opera Memphis include Mrs. John Hummel, who was elected President of Opera Memphis in May of 1982, Mrs. McKinley Highsmith, secretary, and Mrs. Richard Bicks, President of the Opera Memphis Guild. Due to the help of these and other dedicated singers, administrators, and various community members, both male and female, Opera Memphis has been able to “[evolve] from a small regional opera organization to a world-class opera company.” As a result, Opera Memphis has been able to, in turn, impact Memphis’ music culture as a whole.
Allison Merritt: Opera Memphis Director of Production/Production Stage Manager
The fall of 2008 will mark Allison Merritt’s fourth season as Director of Production and Production Stage Manager for Opera Memphis. Allison’s experience with opera spans the country. Before landing in Memphis she served on several stage management teams at the Pittsburgh Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Seattle Opera, Sarasota Opera, and Tulsa Opera. Her role with Opera Memphis includes a plethora of responsibilities, which are fundamental to the opera’s success. These include making sure the financial side of the company runs smoothly—creating and staying within a production budget each season and hiring staff. She executes all of the technical and logistical aspects of production, as well as schedules, coordinates and runs all rehearsals and performances. The managerial aspect of Merritt’s work comes into play when she runs the rehearsals and performances, overseeing a crew of 20-40 stagehands at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis.
Working with budding opera hopefuls (often high school juniors and seniors) is a passion of hers. Merritt provides these young adults opportunities to experience working with a professional opera company by giving them stage manager positions through a Production Assistant internship she created in her first season with Opera Memphis.
Extending her knowledge and talents to the Memphis youth community is just part of the reason Opera Memphis is so well received by the city. Merritt has observed a great deal of support from the community because of the opera’s accessible prices along with its approachable repertoire. “We also pride ourselves in providing the very diverse Memphis community with diverse programming and casting, and will continue to do so in future seasons.” Merritt also attributes Opera Memphis’s success to its healthy relationships with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the New Ballet Ensemble, both adding key elements to productions.
Merritt is a significant figure to the Memphis music world. The city benefits from the San Francisco native’s production role with Opera Memphis and will continue to do so as she betters an already successful opera. Regarding our home town opera, she says, “We have a very creative staff and supportive Board, and we work very hard to be considered a ‘world-class’ opera company right here in the Midsouth.”
Further information can be found on Allison Merritt through Opera Memphis’s website, www.operamemphis.org, as well as Episode 5 under the ArtMemphis TV box found at www.artsmemphis.org.
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“Kallen Esperian is a world-class and world-renowned opera soprano who calls Memphis her home and frequently performs with Opera Memphis. Ms. Esperian’s career has included such distinctions as winning the Luciano Pavarotti Vocal Competition in her early twenties, singing with the likes of Pavarotti and Domingo, and performing in top international opera houses like La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York (Biography, kallenesperian.com/ke-bio.html, 2007). In an interview on Saturday April 12, 2008, Ms. Esperian discussed the role of women in opera, as well the importance of opera for the music of Memphis.
The life of an opera singer is certainly a demanding one. Opera singers travel extensively and keep irregular and long hours. The demands of an opera career require sacrifice and hard work in order to maintain a balance between career and family. Ms. Esperian spoke of this intense schedule as a challenge for all who pursue an opera career, but one which particularly impacts women opera singers. She described the contemporary situation as a unique and relatively new one for women opera singers. In the past women opera singers had to be devoted to an opera career full-time. Frequently, women singers had to leave their careers behind if they chose to marry and have a family. Today, it is far more culturally acceptable than in centuries past for women to work and raise a family at the same time, and for fathers to stay home with the children while women work outside of the home. With this greater flexibility of options, more women face the challenge of balancing work and family concerns.
Ms. Esperian described her own experiences in facing this challenge. Her son often traveled with her as she toured until he was four years old, along with a nanny. She continues to strive to maintain a healthy balance between her work and her family, although Ms. Esperian stresses that her family, her husband and son, now fourteen, is her top priority. She also compared her experience as a woman to that of male opera singers, citing the examples of Pavarotti and others who were able to achieve the heights they have because their wives were willing to stay at home and “hold down the fort.” Although in some families husbands play similar roles as “stay-at-home dads” while their wives pursue their opera careers, this remains a less prevalent family structure. Women opera singers like Ms. Esperian must frequently struggle with different choices regarding the balance between career and family than do male opera singers.
