To add to existing knowledge of women’s work in music in history I decided back in September 2017 to take a programme in my Master’s studies called ‘Women in Music’.  Women are stepping forward more into the spotlight and news, just now I read that the American Conductor Marin Alsop has been appointed the first female artistic director of the Vienna orchestra.  I just hope that at some point in the future this isn’t front page news, why is it so rare?  She was also the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms and the first woman to lead a major US orchestra, let’s hope she’s not the only woman able to break through.  Read this article:


It’s quite shocking that a female harpist spent 26 years in the orchestra but was never acknowledged and only her hands were shown on tv broadcasts.

I was assigned a professional female mentor after submitting a list of people I would like to work with to get a better understanding of what a professional career in Music looks like and to gain an awareness of issues and experiences female musical professionals may encounter whilst studying an introduction to current gender theory.  This project will be coming to fruition over the next two months with a project I’m submitting mid-February and a performance lecture-recital I will be presenting at the RCM on 8th March 2018 based on one female figure breaking through a glass ceiling in music – I chose Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish composer based in Paris, France.


I’m hoping that I can share my slides with you all after the event and if you’re in London as part of this project I will also be performing at the Royal Academy of Arts on the 9th March , which I am really excited about, as you know I like to see art and music combined.

During my research I studied female composers through the ages one thing stood out to me and that was I don’t sing any of their music in all of my years training their songs did not form part of the exam syllabus or the A-level music I studied, then I looked at the wider music industry as women forged ahead in some areas more than others.  I tried to find parallels and I asked my family and friends back at home who their top female musicians were and when, how and what influences did they use to break through in their genre: from Dolly Parton (unique, trailblazer), Madonna (revolutionary), Kate Bush (ahead of her time, original, innovative, arti), to Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross and current big-name stars like Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Katie Perry.

Then I wondered do people outside of the classical music world know the celebrated female stars of opera – if so why did Maria Callas have to be played by Meryl Streep when there are so many superb actress/singers in the world of Modern Opera such as: Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu, Joyce DiDonato, Jessye Norman when you google search ‘top female British Opera singers’ we get Lesley Garrett and Sarah Brightman followed by Dame Janet Baker, what do you think?  Who would you put at the top of a list of female singers still alive today that could be counted as role models for today’s students?  Can you tell me who your choice of a female musician that has broken through and is a household name in the Classical music world?

68 thoughts on “Women In Music

  1. The obvious choice as a Kiwi is Dame Kiri te Kanawa, although she has now retired from singing, or perhaps Dame Malvina Major.
    In the musical world generally I’d pick the composer & conductor Anne Dudley, though I don’t know if she’s quite a household name. (Have you seen her collaboration with Bill Bailey, Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra? It includes some of her compositions, though sadly not as many as one might like.)
    I love the breadth and depth you put into your study of music – it adds a real richness.

    1. Great choice Deborah, when I learnt ‘Art is Calling For Me’ it was Dame Kiri te Kanawa’s version I watched. I’ll look up Anne Dudley thank you 😊.
      I don’t think anyone likes women to be too different, challenging of the status quo or work outside what is expected of them, it’s more know your place, do what’s expected, wait your turn and women seem more compliant than men who are thought to be bigger risk takers. When you think of Madonna, Dolly etc. I wonder if there was a man behind them pushing them or whether they were totally flying solo.
      I’m not a big feminist, warrior type. I like gentlemanly behaviour, a hand to lift my suitcase in the tube station etc. and I admire men their strength, determination and focused behaviour but this module has really made me question and 🤔.
      Best wishes

      1. I wonder less about whether those women had a man pushing from behind and more about whether they had to push past a man trying to hold them back. But I guess every success has its own story.

      2. Good point, some of the female composers I researched did indeed have their fathers, brothers and husbands hold them back and a couple could only forge ahead after they died.

  2. I was also going to mention Dame Kiri te Kanawa. Also as a nontraditional choice, Kate Miller-Heidke, an Australian who is classically trained, but chose to jump into the pop and folk genres. She is very diverse in her projects and seems to be quite successful blazing her own path.

