Tokenism and Firings
(The status of women and people of color in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic ten years after it nominally ended its discriminatory policies.)
By William Osborne
December 12, 2006
As is now well-known, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic nominally ended its long tradition of excluding women on February 27, 1997. These changes were made one day before the orchestra traveled to Carnegie Hall, where it was facing large protests by the International Alliance for Women in Music, The National Organization of Women, and a great deal of negative press coverage.
The orchestra began by allowing Anna Lelkes --their woman harpist who had already performed with them in an "associate status" for 26 years-- to become an official member of the Vienna Philharmonic. (Male harpists are rare, so the orchestra has always had to use women for that instrument.) Ms. Lelkes was forced into retirement four years later, even though she wanted to continue working.(Pic: New York protest in front of Carnegie Hall in 1997.)
So what is the balance for women after ten years? The answers provided here are in two parts. The first looks at the current ratios between men and women in the orchestra. The second takes a detailed look at how one of the women has been treated, the first violinist, Ms. XXX. (To protect her identity and future career path I have removed Ms. XXX's real name from this article. For further information researchers and journalists can contact me.) Together they give a sense of how the gender culture in the Vienna Philharmonic is evolving.
Part I: Little Or No Change
There has been no change in the m/f ratios in the Vienna Philharmonic in the last ten years. They still have only one woman member. And she is still a harpist, Charlotte Balzereit.
And the orchestra's opera formation has fared little better. Only six women have been hired, but two were fired after their trial year. So after ten years:
An Estimate for the Number of New Hires
The Vienna State Opera has yet to answer repeated inquiries about how many men have been hired in the last ten years, so exact m/f ratios for new hires are not possible at this time. (When I receive the numbers I will update this report with exact percentages.)
It is possible, however, to make reasonably accurate estimates based on information at hand. One can safely say that between 30 to 40 positions have been filled since 1997. The m/f ratio for new members with permanent contracts in the State Opera Orchestra is thus approximately 35 to 4. By comparison, during the same period, the Zurich State Opera filled 20 of 30 free positions with women.
And the m/f ratio for new members who have completed the three year tenure to become members of the Vienna Philharmonic is approximately 22 to 1. Over 20 times as many men have become members, even though women represent 62% of the instrumental classes at Vienna's University of Music and Performing Arts. 
With between 30 to 40 positions filled since February of 1997, the Vienna Philharmonic should have been able to make more than one woman a member. These numbers illustrate that the orchestra continues to discriminate while using tokenism and delays to disguise its actions. As one Philharmonic string player noted in a recent interview, "Three women [in the opera formation] are already too many. By the time we have twenty percent, the orchestra will be ruined. We have made a big mistake, and will bitterly regret it." (Pic: Former Philharmonic Press Speaker Wolfgang Schuster announcing the entry of women in 1997.)
Race: The Other Unspoken Problem
Women are not the only people who face exclusion in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic. The ensemble's traditions also include the exclusion of visible members of racial minorities - though here too the orchestra is at least nominally addressing these practices. The policy of whites-only has been directed mostly toward Asians, since many study in Vienna where they have reached the highest professional standards.
In the last ten years, the orchestra has hired its first two people of color, but one of them was fired, the tubist Yasuto Sugiyama. This makes the ratio for people of color 147 to 1 in the State Opera Orchestra, and 136 to 1 in the Philharmonic. (And perhaps it's relevant to note that one person of color is only half Asian.) The dismissal rate for people of color is thus 50%.
Mr. Sugiyama is a
world-class musician who soon afterwards won the tuba position in the
Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. This
leaves serious questions about why he was fired in
A general statistical overview vividly illustrates the extreme imbalances in the orchestra's employment practices after ten years:
Who Are the Women?
Here is a breakdown of the six women who were hired and their status:
Both Ms. Wex and Ms. Plaichinger frequently substituted in the Staatsoper before their auditions, and were well-known to the orchestra. There is concern that the ensemble might have selected these women in anticipation that they would delay their entry into the Vienna Philharmonic. With one third of the women fired, and one third whose entry has been delayed, 66% of the women engaged have so far been prevented from entering the Vienna Philharmonic. That leaves a balance after ten years of only one woman member, or 136 to 1, exactly the same ratio as ten years ago.