Women have performed on stage in operas for centuries, but in other areas of opera production women have struggled to break glass ceilings. Ms. Esperian explained that there are now “lots of women in the field,” and women are involved in every aspect of opera production. Women currently serve as stage managers and assistant stage managers, and administrative staffs of opera companies are composed of mostly women. Women are still underrepresented as conductors of opera orchestras and as general managers, however. Ms. Esperian also noted that, although the problem is not as prevalent as it is sometimes made out to be, women involved in opera production are sometimes not as respected as their male colleagues. Women have to be more assertive to make their voices heard, but when they do they are often accused of being difficult or “divas.”
Characters in operas reflect the culture of the day in which they were written, and many operas performed today were written centuries ago when the status and life of women was very different in numerous ways. When asked about portraying female characters in operas, Ms. Esperian responded that she regards the challenge of relating to characters unlike herself as one of the most interesting and most central to the work of an opera singer. She identified several female characters she particularly enjoys portraying because of their unique personalities. She mentioned Mimi in “La Boheme” and the title characters in “Louisa Miller,” “Madame Butterfly,” and “Tosca” as being among her favorites. These characters are each very different, for example Ms. Esperian describes Tosca as passionate, strong, and fiery and Madame Butterfly as passionate, strong, but submissive due to cultural constraints. Ms. Esperian enjoys operas by Puccini because she feels that he, more than any other composer, truly loved his female characters, and expressed this love through the glorious music he wrote for them.
Ms. Esperian has performed opera at many of the world's most preeminent opera houses, but is very proud of and loyal to the opera produced by Opera Memphis, in which she frequently stars. According to Ms. Esperian, when the Metropolitan Opera (the Met) toured through Memphis, local opera was at a disadvantage. Since the Met has ceased its productions in Memphis, the city has really been able to build up its own opera through Opera Memphis. She identified the Clark Center and the Orpheum Theatre as tremendous advantages for Opera Memphis. It is rare for a regional opera to have such a facility as the Clark Center for rehearsals and production needs, and the beauty of the Orpheum provides a fitting backdrop for beautiful opera.
Opera Memphis is a great asset to the culture of Memphis, according to Ms. Esperian. The company offers Memphians the opportunity to experience great opera several times each year at reasonable cost. Grassroots and regional companies like Opera Memphis also contribute to the culture of the city through outreach programs. Opera Memphis has several programs, including “Opera Camps,” for which Ms. Esperian teaches every year, “Outreach Concerts,” and “Arts Reaching Children” to introduce and teach opera to children. Too often, according to Ms. Esperian, people in the United States tend to think of opera as just the Met, but great things are happening at the regional level, and these opera companies and their outreach programs are key to protecting this important cultural form.
Memphis, as a Mecca for music in this country, is home to excellent musicians of every genre. The city’s attractiveness for musicians not only positively impacts the quality of opera orchestras, but results in a community of musical talents who come together to encourage and support the various forms of music performed in the city. This wealth of talent and interest contributes greatly to the opera experience in Memphis, and is one of the many reasons opera great Kallen Esperian “wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
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Martha Trudeau founded the Beethoven Club in 1888 as a piano quartet and tea social in her home. There they discussed the lack of classical music in Memphis. Because of this, they held a concert on December 17, 1889, and called themselves Miss Trudeau’s Quartet. The next year ten women gave a concert that earned a profit of $10! But luckily, $10 was enough to get them started. In 1892, the women wrote a constitution for the group. It said:
“This club shall be exclusively a woman’s club and all active members shall hold themselves in readiness to contribute to the entertainment…Any member who refuses to perform during a whole year will forfeit her membership unless her refusal has been caused by some reason considered adequate by the executive committee.”
In addition to Miss Trudeau’s home, the club met in area churches and the Women’s Society Building. In 1927 they purchased a property at 217 N. Waldran to serve as meeting place and recital hall. Beginning in the 1930s the Club also sponsored performances by nationally known artists at the Goodwyn Institute and Ellis Auditorium.
This would continue to be a large part of the Beethoven Club’s mission well into the 1970s. They also sponsored amateur operetta and musical theatre productions that eventually became the Memphis Open Air Theatre, offering summer performances at the Overton Park Shell for many years.
In recent decades the Club focus has centered more on nurturing local young people who are interested in classical music performance. To that end they sponsor two yearly events: the Fashion Show to Aid Music Students and their Young Artists Competition. Competition winners receive cash awards and opportunities for public, professional-level performances through the Club.
More information about the Beethoven Club, including their most recent Young Artist winners, may be found at their website:
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