      1. She’s obviously skilled vocally, and you can tell she has the trained background, but she is also a talented songwriter. Perhaps she felt a stronger affinity with the singer/songwriter path. I’ve read that she has recently done some operatic work. Anyway, glad to have been of some assistance. Wishing you the best in your studies.

  3. Apart from Dame Kiri, the only one that came into my mind was Charlotte Church, and that’s not a very good example. Kathleen Jenkins – does she qualify? Your lovely self apart, I am not a follower of classical singing, as you know.

    1. I love Katherine Jenkins as an artist she certainly blazed her own trail but there are controversies about her being called an ‘opera singer’ because she finished her training after four years at RAM very prestigious and went into crossover rather than opera, I’m not sure but I don’t believe she has ever performed a full opera. Although she recently lit up the stage at the English National Opera performing the lead in the Musical ‘Carousel’.
      Best wishes

  4. Charlotte, This is such an important issue, and I’m glad that you are addressing it for the benefit of your readers. I wrote about this very issue, form the US perspective, just a little less than a year ago. If you didn’t see it, you might like reading what I wrote:
    I believe it is easier for female singers, since operas generally require women as well as men, but in other areas, it is much, much more difficult. In addition to the quotes in the story, I had many more interesting conversations with female composers and conductors, only a small portion of which ended up in the story.

    1. Thanks for your link Peter, I’ll certainly be over to read it.
      I think the biggest problem for female opera singers is the sheer numbers of us compared to men in training, especially sopranos the rarer contralto or low Mezzo are also in great demand. So I would think by the same logic the rare female would get her pick of opportunities.
      Career breaks and childcare commitments come into it, especially in our jobbing early insecure gig careers. It’s been a fascinating subject to study and current gender theory has really made me think about things that direct me into the choices I’ve made.
      Best wishes

  5. A female composer I have always admired, who is reasonably famous but not, in my estimation, as much so as she should be, is Cécile Chaminade. I’m sure you must have some of her songs on your repertoire.

    1. I used to listen to Sarah Brightman when I was little, I remember her cd cover was amazing all gold. I loved her as Christine in Phantom of the Opera too. Yes she’s the Queen of classical crossover and an amazing performer.
      Best wishes

  6. I do think woman should play a much bigger role in classical music. It is happening. Slowly. My favorite violinists are almost all female. Not as many pianists, though. And not nearly enough conductors or composers. I did see a couple of female guest conductors when I used to get seasons tickets for the Boston Symphony, but not often. I don’t follow opera as much, so beyond the names you mentioned, which I know, I can only think of one or two others off of the top of my head, like Dawn Upshaw. And, of course, that young up and coming soprano, Charlotte Hoather 😉

    1. I think it’s important that women are playing a bigger role too and whilst studying this module I hadn’t even considered a female role model was important. How wonderful that you had a season ticket, did the programs become less appealing or your tastes change? I quickly searched Dawn Upshaw and she recorded a Saariaho track i’ll have a listen. You’re too kind but thank you 😀.
      Best wishes

      1. For BSO – time, money and taste… A single concert would take up a weekend. Beyond the expense of the concert, there was 2 night at a hotel, parking, etc. It was twice as expensive as a ski weekend. At that time I was doing a lot of composing and so wanted to hear new music. I’m no longer into composing, so not worth the time and effort.

