Lidiya Yankovskaya ’08: Making Way for Women Conductors

Photos Karen Almond

As Music Director of the Chicago Opera Theater, founder of the Refugee Orchestra Project, and a conductor of international renown, Lidiya Yankovskaya ’08 is used to the occasional media mention. But she wasn’t quite prepared for the frenzy that erupted last month when she tweeted about conducting while pregnant and three days postpartum.

Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya '08
Lidiya Yankovskaya ’08, Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, is one of only two women conducting a major American opera company.

The Twitter thread, containing Yankovskaya’s musings on the stigma and outright discrimination faced by the relatively few women in her field, was picked up by Good Morning America among other national media outlets.

“When I had my first kid, people told me that no one wanted to see a pregnant conductor, that I couldn’t possibly conduct while caring for a newborn, and that being a mother and being a conductor are incompatible,” tweeted the mother of two. “I hope we are beginning to let go of this ridiculous, sexist stigma.” 

Yankovskaya posted about this “to first of all thank the people in my life who make all this possible—especially my husband, Daniel Schwartz ’07—but also just to raise awareness,” she says. “I’ve heard so many horror stories about people either being forced out of jobs when they get pregnant or losing jobs after they have kids because there’s an assumption, in particular for women, that if you have kids, you must no longer be interested in a career that requires a lot of travel and dedication. That’s a really problematic thing in our industry, in particular. In conducting, there are so few women, period. In the first five to ten years of my career, everything I did I was the first or the only.”

When Yankovskaya became Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater in 2017, she was the only woman with that title at a multimillion-dollar American opera company. (There is now a second, Eun Sun Kim at San Francisco Opera.) Her success in her chosen field despite these incredibly long odds is a direct result, she says, of the early support of her alma mater. “I was very lucky while I was at Vassar to have amazing music faculty who not only were great musicians and great teachers on the highest possible level,” she says, “but who also deeply cared about their students.” She adds that only later did she fully realize how generous her Vassar Music Department mentors truly were—helping her to prepare for performances and auditions on their own time while making sure she had every opportunity available to an aspiring conductor. “If I had not gone to Vassar, I would never be doing what I’m doing now,” she concludes.

As COT Music Director, Yankovskaya has come up with an innovative way to pay that forward with the Vanguard Initiative, an emerging opera composer residency she established. “There’s not another one that I know of in the world that’s quite like it that allows composers who want to write opera to become fully embedded in the company and to write their first opera,” she explains.

She is also very involved with another initiative she founded several years ago: the Refugee Orchestra Project, which showcases the cultural contributions refugees have made throughout American history and continue to make today. “I came to the United States as a refugee, and my whole life has been made possible by the fact that this country welcomed my family,” says Yankovskaya, whose family fled anti-Semitism in Russia and arrived in the Albany, NY, area when the future conductor was 9 years old. The rise in anti-immigrant sentiment she has observed in recent years was the impetus for this project, she says. “I think seeing very specific examples of how refugees have become a part of our culture sometimes helps change people’s minds,” notes Yankovskaya. During the pandemic, the organization managed to raise funds and stage world premieres from refugee composers and performed by refugee musicians that were specifically geared for the digital context, she says.

Though the pandemic hit the performing arts sector harder than most, Yankovskaya persevered to the point where she was named Chicagoan of the Year by the Chicago Tribune. “In 2020, Chicago Opera Theater music director Lidiya Yankovskaya led the company in a fully staged world premiere before the pandemic and daring online performances amid the shutdown,” the paper noted. “In both settings, Yankovskaya and COT emerged as the very model of how to survive adversity, and also how to thrive in it.” She is particularly proud that “we’re in the process of developing or have already premiered nine world premieres—and six of them are by women and six of them are by creators of color.”

As for conducting an opera three days after giving birth, Yankovskaya doesn’t think that makes her any kind of a hero; it is more a reflection, she says, of a support system she has that too many others lack. “Lots of women give birth and then they go home and they’re alone watching multiple children, cooking, taking care of all home things, and that’s in many ways more of a feat,” she says. “It’s not celebrated or noticed in the same way—we take it for granted.”

February 24, 2022