A New Film Shines a Light on Women Conductors

“Girls can’t do that.”

That’s what 9-year-old Marin Alsop was told by her violin teacher when she expressed interest in a conducting career. Today, she’s one of the world’s best-known conductors, and she remembers that exchange in a scene from “Maestra,” a documentary directed by Maggie Contreras that’s premiering at the Tribeca Festival, which runs Wednesday to June 18 in New York City.

The documentary spotlights a profession — conducting — which historically has all but excluded women. It tracks five candidates vying for the top prize in La Maestra, a female conducting competition co-founded in 2019 by the French conductor Claire Gibault, and held in Paris every two years.

In the film, Ms. Contreras, 39, a documentary producer making her directorial debut, delivers an up-close-and-personal portrayal of the contestants as they rev up for a competition whose judges include Ms. Alsop and Ms. Gibault. The five contestants profiled in the film were from France, Germany, the United States, Greece and Poland.

In a recent video interview, Ms. Contreras recalled the making of the movie and the challenges faced by women on the concert podium. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you find out about La Maestra?

During the pandemic, on National Public Radio — where I get a lot of my ideas. My fellow producer Neil Berkeley heard it as well, and said, ‘Do you think you should direct this one?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ It made perfect sense. The classical music world is a world I’ve been tangentially tied to.

How so?

I grew up with classical music in my house at all times. Pop music was not something my family listened to. For better or for worse, I wasn’t exposed to what was on the radio.

Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., whenever there was a free concert of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in the park, my mom would make sure we went. My head was in the pit, wanting to talk to the timpani player. The Boston Pops was a concert series on PBS when I was growing up, and I was obsessed with the conductor John Williams. When you asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, John Williams was my answer. I would wave the wooden spoon wanting to be him. I didn’t have a Marin Alsop to name.

What was it like raising money for your documentary?

Everyone was always excited about this film. They loved it from the moment they pressed play on our teaser. But there was always this barrier to committing. We almost stopped production twice, and didn’t have the financing to go to Paris until about three and a half weeks before the competition. In that time, we pulled together a 16-person crew to follow those women around.

Our film is a microcosm of what society needs to be. Throughout the process of making this film, men in privileged positions said: “Hey, you should do this.” David Letterman gave us our first amount of money. He happens to be a classical music fan who wants to use his money to make things that are good for the world. The man who is now the executive producer is a banker in Washington, D.C.

How did you choose the five women?

I chose them out of 14, somewhat haphazardly, because the pandemic was on and I couldn’t go to all countries. I am a firm believer that if you put anyone under the microscope of a lens, they are going to be interesting. You’re going to find a story about them.

How important was it that you were a woman making this movie?

I don’t think I’m ever going to be the filmmaker who chases social issues. The feminist themes that are critical to this story and critical to our societal conversations are a byproduct of audiences being sucked in by the story, of being superentertained.

Could a man have directed this, persuaded the five women to open up and express themselves as quickly as I was able to? I would question that, and would like to think not. This is why representation is so important when it comes to nonfiction storytelling. There was a sense of safety. I was sitting there with a camera in people’s bedrooms while they slept.

In one of my favorite scenes, you see the conductor Zoe Zeniodi in the tiny little kitchen of a crummy Airbnb in Albuquerque eating a boiled egg. There are these preconceived notions about what a conductor’s life looks like, and the reality is the exact opposite. Conductors are eating boiled eggs in a very inexpensive Airbnb.

How did it feel to shine the spotlight on one of the most sexist artistic professions of all?

When I was first pitching this project, my attitude toward it was: I am reluctantly telling a story about yet another glass ceiling that needs to be broken. The concept of having to break glass ceilings in 2023 is boring to me. I don’t want to have to be telling these stories, but they’re there to be told. I hope I never have to tell another one.

Your movie is more about women than about female music makers. Why?

Because if I need to fight against this world that isn’t accessible in the first place — if someone is going to say, “I’m not too sure my viewership is going to be into classical music” — then I have to make it as accessible as possible.

It was very important for me to strip down the stereotypes of what a conductor is: the image of that authoritarian character belittling the musicians, who are quaking in fear and reverence. Women are not only having to step into that role, but also having to figure out how to get rid of that stereotype.

What would you like your film to achieve?

I want people to hire these women. I want all five of these women to not stop working. And I’m hoping that people can walk away from the film with the ability to answer the question: “What does a conductor do, anyway?”

For me, I hope that people now see me as an individual artist, instead of a producer in relation to other artists. I hope my next film will not be as difficult to finance as this one: that for the next story that I want to tell, I’ll have the support behind me, because now I’m not a first-time director anymore.

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