      2. Thank you for being so honest. I hope there’s an opportunity for you to listen closer to home if you ever want to pick it back up. Or check out live streaming some companies are doing this nowadays.
        As an artist preparing recitals you want your programs to be appealing to audiences as well as to yourself so it’s important we seek feedback more.
        Best wishes Charlotte 🙋🏼

      3. I still do see live music on occasion, though, in the classical world, most more “community” orchestras and ensembles. A big difference from the BSO! Streaming might be a way to go. And if I lived a little closer into Boston (or other big city)…

    1. It’s very difficult to know as a woman if you are being held back for safety and not being ready for big challenges in case you ruin your voice or take on too big a challenge and whether a male singer would just take those risks. I read Joseph Calleja the other day said there were very big roles he took on at 20 that in hindsight he wouldn’t now.
      Best wishes

      1. Not being in the industry I really wouldn’t know about that but it seems women would be up to any challenge that a man would (yes I m a feminist). 🙂

    1. At first I thought I didn’t know Joni Mitchell but when I looked her up on Spotify I did know her soundtracks from Movies and several of her big hits. Great suggestion Annette I will have a listen later and look her up.
      Best wishes

  7. I am pleased Marin Alsop is the new conductor at ORF. At last Austria is leaving the 19th century! I often watch the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna with the the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra who have only very recently allowed female musicians to join the orchestra!
    The very first female conductor I ever saw perform was Jane Glover when she led the London Mozart Players during the 1980’s to early 90’s. Female conductors are still very rare.
    Your questions are very hard to answer. Jessye Norman I would put forward as a role model as she not only managed to get to the top of her profession but also had to fight harder because of her colour. She is also a generous and likeable lady.
    Martha Argerich is a musician who I think is fairly well known now. There are others but time is against me tonight!

    1. I don’t know Martha Argerich thanks for bringing her to my attention. I read she’s a female pianist.

      If women don’t choose to study composition in large numbers then they will obviously be rarer but it’s whether enough women have the ambition to study it or if they think there’s no route to the top, it can be influenced by the choice of the adults around you growing up too.

      Cecilia Bartoli was the first woman to sing and record with the Sistine Chapel Choir in 2017.

      Best wishes

  8. You could have set me off riding one of my hobby-horses Charlotte, and not only in ‘classical’ music. In fact my blog was originally set up to feature from time to time ‘the glass ceiling’, though not in music.
    The first piano soloist I ever saw ‘live’ was Eileen Joyce and from an early age I preferred, with a few notable exceptions, to listen to female opera singers. When I went to performances of predecessors of Opera North, frequently disappointing being used to listening to the greatest on LP, it was usually the females who saved the day.
    I listen to Classic FM a lot and although I have not done any analysis I don’t think there is any bias towards male performers and I personally think the station’s female presenters are much better than the males, certainly much less irritating than some of the egoistic males.
    You are, of course, right about the dearth of female conductors. I hope that is beginning to change, albeit too slowly.

    1. I will look up Eileen Joyce’s Music, I’ve read she was an Australian pianist and there is an interview with her on You Tube. It’s good to read that you believe Classical FM are getting the balance right. It’s great they’re using their platform to even things out.

      Doing this module has really begun to change the way I think about the choices boys and girls make through their hobbies and parental influences. I’m not sure I agree that wearing pink is a problem, but perhaps we need to look at the different ways boys and girls learn and what interests them and try to appeal to both tastes.
      Best wishes

      1. I cannot remember the year when I heard Eileen Joyce but it was in the Eastbrook Hall (long demolished) in Bradford and I was thrilled as I was able to speak to her and she autographed my programme (also long gone sadly).
        You are so right about career choices – what began me on my ‘fight’ about inequality was when I noticed, working in the research laboratory when I was about 17, that not one section manager was female yet all the ‘lab technicians’ were and of around 1200 apprentices in the giant engineering company there was only one young lady engineering apprentice; very brave at the time – perhaps so even now.

  9. What a thought provoking post. I’ve never seen a female conductor, now I think about it. At least, not at the (admittedly not very many) classical concerts I have attended. Plenty of choir leaders, but that is a different genre. In terms of opera singers though, Australia can offer several such as Dame Nellie Melba, Joan Sutherland and June Bronhill – which is a contraction of Broken Hill where she originated from. As an outback mining town, it wouldn’t be everyone’s first thought of a place to spawn such operatic talent.

    1. As a student of music I did modules on conducting, as a none choir member I hadn’t worked with conductors as a child or teenager and it was quite new to me, it was difficult for a complete beginner and it was a case of learning as quickly as possible and move on. I thought it would be good as an extra skill and help me to understand the role rather than for me to personally excel in.