In this regard, it should be mentioned that a screen is used during the orchestra's auditions, but that it is removed during the last round. The ensemble believes it is important to see what musicians look like while they play. The visual criteria is very undefined. In most interviews, the orchestra intentionally leaves the false impression that the screen is used for all rounds.
It is also notable that the Austrian Federal Government provides a yearly
subsidy to the Vienna Philharmonic of 2.2 million Euros (2.9 million
dollars.) In addition, it also owns and operates the Vienna State Opera,
a cultural institution that has openly practiced gender and racial
discrimination for over half a century. The statistics illustrate that these
practices continue. The Austrian Federal Government is thus openly breaking
both its own and European law.
Part II: The Woman Who Was Too Visible
To better understand the gender culture of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic, it is worthwhile to look at the Trial Year of Ms. XXX. (Pic below.) Her experiences illustrate how token women are often treated in sexist institutions. They also suggest that the orchestra's internal gender dynamics have become considerably more mixed and complex than ten years ago, even if they have not resulted in significant changes in the m/f ratios.
Ms. XXX won her audition for first violin in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra on December 23, 2004. She became only the fourth non-harpist woman in history to enter the ensemble. New musicians in the orchestra begin with a one year trial period, after which a series of votes are held to determine if they will be given a permanent contract, dismissed, or receive a second trial year.
The first vote takes place only among the members of the candidate's section -- in Ms. XXX's case, the first violins. A second vote is held shortly afterwards by a more formal Trial Year Jury comprised of twenty-six people taken from each section of the orchestra. The members of this jury are to observe the candidate throughout the Trial Year.
Ms. XXX's Trial Year Jury consisted of two concertmasters, six first violins, three players from the other string sections, one member from each of the wind sections, and one member from the percussion section. A two thirds majority in each vote is required for the candidate to receive a permanent contract or trial year extension.
The first violin's vote for Ms. XXX was held in early June, 2006 by placing anonymous ballots in a box in the orchestra's office. The results were evenly divided: 5 for a permanent contract, 6 for dismissal, and 7 for a second trial year. An additional 7 of the section's 25 members were not present for the vote. Some of these colleagues were abroad, some did not have services during the ballot period, and others did not know a vote was being held. Later events suggest that most of the missing seven would likely have voted for a second trial year. Their absence seems to have considerably altered the outcome.
The divided and incomplete vote among the first violins strongly influenced the vote of the twenty-six member Trial Year Jury, which was held on June 9, 2006. The wind players in the orchestra have little specialized knowledge of string playing. It is also difficult to observe players in other sections when you are occupied with your own part in an often distant area of the stage. These problems leave Trial Year Juries susceptible to determined opponents within the candidate's own section. An avalanche effect is set in motion. The Trial Year Jury's vote came to five for confirmation, and twenty-one for dismissal.
In cases of dismissal, the Trial Year Jury holds another vote to determine if the candidate should be given a second trial year. Before this vote was taken, a discussion was held. Both of the concertmasters in the Trial Year Jury, Rainer Küchl and Werner Hink, spoke in Ms. XXX's favor. She was also openly supported by three of the six members from the first violin section, Daniel Froschauer, Herbert Linke, and Manfred Kuhn.
Two members of the first violin section chose to remain neutral, Martin
Kubik and Milan Ŝetena. Only one violinist on the jury criticized
Martin Zalodek, who felt she played too loudly, thus overshadowing him and
others. Mr. Zalodek was joined by Dieter Flury, the orchestra's solo flutist
and Business Director, who sits directly behind Ms. XXX in the ensemble.
He said he also thought she played too loudly.
The motives for these rather generalized criticisms might deserve closer examination. In an interview in 1996 with the West German State Radio, Mr. Flury strongly defended the Vienna Philharmonic's exclusion of women and people of color. He described the ensemble's policies as "racist and sexist irritations" that should be accepted to protect the musical character of the orchestra:
"From the beginning we have spoken of the special Viennese qualities, of the way music is made here. The way we make music here is not only a technical ability, but also something that has a lot to do with the soul. The soul does not let itself be separated from the cultural roots that we have here in central Europe. And it also doesn't allow itself to be separated from gender.
