That’s what 9-year-old Marin Alsop was told by her violin teacher when she expressed an interest in a career as a conductor. Today, she’s one of the world’s best-known conductors, and she recalls that exchange in a scene from “Maestra,” a documentary directed by Maggie Contreras that premieres at the Tribeca Festival, which opens in New York City from Wednesday to June 18. takes place.
The documentary highlights a profession – conducting – that has historically excluded virtually all women. It follows five candidates competing for the top prize in La Maestra, a competition for female conductors co-founded in 2019 by French conductor Claire Gibault and held every two years in Paris.
In the film, Ms. Contreras, 39, a documentary producer making her directorial debut, gives an up-close and personal view of the contestants as they prepare for a competition whose judges are Ms. Alsop and Ms. Gibault. The five participants in the film came from France, Germany, the United States, Greece and Poland.
In a recent video interview, Ms. Contreras recalled the making of the film and the challenges faced by women on the concert stage. The following interview has been edited and shortened.
How did you get to know La Maestra?
During the pandemic, on National Public Radio – where I get a lot of my ideas. My fellow producer Neil Berkeley also heard it and said, ‘Do you think you should direct this one?’ And I said, “Of course.” It made perfect sense. The world of classical music is a world to which I am tangentially connected.
I always grew up with classical music in my house. Pop music was not something my family listened to. For better or worse, I was not exposed to what was on the radio.
Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, my mom made sure we went whenever there was a free Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert in the park. My head was in the pit, I wanted to talk to the timpani player. The Boston Pops was a concert series on PBS when I was growing up, and I was obsessed with the conductor John Williams. When you asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, John Williams was my answer. I would wave the wooden spoon and want to be him. I had no Marin Alsop to name.
What was it like raising money for your documentary?
Everyone was always excited about this movie. They loved it from the moment they pressed play on our teaser. But there was always a barrier to commit. We almost stopped production twice and only had the funding to go to Paris about three and a half weeks before the game. In that time, we assembled a crew of 16 to track those women.
Our film is a microcosm of what society should be. While making this movie, men in privileged positions said, “Hey, you have to do this.” David Letterman gave us our first amount of money. He happens to be a fan of classical music who wants to use his money to make things that are good for the world. The man who is now the executive producer is a banker in Washington, DC
How did you choose the five women?
I picked them out of 14, somewhat haphazardly, because the pandemic was going on and I couldn’t go to all countries. I firmly believe that if you put someone under the microscope of a lens they will be interesting. You are going to find a story about them.
How important was it that you were a woman making this movie?
I don’t think I’ll ever be the filmmaker chasing social issues. The feminist themes that are critical to this story and crucial to our societal conversations are a by-product of the audiences sucked into the story, of super entertainment.
Could a man have directed this, persuaded the five women to open up and express themselves as soon as possible? I would doubt that, and would like to think not. That’s why representation is so important when it comes to non-fiction storytelling. There was a sense of security. I sat there with a camera in people’s bedrooms while they slept.
One of my favorite scenes shows conductor Zoe Zeniodi eating a boiled egg in the tiny kitchen of a shabby Airbnb in Albuquerque. There are these preconceptions about what a conductor’s life is like, and the reality is just the opposite. Conductors eat boiled eggs in a very cheap Airbnb.
How did it feel to put the spotlight on one of the most sexist artistic professions of all?
When I first pitched this project, my attitude to it was: I reluctantly tell a story about yet another glass ceiling that needs to be broken. I find the idea of having to break glass ceilings in 2023 boring. I don’t want to have to tell these stories, but they are there to be told. I hope I never have to tell anyone again.
Your film is more about women than about female music makers. Why?
Because if I’m going to have to fight against this world that’s not accessible in the first place – if someone is going to say, “I’m not too sure if my audience is going to be classical music” – then I have to make it as accessible as possible.
It was very important for me to break the stereotypes of what a conductor is: the image of that authoritarian persona who belittles the musicians, who tremble with fear and reverence. Women need to not only step into that role, but also figure out how to get rid of that stereotype.
What would you like to achieve with your film?
I want people to hire these women. I don’t want all these five women to stop working. And I hope people can leave the movie with the ability to answer the question, “What does a conductor actually do?”
For me, I hope people now see me as an individual artist, rather than a producer in relation to other artists. I hope my next movie won’t be as hard to finance as this one: that I’ll have the support behind me for the next story I want to tell, because now I’m not a new director anymore.