      Australia does very well with leading opera singers, there are some great scholarships which is wonderful. There are several Australian singers at the RCM.
      Best wishes

  10. Just last night I saw an opera singer in Waco, TX going for his Masters Degree in music at Baylor U. I couldn’t help but picture you two on stage together. I believe his name is Josh Lee.
    I’ve always admired conductors for their knowledge and talent, I’m surprised this is the first female I’ve ever seen.

    1. I’m delighted you watched an opera singer get his Masters Degree it really is a delight to have external people supporting you as a student. I will keep Josh Lee in mind and look him up. You never know it’s a small world.
      Best wishes

  11. Marin Alsop led the Colorado Symphony in Denver for two years, I want to say in the 1980s. Not a good time since the Denver Symphony Orchestra (DSO) disbanded then reformed as the Colorado Symphony due to money issues (primarily a lack of). Also, the DSO/Colorado Symphony performed in Boettcher Hall, a symphony hall in the round, not the ideal of situations. She was a fine artisitic director and principal conductor while in Denver.

    In terms of a role model, I told my daughters don’t be waiting on one. I you want to do a field where there aren’t many women, just go for it. You would still have to prove yourself even in an even field.

    1. What a great thing to say to your daughters having your Dad believe in you and push you to work harder is important.
      Interesting about Colorado, it’s a shame such a forward thinking company had to disband but I’m glad they reformed.
      Best wishes

  12. Oh so many I admire as ground breakers in music. So many living and dead. So many I have worked their performances. The first woman I ever worked who played as a soloist with a major orchestra was the late great cellist, Jacqueline Mary du Pré, who died so young. A real ground breaker! Not only her fight to open the door for women, but also for everyone suffering from MS.
    And I have such admiration for the voice and courage of Marian Anderson, a ground breaker in classical singing and especially in race relations here in the US. I wish I could have heard her live.
    And of course in that beautiful voice that introduced opera to bambinos.

    1. What a wonderful job you had! MS is such a cruel debilitating illness.
      I will investigate Marian Anderson further thank you for the suggestion.
      I love the finalé of you message 😁 thanks Don.
      My best wishes

  13. Elina Garanca among so many others is someone I will go a long way to hear. Her recording of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Romeo and Juliet) with Anna Netrebko is one of the most beautiful recordings ever with these two supreme artists. I was lucky enough to see them do this live at the ROH.

    1. Of course why did I miss her off my list 🤦🏼‍♀️. I loved their recording of the flower duet too, she’s an amazing actress and role model for young singers, great choice and lucky you seeing them both live.
      All my best wishes

  14. Great ! very interesting – So, to answer your questions, I think the world is changing, the codes are changing, the public is changing, people want to discover more and more. And that, with all the repect due to the stars of Lyric song, the younger generation must build its evolution in a personal way, not by copying the paths used by others. So, many can be chosen. They have different paths and successes, so they are all examples of things to do or avoid. Same for the musicians. Currently, the light is put on the performance, but it should soon move towards the transmission of the emotion which is the true vocation of the art, that it is music or visual. And, history to prove that women are often better than men in this area. But, it’s a very personal vision.
    Wish you the best !

    1. We are told to have a unique individual persona but if you don’t conform to normal expectations and paths you could be cast aside especially as a woman, I think lots of people prefer conformity. Many people say they like change but they don’t really, people stick in jobs they don’t like, or even the mundane things like watching the same types of tv programs or listening to a narrow field of music without fully experimenting, we are taught from very young ages not to take too many risks, your art is very out there, different, very individual that’s why I like it so much. You take challenges with colour and composition, one of my favourite pieces of yours was the big colour paint splash digital effect.
      All my best wishes

    1. Thank you Rev.Tim I’m happy you enjoy reading my blog, my experiences recorded here on my blog are there for all to read, whether that constitutes a legacy is for others to decide. I’m just enjoying sharing parts of my training, but your confidence in me helps me along.
      Best wishes