"So if one thinks that the world should function by quota regulations, then it is naturally irritating that we are a group of white skinned male musicians, that perform exclusively the music of white skinned male composers. It is a racist and sexist irritation. I believe one must put it that way. If one establishes superficial egalitarianism, one will lose something very significant. Therefore, I am convinced that it is worthwhile to accept this racist and sexist irritation, because something produced by a superficial understanding of human rights would not have the same standards."
"Superficial understandings" or not, the Vienna State Opera Orchestra can no longer exclude women, though some members still feel their presence should be kept to a minimum. Mr. Flury was prepared to accept another woman candidate, Isabelle Callieret, but insisted Ms. XXX must go.
In the same interview with the West German State Radio, second violinist Helmut Zehetner, noted that the orchestra has a special "emotional unity" as an all-male ensemble that lends its music superior qualities. He was asked about the possible entry of women, and expressed similar concerns about how noticeable they might be:
"We have a male harpist, and two ladies. If you ask how noticeable the gender is with these colleagues, my personal experience is that this instrument is so far at the edge of the orchestra that it doesn't disturb our emotional unity, the unity I would strongly feel, for example, when the orchestra starts really cooking with a Mahler symphony. There, I sense very strongly and simply that only men sit around me. And as I said, I would not want to gamble with this unity."
In actual practice, even sitting at the edge of the orchestra was not fully adequate to keep their harpist, Anna Lelkes, from disturbing their sense of unity. The orchestra made every effort to keep her invisible. Only her hands were allowed to be shown during television broadcasts, her name was not included in programs, and she was excluded from most of the orchestra's official photos. In some cases, she even wore a gown made to look like a Frach.
Fears about the loss of an undefined "emotional unity" seem to still work against women in the orchestra. If Ms. XXX were in the least way too noticeable, she might have disturbed a sense of common identity more seriously than she realized, especially sitting near the center of the ensemble. (Pic: Ms. XXX seated near the center of the orchestra (on the left side of this photo). Note flutist Dieter Flury directly behind her.)
Putting Alibis On A Pedestal
The orchestra also appears to be following patterns of tokenism common to sexist organizations. The few women in the ensemble, such as Ms. Callieret, will be used as alibis to rationalize the exclusion, abuse, and expulsion of other women. This also allows for the astoundingly low rate of employment, and the 33% dismissal rate.
Due to Mr. Flury's position as the orchestra's Business Director, and his many years of service in the ensemble, his criticism of Ms. XXX carried considerable weight with the other wind players. The possible prejudice indicated by his past statements were not considered. The vote to extend the trial period was evenly divided, thirteen to thirteen.
Without the two-thirds majority to confirm a second trial year, Ms. XXX was given notice that she would be fired at the end of the season, effective August 1, 2007. Her name is still on the personnel roster of the Vienna State Opera's website, but it was quickly removed from the Vienna Philharmonic's, where she was listed as an associate awaiting tenure, along with 17 other members of the State Opera Orchestra.
Concerns About the Vote: "We Let Her Run Aground"
The day after the vote, there were serious concerns about the results, which were not anticipated by most of the first violins. Martin Kubik (one of the two first violinists who had chosen to remain neutral during the Trial Year Jury's discussions) wrote an open letter stating that even though the vote was properly run, it would be a shame to lose a violinist of Ms. XXX's quality. He wrote that a more considered and complete vote should be held that might grant her a second trial year, because:
"…in the end we will also be testing the human qualities of our section. I sense from many of us a discomfort about this Jury's decision. […] We have all had the experience, that much of what one should have said to a candidate during the Trial Year, is only brought to light during the final considerations. Briefly stated: We let her run aground."
Mr. Kubik's letter met with wide-spread agreement in the first violin section. Twenty-one of its twenty-five members co-signed it, including all four concertmasters. These developments also highlight the problem that seven of the first violins had not been included in the first vote. A more complete and considered ballot was deemed necessary.
