Last year Jessica Gethin scooped the Brain Stacey emerging conductor award and was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of Australia’s “Top 100 Women of Influence”. This year the chief conductor of the Perth Symphony Orchestra is one of the inaugural fellows at the Dallas Opera’s Institute of Women Conductors. It seems that it’s not just the locals who think Jessica’s straight-talking musical enthusiasm and her wide warm smile are a winning combination.

What music gets your heart racing?

There are many moments symphonically, particularly in large scale romantic symphonic works that physically get my pulse up on the podium; full bodied brass, resounding percussion and the build of wind and driving strings can be completely thrilling in the actual moment. However, I’d have to say how I connect with certain key pieces probably has just as much effect; conducting a work like Mahler Adagietto (from Symphony No 5) where the tension is all in the silence, the ebb and flow and the slight delay in each cadence has just as powerful an effect.

What calms you down?

Listening to the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites; much complexity yet beauty in its simplicity. I remember my mum used to play Bach most nights as she cooked dinner when I was younger, and I used to play it to my kids at bedtime when they were babies. I also grew up listening to the jazz greats, so that has always been a good escape at the end of a long day. Otherwise going for a run along the beach or reading on my deck always seems to give me some clarity.

What do you sing along to?

Whatever score is currently open on my desk! I tend to do a lot of score study late in the evenings so often go to bed and wake with a jumble of lines in my head from my current scores. Not always ideal, as was the case late last year when learning excerpts from Jake Heggie’s opera ‘Dead Man Walking’… the March to the Execution Chambers isn’t the most ideal libretto to sing around the house! I’m not actually that aware of it but apparently I have a reputation of singing to the orchestra a lot, I suppose I find it the most efficient way to communicate a particular sound or phrase direction.

You are about to head back to America to continue your studies as one of the inaugural fellows at the Dallas Opera’s Institute of Women Conductors. I understand the course is about intense immersion which must also require intense preparation! What are you working on this semester? 

This semester we are focusing some modern English and American repertoire, I’m currently learning The Crucible (Ward) and The Turn of the Screw (Britten) however we will also be conducting excerpts from Mozart and Handel. In December we covered 18 operas, everything from Puccini, Handel, Adamo, Verdi, Ravel, Menotti and Donizetti so it’s very diverse in genre selection.

[Check out this fabulous footage of Jessica conducting the Dallas Opera Orchestra .]

Statistics in the US reveal that in the top 15 opera houses only 5% of performances during the 2015/16 season were conducted by women. How is the Dallas Opera course upskilling you to overcome the challenges inherent in your industry?

The IWC is unique in that aside from the intense conducting masterclasses, we also take part in a number of seminars addressing key issues and challenges in surviving the industry. From media training to working with directors and sponsors, how to pick the right management and also negotiating interviews for us with top agents across the US, they provide us with five years continued support to create better visibility on the podium and increase our opportunities for career longevity.

Where to after the course has finished? 

My previous work has all been symphonic, so the IWC Fellowship in Dallas was really my first introduction to the opera world, something I am keen to explore further with their support over the coming years. I really enjoy my work here in Perth, aside from my current role as Chief Conductor of the Perth Symphony I also work with Perth Chamber Orchestra, Opera Box, WA Opera, lecture at WAAPA, adjudicate festivals and such. However it’s definitely time for me to broaden my opportunities outside of Perth so I’m currently working closely with my agent in Singapore on developing contacts in the US and Asia this year. It’s a pretty exciting time, hopefully the next five years will see some more opportunities overseas in both the symphonic and operatic fields.

Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?

I believe music has an extraordinary power to connect. It transcends race, age, demographic, time, language and culture. The elderly draw on it for nostalgia, the youth throw themselves into it for refuge and escape! I’m an ambassador for a brilliant international movement ‘Playing for Change’ who use music as a tool for peace, they do some great work in this area on a global scale. I think it goes even further than that though; it’s such a raw, authentic, innate form of expression of the human nature. I find it all very fascinating!

You started your career as a violinist, graduating from the WA Academy of Performing Arts with a music degree in 2002. In August you return to WAAPA as guest conductor for their 25th Anniversary Gala Concert at the Perth Concert Hall. It sounds like it will be a musical extravaganza…!

Yes, I’m really looking forward to working with the Faith Court Orchestra for this very special concert. We will be collaborating with the choir and also some special guest artists, it’s a great program and the audience are in for a real celebration of all things WAAPA!