  15. I’m sad to say I can’t think of any living female classic music artists who have broken through to be household names. I only know who you have mentioned here, but as a denizen of the Pop Culture world, I do not hear any names bandied about.
    It’s so great that you have this blog! You may be a break though in your career. Think I’ll start tossing your name in when people talk singers!
    Meryl Streep playing Maria Callas is part of the film industry’s bottom line – $$$
    I can think of some old 40’s films that embraced classically trained singers to play important roles, but now it seems to be the other way around – pop culture figures are embraced. Your day is coming!

    1. I’d love to do a singing role in a move like those from the 40’s. From the edge of the nest where I’m sitting right now I just hope I can earn enough money to keep myself going in the initial years and pay for continued singing and coaching and language lessons, so much still to do and the clocks ticking. Thanks for your optimism Resa 💕 I love my blog friends you really are all so encouraging.
      All my best wishes

  16. My Art History Professor did mention that not many women were recognized for there Paintings. Plenty of them were models, of course, but, historically, men were in power. In U.S. Culture, I think women are seen as objects (eye candy) too often in Advertising, Film, etc. If they dress provocatively, it just makes the perception worse. I also think men have to be taught how to treat women properly from a young age, but that isn’t stressed enough in Society.

    1. My Mum says the same thing, she says Mums need to up their game and teach their children more equality from a young age, my Mum works in a male dominated environment and she and my Dad always share things evenly so my brothers and I don’t know any different, we’re more likely to see Dad cooking he’s a great chef and Mum will be painting the fence outside or putting the bins out and while Mums washing windows – Dad’ll be cleaning the oven or fridge out they’re equal partners.

      Female gods used to have high status, Chinese female martial artists feature in Chinese films showing strength, Roman goddesses were also high status, makes me wonder where it all started to go into male dominance and why the women allowed it? We’ve had the best role model for women in the UK in our Queen for years.

      Best wishes

  17. Hi Charlotte, missed this great little piece, which I love. Strangely (though i do not study music as such) i have been building a collection of works by women composers, right back from the great works of Saint Hildegard of Bingen (sung exquisitely by the Gothic voices with Emma Kirkby – perhaps another wonderful opera singer) to the work of Meredith Monk, who certainly has revolutionised the way the voice can be used in music (listen to Volcano songs) she has written some operas, and I love her work. I have also recordings of such people as Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck-Schumann, Louis Farenc,
    Amy Beach, Boulanger (who help almost every major European composer of note in the twentieth century!) Roxanna Panufnik, In the Victorian age in Britain there was a woman composer called Richardson, who composed 3 very considerable symphonies. Others to add to your list are Janis Joplin, Diana Krall, Sofie Von Otto ( who recorded a wonderful CD with Elvis Costello, calle reach for the stars , Joan Baez, Carole King, Jocelyn Pook, Nina Simone, Bessie Head and many more. I have been enjoying digging up all these works, and I think it is wonderful that you are studying and introducing these women to the public. Best wishes and blessings, Charles.

    1. Thank you Charles, I read about St Hildegard in my research phase, thank you for the information on Meredith Monk. Did you come across Alma Mahler?
      I will certainly try to find the artists you suggest on my Spotify. I’m in the final stage of my project, trying to make thousands of words and items researched fit into 20 short slides.
      Best wishes

      1. Hi Charlotte, it is always difficult to know what to leave out and why, and to be concise, so I suppose this is a good exercise for later years. It sounds like all is coming to an end quite quickly now, so best of luck with it all. I did know a lot about the life of Alma Mahler, but not that she composed. best wishes and blessings, Charles.

  18. One of my favorite artists of all time is Enya. Every record she puts out is a thought provoking masterpiece. She was nominated for an Oscar for her song “May it Be” for Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings movie and set the stage for New-Age music. She’s influenced my music just as much as George Winston, Deep Forest and Enigma. Thanks for the wonderful article, by the way.

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