Call it happenstance, call it serendipity, call it karma, but in the week I’m pencilled in to interview Joséphine Korda, this year’s female conductor trainee at Opera North, the Sundays are full of articles about women conductors.

This is due to the release of Tár, a film about a powerful conductor starring Cate Blanchett. The papers are crammed with excellent reviews, Oscar scuttlebutt and op-eds written by women conductors. All of which provides me with a lot of context and much grist to my journalistic mill for my upcoming interview.

Addressing the gender imbalance in classical music, and on the podium in particular, the annual female conductor traineeship offers emerging conductors wide-ranging experience and support within the UK’s national opera company in the North. The traineeship is enabled by the Harewood Young Artist Fund as part of the Opera North Future Fund. It affords the recipient an intensive nine-week placement with the company which includes sitting in and covering rehearsals for the new season, masterclasses with the Orchestra of Opera North, invaluable podium time, and coaching sessions with visiting conductors. Korda is this year’s recipient. I begin by asking her how she got involved in conducting.

“At 16 I decided to put on [Strauss’s] Die Fledermaus,” she tells me. “I really liked the opera and I wanted to put on a show. I was always intrigued by the theatre. I conducted it myself, I got together the orchestra, the singers and everything. Ever since I really loved the art of conducing and I wanted to pursue that.”

Josephine Korda, Opera North. Credit: Mai Toyama

Josephine Korda, Opera North. Credit: Mai Toyama

Korda went on to study music at Oxford University where she set up another orchestra with a repertoire of contemporary music and ballet.

She says: “This is why I really liked conducting because it marries music and movement.”

She went on to concentrate on conducting in Paris at the prestigious Ecole Normale de Musique for five years. Unlike other conservatoires, Korda secured time with the Opéra de Massy where she worked as assistant conductor in her final year. Back in Britain, she attended Marin Alsop’s Women’s Conducting Masterclass. Alsop was the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 and has encouraged women conductors ever since. Testament to her legacy is Alice Farnham’s recent book, In Good Hands. Writing in The Observer, Farnham said: “Ten years since Marin’s Prom, we have normalised the idea of women on the podium.” 

It was at Alsop’s masterclass that Korda met a previous Opera North trainee who urged her to apply to be a conductor. She was successful and has taken up her fellowship while continuing her postgraduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

Korda is fulsome in her praise of her benefactors. “Opera North is a great institution, it’s really renowned. They do really wonderful productions and it was very exciting to be able to apply.”

Interestingly, Korda is the proud owner of a theremin, having been inspired by her friend, the composer Christian Mason, and gifted to her by her parents. Meanwhile, we turn our conversation to the subject of Tár. Neither of us has seen the film and I admit that, at 158 minutes, I’m unlikely to. I mention Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 opera caper, Diva. It’s  a movie that Korda knows well.

Diva is a great film, it embodies opera, whereas Tár doesn’t embody conducting.”

I finish by asking her what the future holds. After completing her studies in Manchester, she wants to return to Paris to develop the repertoire of her ensemble to cover new contemporary composers.

Korda is an engaging interviewee and is obviously a talented and ambitious conductor. Keep an eye out for this woman as she progresses on her musical journey and, as she says, continues “applying, applying, applying”.

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent

Main image credit: Tom Arber 


To read more about Josephine Korda’s journey, click here.