The letter also stressed that Ms. XXX had not been informed of any problems, and thus had no opportunity to correct them. Each new member of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is assigned a mentor who serves as their coach during the trial year. Ms. XXX's coach was first violinist, Hubert Kroisammer. Normally any serious complaints are mentioned to the coach who works with the musician to remedy the problems. No complaints were made to Mr. Kroisammer during the entire Trial Year.
Those familiar with the Vienna Philharmonic will remember that Mr. Resel, now 71 years old, was Chairman of the orchestra in 1997 when international protests led it to begin admitting women. (pic at right.) He vociferously opposed the entry of females, and even suggested that the orchestra disband rather than accept them. At one point, when asked about the lack of women in the orchestra, he justified the policy with the explanation that, "The Vienna Philharmonic is an orchestra of white men that plays music by white men for white people".
Mr. Resel retired in 2000, but in September 2006 he was appointed to a
purely administrative position as Orchestra Manager by Ioan Holender, the
Director of the Vienna State Opera. Since Mr. Resel is now the Orchestra
Manager, he also allows himself to once again play in the ensemble when
Since a new vote was blocked, several of Ms. XXX's colleagues suggested she play in the audition being held to replace her on December 20, 2006. All auditions at that level are extremely difficult, but musicians can sometimes win their position a second time. In fact, this double testing is a situation where women all too often find themselves.
Ms. XXX reapplied, but Mr. Resel would not accept her application. Again, he did not give any reasons. Two colleagues, Herr Kroisammer and Concertmaster Hink, were invited to consult with him on the acceptance of new applications, but when Ms. XXX's appeared he simply put it in the rejection stack without any comment or discussion.
One reason might have been the Staatsoper's policy of not accepting applicants over 35. The orchestra feels that musicians past that age do not have the flexibility to adapt to the ensemble. Ms. XXX had in the meantime turned 37.
And to remove any confusion, Mr. Resel also authored new audition rules -- referred to in German as the Probespielordnung. In the lugubrious and oppressive tone of official civil service German, it states that anyone who does not pass a Trial Year has to wait three years before re-auditioning. The new audition rules were presented on November 30, 2006, but by making them retroactive to November 7th, Mr. Resel eliminated the possibility that Ms. XXX could re-audition.
Some of the concerned musicians suggested that the Trial Year Jury could circumvent Mr. Resel's blockades by holding a re-vote about Ms. XXX on December 20th, 2006, since they would all be together again for the audition to replace her. They did not realize that Mr. Resel was a step ahead of them. He had added yet another clause to the Probespielordnung that declared re-votes "inadmissable." The new Probespielordnung had been approved by the union, but they did not know that some of the additions were apparently designed for specific agendas.
The age argument about the presumed inflexibility of musicians over 35 is also notably ironic, and not only because Ms. XXX is already playing in the orchestra. Why would the 71 year old Mr. Resel, whose views would seem anachronistic, be considered flexible enough to be the Orchestra Manager, while Ms. XXX at 37 would be considered ossified? And how much adaptation would be necessary on Ms. XXX's part? The petition presented illustrated that 21 of the 25 first violins feel she could likely adapt if she were simply given a chance to react to the criticisms made against her.
Due to the many obstacles, there were few other avenues for Ms. XXX. The orchestra has an Administrative Board (Betriebsrat) --comprised of Michael Bladerer, Gottfried Martin, and Hans Moser-- but they are friends and allies of Mr. Resel. The orchestra's General Music Director, Seiji Ozawa, has been bedridden in Japan for months fighting serious illness, so he has little or no knowledge of the situation. And it was generally assumed that the Director of the Opera, Iaon Holender, who appointed Mr. Resel, would support him, almost as a question of honor.
People in and outside of the orchestra began to question why Mr. Holender
would appoint a Manager who had spoken so strongly against the inclusion of
women, and especially in an ensemble that is clearly having trouble accepting
them. This did not seem to be an issue for Mr. Holender. In 2000, he even gave
Mr. Resel a rare official title as "Doyen of the Vienna State
In mid November the orchestra became aware that it was once again being closely scrutinized. Earlier in the month, a journalist working for Der Spiegel (something like the Time Magazine of Germany,) and a journalist working for a very large daily in Helsinki, contacted me because they were planning articles about women in orchestras. They also wanted to include information about the balance in the Vienna Philharmonic after ten years. I provided them with detailed information about the lack of change in the orchestra and a detailed report about Ms. XXX. Both journalists began interviewing musicians and administrators in the Vienna State Opera. (Their stories have not yet appeared.)