Jessica and the Perth Symphony Orchestra

You have a soft spot for Margaret River Wines… can you recommend a good bottle for a chilly Perth winter evening?

I’ve been lucky enough to conduct several Leeuwin Estate Winery Concerts so feel pretty qualified to say their Art Series Chardonnay or Cab Sav are exquisite! I also love the Cape Mentelle Cab or Voyager Estate Tom Price SSB. As I’ve got older I’ve enjoyed learning more about wine and started following the journey of Perth Chamber Orchestra’s wine sponsor, Barton Jones. Getting to know the owner, Jackie and the whole story of nurturing each wine in the developing stages has been fascinating. I always stop by her cellar door in Donnybrook to say hello and stock up. Try their Red Rhapsody chilled in summer!

You have a distinctive dynamic energy on the podium. What sort of preparation is involved to present at a rehearsal with such interpretive confidence and abounding enthusiasm? 

It all comes down to study and really knowing the score, and more to the point what you want to do with the music. There is no faking confidence in front of an orchestra, they smell it a mile away. They need to trust and have confidence in your ability for you to get the best sound out of the orchestra. As a conductor I spend far more time in a score than on the actual podium to achieve that, it’s actually quite a lonely process in that respect and one that I have had to work hard on over the past decade. I guess the enthusiasm comes partly from my nature, and partly from my sincere commitment to communicate and define each sound and idea. I have a lot of energy in whatever I do and always try to be authentic on the podium so hopefully this carries across. Over the last few years I’ve realised the importance of being vulnerable at times too, sometimes this is when the best work is created. I always tell my conducting students they need to have the confidence to lead and the courage to yield, knowing when to do which is the tricky bit!

I’ve heard you tell a story about an orchestral player who said “You’re the best female conductor I’ve ever played under”. Your reply was something along the lines of “It would be lovely to hear that phrase again one day, just without the female part.”
What is it going to take for women conductors to be considered ‘normal’ on the podium by performers and audiences?

It’s interesting that my conducting lectures usually have an equal 50% division of gender, as do many of the school orchestras I adjudicate at festivals. It’s only at the very top that these numbers dramatically diminish. I think it will continue to improve over time, especially with programs such as the IWC with Dallas Opera encouraging more females to pursue the field. In many ways I try to look past it these days as I would much rather be recognised for my musical input than a gender statistic, although I also realise the importance of bringing awareness to the issue for future developing conductors.

Jessica, Pat and their two children

You and husband Pat are parents to two children aged three and seven. I think one of the toughest parts of parenting is the guilt that comes whether you choose to work or stay at home. How do you reconcile your career and your motherhood so that you can delight in both?

Well, some days are certainly more successful than others! I’m lucky to have a very supportive family and two amazing kids but the balance isn’t always right. It is something I am very mindful of, yet try not to be too hard on myself as I don’t think it helps anyone to be driven by guilt. I simply choose the work that fits with the family, and turn down opportunities if it just doesn’t feel right at the time. On reflection I think having kids has taught me a lot about myself; my strengths and weaknesses, my priorities, the value of time and a reminder to laugh often! They have both grown up learning to crawl across a stage so I guess it’s quite normal for them. I’m very aware of being present with the kids when we are together, and I talk to them about what I do so they understand what it’s like to have a career path that you really love.

What is your favourite place in Perth? 

Easy…. our beautiful coastline. We live only a few minutes from Watermans Beach in Perth. It is the place I recharge, meditate, jog, swim and play with the kids or watch the sunset with the family.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music and the family?

I think it’s really important to be as rounded a person as you can be… certainly for me, life balance has been key to keeping me motivated to experience new things, which I hope, in turn, makes me a better conductor. My secret escape would have to be my art; splashing paint on a canvas with Ella Fitzgerald blaring is pretty cathartic. I love to read, cook with the kids, I’m mad about photography and love travelling. Keeping fit is also pretty important as I’m always on the go and need a fair amount of stamina and focus to get through the week, so running and yoga helps.

Watch excerpts of Jessica conducting in an interview here:

A big thanks to Jessica Gethin for chatting to us at the Celebrity Soft Spot. You can catch Jessica conducting the Perth Symphony Orchestra at their  ‘Bach by Candelight’ concert on August 31st and at the WAAPA 25th Anniversary Gala Concert on August 12th. For more information go to