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Holly Mathieson. Photo/Supplied

Holly Mathieson on why there's no better time to be a female conductor

In-demand Kiwi conductor Holly Mathieson, home to steer NZ Opera's The Turn of the Screw, is setting a fast tempo.

On this spring Thursday, as NZ Opera rehearse The Turn of the Screw, conductor Holly Mathieson is on double duties. The kids playing the two children are absent at today’s run-through. So, when it comes time for young Miles or Flora to sing the nursery rhyme-influenced songs that Benjamin Britten wove into his adaptation of the Henry James ghost story, it’s Mathieson who pipes up, sweetly and spookily, all the while conducting in her elegantly unfussy way.

It’s apt in other ways that she’s making her voice heard. As a woman on the podium, Mathieson is a rarity. In Britain, it’s estimated the profession is 95% male (possibly more worldwide), but the clamour for gender equality in the classical realm has been beneficial to her burgeoning UK-based career. “There’s been no better time for a woman as a conductor,” she tells the Listener. “It’s growing, and people have realised that they can make money out of us so therefore they will hire us.”

Growing up in Dunedin, Mathieson’s first love was ballet, before piano lessons from her concert-pianist grandmother eventually led to her studying composition and conducting at the University of Otago, where she graduated with a PhD. Taking up the baton rather than a composing career was a decision born out of both pragmatism and anxiety. “It sounds so cynical but I realised I couldn’t see it providing a particularly nice quality of life, and I found it just too terrifying standing up and having my piece played. I also realised, quite objectively, that what I’m writing is not contributing anything new or valuable. I’d rather do something where I feel as if I’m actually needed.”

Her ballet training, she thinks, not only helped her conduct ballets but also gave her other advantages. “I can look on stage and know exactly how long it’s going to take for that step to happen with those length legs, more or less. I can see that wobble in your left ankle. I know that means you need me to move on. And, with normal conducting, it gives you access to just the very concept, let alone the practice, of being expressive with your body.”

Mathieson started conducting professionally with Opera Otago and the then Southern Sinfonia. “They gave me so much work and so much support and let me make my mistakes and learn the hard way. I owe little Dunedin an awful lot and I never forget it.”

Elegantly unfussy: Holly Mathieson. Photo/Michael Bradley/Supplied

Having shifted to Britain in 2010, she has been assistant conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Her NZ Opera season follows conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and a summer tour by jetboat of the Hebrides with the Nevis Ensemble – a street orchestra of which she is the co-artistic director with conductor-husband Jon Hargreaves. “He describes it as projectile music making … it is taking music anywhere and everywhere to anyone and doing it as much as we can, totally for free.”

Having two conductors at home doesn’t mean there’s a cutlery drawer full of batons – “we do have various receptacles of old ones and I sometimes forget which are the live ones and which are the dead ones” – though there are his-and-hers shelves of scores. Not that they are often at home together during concert seasons.

As an assistant conductor, Mathieson was previously involved in an open-air summer production of The Turn of the Screw, mounted in an English country pile. Britten’s take on the Victorian gothic tale, about a newly hired governess arriving to care for two orphaned kids in an estate haunted by ghosts of past household servants, is her kind of opera.

“There are not many operas that I really think are amazing works of art. This absolutely is – it’s probably one of the greatest pieces or art to have been made in the 20th century. It’s so nice to find an opera that’s not about a tenor and a baritone squabbling over who gets to bed the soprano and then, of course, once she’s had sex and admits she loves one of them, she has to top herself at the end. It’s just such a relief to find an opera that is far more intelligent than that. It’s a complete psychodrama.”

After finishing Turn, Mathieson will be working in Stockholm and Nova Scotia and have a Christmas rush divided between the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the Scottish Ballet. Recent months have seen the release of “her” first album – conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra behind rising star concert pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason on Romance: The Piano Music of Clara Schumann. Despite the snowballing CV, the 38-year-old Mathieson considers she’s just starting out. “I’m on the bottom rung of the ladder, really, in the greater scheme of my conducting career, and to have got to that point is great, and very few people do – certainly very few women do.”

The Turn of the Screw, Wellington’s Opera House, October 3 and 5; Auckland’s ASB Waterfront Theatre, October 18, 20 and 23.

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.