In early November, my colleague in Vienna, Regina Himmelbauer, also contacted Dr. Wolfgang Zinggl, the Cultural Speaker for the Green Party in the Austrian Federal Parliament. Dr. Zinggl initiated an investigation of his own, and in late November began releasing information to the press. He presented his findings in a news conference on December 11, 2006, which included a six page press release detailing the current status of women in the orchestra, and summarizing the experiences of Ms. XXX. He described Mr. Resel's past stance opposing women, and said that naming him the Orchestra Manager was what he would call "making the goat the gardener." (Pic: Wolfgang Zinggl.)
On the same day, one of Vienna's most respected papers, Der Standard, published an article about the orchestra. It included an interview with the Chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg. (Pic below.) He assured the paper that there was no discrimination in the Vienna Philharmonic. He also explained that no one would be hired for "non-artistic" reasons, and that he could therefore not say when women would have a representation in the orchestra similar to those found in most others. The article ended with his observation that, "Every thought about quotas is against the spirit of art." (One might wonder, however, which quotas he is referring to, since the ten-year balance in the Philharmonic is still 136 to 1.)
The Austrian Press Agency also released a two page report about the orchestra containing similar material. And on December 12, 2006 they released a chronology highlighting some of the main events of the orchestra's gender problems over the last 12 years. 
At 10:30 that evening, Austrian State Television's "Treffpunkt Kultur" also presented a feature about the recent developments. And most importantly, they included an interview with the Director of the State Opera, Ioan Holender, that completely turned the situation on its head. (Pic below.)
Referring to the new Probespielordnung, Mr. Holender said in plain and colorful terms, "One can't present something on November 30th and make it applicable retroactively to the 7th of November. That stinks." He added that the new rules would only become effective in January 2007 and not earlier, noting that, "…if some have decided this will happen earlier, I will change that. Here [in the opera house], I definitely do not make-up rules for the occasion." (Pic: Iaon Holender.)
At the end of the broadcast, the moderator noted that the in the meantime the new Probespielordnung had been "completely tossed out." It was determined that "one-sided changes based on employee interests made them invalid."
Since the new rules have been declared invalid, it appears that new vote might be held to determine if Ms. XXX will be given a second Trial Year. If so, it will most likely be during the audition to replace her, on December 20th. It is not possible to predict the outcome.
An Urgent Need for an Alibi
During his investigation in early December, Dr. Zinggl spoke with the State Opera Orchestra's woman violist, Ursula Plaichinger. She said that due to increased activity by the press, she had recently received several phone calls from colleagues encouraging her to quickly apply for membership in the Vienna Philharmonic. The orchestra seemed to feel it could now use an alibi to rationalize the lack of progress over the last ten years. It is thus possible that in the next few weeks, Ms. Plaichinger will become the first non-harpist woman in history to become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic.
People should not, however, think Ms. Plaichinger's possible appointment will represent significant change. If she is made a member, the event will likely be for the sake of public relations. Women and people of color will continue to face strong discrimination in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Vienna Philharmonic.
On the other hand, it is apparent that the orchestra's internal dynamics are far more mixed and complex than they were ten years ago. It is encouraging that leaders in the orchestra and administration have apparently moved Ms. XXX's situation in a more positive direction (though Wolfgang Zinggl feels these changes might only be a delaying tactic.) Whatever the case, in an ensemble with the Vienna Philharmonic's past, careful consideration about the engagement of women would be in order.
On both sides of the Atlantic, much lip-service has been given to change in the Vienna Philharmonic, but ten years after opening its doors, the orchestra still has only one woman harpist as a member, and only one person of color. We see that actions speak louder than words. And we see that tokenism does not disguise sexism and racism, even for those in denial.
UPDATE, December 15, 2006. As might be expected, further internal conflicts have evolved at the Staatsoper since this report was posted three days ago. The Chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg, along with the Administrative Board of the Staatsoper Orchestra, are working to prevent Ms. XXX from being allowed re-audition. Any thought of a revote by the Trial Year Jury seems completely gone.
