Simone Young bristles at the label of “female conductor.” “That is an appalling title,” she said. “We are not female conductors. We are conductors who happen to be women.”
And don’t ask the 58-year-old Australian, who will make her guest conducting debut June 6-8 and 11 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, about the ongoing inequity in the number of professional conducting jobs for women. She acknowledges the problem but doesn’t want to talk about it. “For many, many years, I flatly refused to discuss it,” she said. “Now, actually it doesn’t bother me. I find it vaguely amusing that it is still a topic.”
Young began her conducting career at the Sydney Opera in 1985, and a year later, she became the first woman and youngest person at 25 to be appointed resident conductor with its resident Opera Australia. She never dreamed that discussions about gender in the symphonic world would still be going on in 2019.
“There are a lot of reasons not to like a 25-year-conductor, and being a woman is just one of them,” she said. “You cannot take it personally. It has to be about the work. You put your head down and you work harder and you become more capable and more experienced and as long as the woman thing was not issue for me, it tended not be an issue for other people, either.”
Young went on to be the first woman to conduct at the Vienna State Opera in 1993 and the first to lead the Vienna Philharmonic. In addition, she was just the second woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, preceding Jane Glover, music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, who became the third in 2013.
“I was the second, but big deal!” Young said. “I was probably also the first Australian. And I don’t know, maybe the only scuba diver. These are just sort of general points of interest for the back story. What’s far more interesting is the work. And in Jane Glover’s case, she is an experienced Mozartean who has been in the industry for 40-odd years. It’s quite astonishing that she is only [recently] making her debut at the Met. That’s more the story than she is the fourth or third woman.”
Young worries that the gender imbalance in the conducting world can be too often an “easy coat hanger” for journalists looking for a story and a distraction from what should be the central focus: the music-making. “I want to see a high level of artistic standards in the conducting work,” she said. “I’m really not interested in terms of gender or race or anything else. It’s got to be about the quality of the work.”