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FEATURE | A Nod To Toronto's Women Of Music

By Sara Schabas on March 8, 2017

In honour of International Women’s Day, we recognize women in Toronto’s classical music scene breaking the glass ceiling one day at a time.

Indie Opera T.O.

FAWN Opera & New Music Artistic Director Amanda Smith
FAWN Opera & New Music Artistic Director Amanda Smith

One facet of the classical musical scene Torontonians can be most proud of is Toronto’s wave of indie opera companies. And some of the best news on this Women’s Day? Many of the leaders of these groups are female. From Essential Opera’s co-artistic directors Erin Bardua & Maureen Batt, to Fawn Chamber Creative’s artistic director Amanda Smith, to Liederwolfe’s co-directors Francesca Perez and Lindsay Michael, to Loose Tea Music Theatre’s artistic director Alaina Viau, to MYOpera’s artistic director and general director Kate Applin and Stephanie Applin respectively, to Opera Five’s artistic director and general director Aria Umezawa and Rachel Krehm respectively, to Renaissance Opera’s Debi Wong and Arianne Abela, to Bicycle Opera’s artistic director Larissa Koniuk, to Urban Vessel’s co-artistic directors Juliet Palmer and Christie Pearson… The number of female opera administrators in Toronto’s indie scene would inspire any young opera-loving female entrepreneur.

Choral Music Conductors

Stephanie Martin Artistic Director of Pax Christi

Although the principal conductors of many of Toronto’s largest ensembles may not be female,  it would be remiss not to mention just how many female conductors quietly dominate the city’s choral music scene. Since 1996, Stephanie Martin has been artistic director of the Pax Christi Chorale, conducting and composing countless works for the ensemble. Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt is Director of Choral Activities at the University of Toronto, and is artistic director of Exultate Chamber Singers. Lydia Adams has served as conductor and artistic director of the Amadeus Choir since 1984 and leads the Elmer Iseler Singers, Cheryll Chung is artistic director of the Cantabile Chamber Singers, Teri Dunn conducts the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, taking over from Ann Cooper Gay who artistic directed the ensemble for many years, and Elise Bradley is artistic director of the Toronto Children’s Chorus.


Nicole Lizée

More and more female composers are beginning to take precedence in Toronto’s new music scene. Audiences can look forward to Opera 5’s presentation of an upcoming partnership with TorQ Percussion Quartet and Canadian composer Cecilia Livingston sometime in 2019. One of Canada’s most widely acclaimed operas internationally in the past few years has been Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba, which has been presented in Europe and the United States, as well as at home. Jocelyn Morlock may not be Toronto-centric, but as composer-in-residence for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, she’s an inspiration to us over here out east. Nicole Lizée, another Canadian composer, has had pieces premiered by the Toronto Symphony, Tapestry Opera and other Toronto groups. Another female composer you’re likely to hear being premiered by Toronto groups is Alexina Louie, one of Canada’s most sought after composers. Luckily for us, this list goes on and on.

Chamber Music

Carol Gimbel
Carol Gimbel

Toronto is home to an embarrassment of riches of chamber ensembles, many of which feature female leadership and performers. Tafelmusik, one of the world’s top baroque ensembles, was incredibly fortunate to have Jeanne Lamon as music director from 1981-2014, who continues there as chief artistic advisor. Tafelmusik’s new Artistic Director Elisa Citterio now takes up the mantle of strong females leads this summer. Pocket Concerts, another well-known chamber group in Toronto, has Emily Rho, pianist, as co-director. Carol Gimbel serves as founding artistic director of Music in the Barns, Dorothy Glick artistic directs Syrinx Concerts, Cheryl Duvall and Ilana Waniuk lead Thin Edge New Music Collective, Kerri McGonigle artistic directs Academy Concert Series and Nadina Mackie Jackson music directs Bassoon Out Loud. If you like Bach, Sheila Jaffé and Catherine Cosbey lead Bach from the Heart… As far as chamber music goes, Toronto’s female musical leaders have you covered.

Behind the Scenes

Many of the most important female figures in Toronto’s musical community are not the ones audiences recognize from podiums and billboards. They comprise the teachers, coaches, performers, assistant conductors, publicists, artist managers, music journalists, section leaders and early childhood educators without whom the Canadian music scene would not exist. Canada boasts some of the most accomplished musicians per capita to come out of anywhere in the world. We wouldn’t be there without the wonderful teachers passing on discipline, high standards and inspiring young musicians behind the scenes. Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, universities, schools and private studios boast hundreds of wonderful female teachers.

Final thoughts

We are proud to live in a city where so many women dominate the classical music scene. The more this becomes the norm, the more inspired young women will be to take positions of leadership on podiums, boards, panels and in composing and writing new works. As Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General of Canada and Toronto resident pointed out, “Until women become deans of medical faculties and law schools, heads of departments, and senior partners in law firms, they do not hold the levers of power.” Many women in Toronto’s classical music scene do hold power, and the more work we can do to ensure that this spreads through all echelons of cultural and civic institutions and that women have equal pay, recognition and representation, the better. Here’s to having even more women to celebrate on next year’s women’s day.

We’ve missed a lot of women on this list. Help us out and contribute in the comments.


Sara Schabas

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