The only avenue for Ms. XXX would be to re-audition before a jury where a part of the members entirely oppose her. Since the new Probespielordung will not be in effect until 2007, Ms. XXX's opponents will have to find new methods to exclude her from auditioning a second time, if she decides to try.
 The personnel roster of the Vienna Philharmonic is here: http://www.wienerphilharmoniker.at/index.php?set_language=de&cccpage=musicians
 The personnel roster of the Staatsoper Orchestra can be found here: http://www.wiener-staatsoper.at/Content.Node2/home/haus/5330.php# The total number of members in the Staatsoper is higher than Vienna Philharmonic's because 18 of the musicians are still fulfilling the three year tenure requirement to become "Philharmonikern." Three of the 148 positions in the Opera orchestra remain unfilled.)
 According to the Austrian magazine profil, there were already 24 new hires between 1997 and 2003, which comes to an average of 4 per year. See: Peter Schneeberger, "The Two Percent Society", profil (February 24, 2003). If this same rate has been maintained, around 40 positions have been filled in the last ten years. It is not unusual for an orchestra with 148 members to have to replace 3 or 4 musicians a year. The numbers have also been compounded by a large wave of retirements. An estimate between 30 and 40 new positions is thus very reasonable. Journalists, scholars, and members of the Austrian Parliament are pressing the Opera to release the exact numbers. When they do, I will update this report with exact percentages.
 See: "Frauenquoten an der Universität für Musik und darstellende
Kunst," Arbeitskreis für Gleichbehandlungsfragen (Wien", June 2006)
available on the web at:
 Peter Schneeberger, "The Two Percent Society", profil (February 24, 2003)
 For more information see: William Osborne, "The Special
Characteristics of the Vienna Philharmonic's Racial Ideology", (December
31, 1999) at:
 For details see: William Osborne, "Why Did the Vienna Philharmonic
Fire Yasuto Sugiyama?" at: < http://www.osborne-conant.org/sugiyma.htm
 The information about the audition process is taken from "Probespielordnung: für das Staatsopernorchester und das Bühnenorchester der Wiener Staatsoper" (November 7, 2006).
 "Musikalische Misogynie," broadcast by the West German State
Radio, February 13, 1996. A transcription and translation of the entire
interview can be found at: <http://www.osborne-conant.org. wdr.htm> The
entire German original can be found at: <http://www.osborne-conant.org.
 The personnel roster of the Staatsoper Orchestra can be found here: http://www.wiener-staatsoper.at/Content.Node2/home/haus/5330.php# And for comparison, the personnel roster of the Vienna Philharmonic here: <http://www.wienerphilharmoniker.at/index.php?set_language=de&cccpage=musicians>
 Resel's statment was reported in countless publications. See for example, Robert Spoula, "Vorstand der Philharmoniker tritt zurück" Berliner Zeitung (April 4, 2004) p. 25.
 "Von Tag zu Tag", broadcast by Austrian National Radio and Television, December 11, 1996, 4:05-4:45pm.
 For the details of Mr. Resel's appointment as Orchestra Manager see: http://www.wiener-staatsoper.at/Content.Node2/home/prolog/ausgaben/14840.php
 For a comparative example of double testing for women see the
experiences of Abbie Conant in the Munich Philharmonic at:
 "Probespielordnung: für das Staatsopernorchester und das Bühnenorchester der Wiener Staatsoper" (November 7, 2006). Note the recent date and the new additions.
 "Cello spielen ist das Wichtigste", Die Presse (June 22, 2005)
 "Eine Philharmonikerin, viele Philharmoniker", Der Standard Online, (December 11, 2006).
 "Wiener Philharmoniker: Grüne kritisieren geringen Frauenanteil", Austrian Press Agency (December 11, 2006). And the chronology: “Eine Philharmonikern, viele Philharmoniker”, Austrian Press Agency (December 12, 2006)
 "Männer-Bund, Wiener Philharmoniker: Wie frauenfeindlich ist das weltberühmte Orchester wirklich?", Treffpunkt Kultur (ORF 2, 10:30 pm, December 11, 2006).