Alice Farnham made her ROH debut in 2008 and most recently conducted The Firework-Maker’s Daughter in the Linbury Studio in 2015. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.

Founded in


Theatre Royal
(became the Royal Opera House)


Vic-Wells Ballet
(became The Royal Ballet)


Covent Garden Opera Company
(became The Royal Opera)

For The Royal Ballet

Kevin O’Hare


Koen Kessels

Music Director

For The Royal Opera

Kasper Holten


John Fulljames

Associate Director

Antonio Pappano

Music Director

The Royal Ballet
The Royal Opera


The Royal Opera House aims to enrich people’s lives through opera and ballet. Home to two of the world’s great artistic companies – The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet, performing with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House – we seek to be always accessible and engaging, and to break new ground in the presentation of lyric theatre.

We are one of the busiest theatres in the world, presenting more than 500 performances and 1,000 learning and participation sessions each year and attracting 1.5m attendances across Covent Garden and in cinemas worldwide, further extended via broadcasting, digital activity and collaboration with touring companies. An estimated 24,794 people took part in creative projects, in addition we connected tens of thousands more young people with arts and culture at our second home in Thurrock and as a ‘Bridge’ organisation in the East of England.


Building based, two auditoriums

Company Type

Building based

Our grade 1 listed Covent Garden theatre includes a 2,000 seat auditorium and the smaller Linbury Theatre (394 seats, currently being renovated), complemented by set production, costume and learning facilities in Purfleet, Thurrock.

Royal Opera House - Total subsidy from Arts Council England in the 2015/16 financial year

Public Investment


Arts Council England National Portfolio and Bridge investment for the 2014/15 financial year

Location: Covent Garden, London


Covent Garden, London



Staged in the 2015/16 financial year, including 21 works by visiting companies


Staff - Royal Opera House
Artists of The Royal Ballet in Aeternum. © ROH / Bill Cooper, 2014

Artists of The Royal Ballet in Aeternum. © ROH / Bill Cooper, 2014

Our Question

Why is it that such a small proportion of the conductors we employ are women? What can the Royal Opera House do to increase the number of women conductors working in opera and ballet?

Across the whole range of our work from opera to ballet, from large-scale to small-scale, we are asking ourselves how we can enrich the diversity of our creative work. We want to nurture the widest possible range of artists and ideas and believe that this will enable us to make the best possible work. We work with a large number of conductors in a very wide-range of contexts; from conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House on our main-stage to conducting small-scale participatory projects around the country. We were aware that the proportion of our conductors who were women was low across the range of our work and we wanted to understand the obstacles which were preventing us from working with more women. What was it about our systems, processes and biases which was preventing us from working with more women? And how could we make a positive impact, not only to strengthen our programmes by working with more women, but also to strengthen the pool of available female conducting talent?

What We Did

The process began with a workshop, led by Tonic, involving staff from across our Opera, Ballet and Orchestra companies in the question of why so few women conductors are employed at The Royal Opera House.

Following that, Tonic interviewed members of staff, including Kasper Holten, Director of Opera, John Fulljames, Associate Director of Opera, Peter Katona, Director of Casting, David Syrus, Head of Music, Sarah Crabtree, Senior Producer (Opera), Kate Hodson, Learning and Participation Manager (Opera), Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, Koen Kessels, Music Director of the Royal Ballet, Emma Southworth, Senior Producer of The Royal Ballet’s Studio Programme, Rachel Hollings, Artistic Administrator of The Royal Ballet, Sally Mitchell, Orchestra Administrative Director and David Gowland, Artistic Director of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, asking for views on the question and exploring the way we work.

We looked into women’s experience of beginning, building and sustaining a career in conducting. Tonic held one to one interviews with women conductors who have worked with us over the years and some who haven’t. Tonic also spoke to the Royal Academy of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and observed and surveyed attendees of the Morley College Women Conductors workshops for ballet and opera, hosted at the Royal Opera House in 2016.

Further information was gathered from reading on and offline and augmented by input from Christina Scharff, Senior Lecturer in the department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at Kings College London, author of Equality & Diversity in the Classical Music Profession and whose current research interest is Music, Gender & Entrepreneurialism, and Tonic’s academic partners, Central School of Speech and Drama.

Insights from the research were fed back to Royal Opera House staff through a series of meetings with a working group dedicated to the Advance project. Following discussion of insights we looked carefully at our own operations and began to identify how existing approaches, structures and activities could be developed – with partners across the sector – to support women better.

“We were aware that representation of women amongst the conductors we work with was low. Tonic’s tool for gender tracking confirmed that this was so. We are committed to continued use of the tool for tracking the gender of conductors we engage and work with, as well as those employed in creative roles across Royal Opera and Royal Ballet productions.”

What We Learned

Women take many different routes into and through the profession. Many are ‘late starters’, often due to lack of encouragement earlier in life. Some will come to conducting after working successfully and extensively as coaches and repetiteurs, while others will build a career gradually over many years, taking career breaks and in some cases actively avoiding high risk opportunities for rapid ascension to elite circles.

Lack of visibility can impact on aspiration and ambition in girls and young women and on the experience of women operating in the profession. Seeing someone of the same gender ahead of you helps seed the idea that the profession is for you, while being aware of others alongside you is empowering and prevents energy going on management of the ‘curiosity factor’ of being a woman.

Conductors work in a highly competitive environment, where the pressure of audition and having just one chance in front of an orchestra can weigh heavily. Confidence levels, coupled with cognisance of bringing something different to a profession traditionally occupied by men, can affect performance. Equally, unconscious bias in the face of difference can play a part in how performance is assessed.

Managing a freelance career alongside pressures of, for example, finance (especially in London) and family commitments (international engagements can be particularly difficult to manage while raising a family) can be extremely challenging. One-off opportunities and the reliance on freelancers to take continuous initiative doesn’t ease the situation. If a freelancer isn’t able to see a clear pathway ahead she, or he, might decide the profession is too difficult to navigate and find an alternative occupation.

A growing number of women are coming into conducting and increasingly organisations are paying attention to supporting their development, for example the Dallas Opera through its Institute for Women Conductors, signalling an exciting shift in the industry.

What We’re Doing in Response to What We Learned

The Royal Opera House is planning to:

  • Create clearer pathways to and through the conducting profession by partnering with schools, conservatoires and peer companies to strengthen and join up talent development pipelines.
  • Strengthen its scouting processes to identify female talent at every level, nationally and internationally, increasing the number of women conductors whose work is being assessed and monitored.
  • Develop the best possible environment for women conductors to thrive in, paying particular attention to their development needs.
  • Increase the visibility of the female conductors who are working with the company.

Is This Work a Step Towards a Bigger Goal?

This is a first step towards the development of a talent pool which has as many experienced and established female conductors as male conductors and in which both are equally represented on our podiums.

The project has also contributed to the way we think about increasing the diversity of our work across the board; for example it has sparked a conversation about how we can better foster creative environments across artistic disciplines in which leading women can thrive.

“Opera needs to pull on the widest possible pool of artists if it is to find the very best future talent. I’d very much like to see more women conductors working at the Royal Opera House at all levels – not only coming up through our young artist programmes but also appearing regularly on all our podiums.”
Sir. Antonio Pappano, Music Director, The Royal Opera

Amanda Forsythe as Amour in Orphée et Eurydice. ©ROH. Photographed by Bill Cooper.

Amanda Forsythe as Amour in Orphée et Eurydice. ©ROH. Photographed by Bill Cooper.

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