St. Olaf Magazine | Winter 2019

Spotlight: Women in the Arts

In politics and business, women are increasingly making their voices heard and committing themselves to leadership. In the arts, too, women leaders are redefining traditional boundaries. Here, two St. Olaf alumnae at the top of their game in music, talk about how women can push even further in the arts.

The Oboist

You could argue that Jelena Dirks ’96 was destined to become a professional musician. Her father was a cellist. Her mother played viola and violin. And her mother’s mother was a pianist, cellist, singer, organist, and choral director. All three spent a portion of their careers with the San Diego Symphony.

“Ours was a family deeply steeped in music,” Dirks says.

Jelena Dirks ’96 is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra principal oboist.

Given that background, it’s perhaps not surprising that Dirks started on her first instrument (violin) at age three. But today, her primary instrument is a double reed: Dirks is the principal oboist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

“When I was 10 years old, one of my parents’ friends who was an oboist jokingly had me make an oboe embouchure and said I’d make a perfect oboist. After that, I begged my parents for an oboe,” she recalls. “I’m not even really sure I knew exactly what it was at the time, but it didn’t matter. I was so taken with her and with the fact that I might make a perfect oboist.”

Dirks played both oboe and piano while in high school. Her search for a college where she could continue her musical education but also engage in other kinds of study eventually led her to St. Olaf.

“I didn’t want a large school; I wanted a small school. I visited St. Olaf, and it was like I had come home,” says Dirks, a San Diego native. “The only question was what instrument was I going to play? I was accepted on either one, but they said, ‘You have to choose.’ I decided on a piano major.”

When I was 10 years old, one of my parent’s friends who was an oboist jokingly had me make an oboe embouchure and said I’d make a perfect oboist. After that, I begged my parents for an oboe. I’m not even really sure I knew exactly what it was at the time, but it didn’t matter.

She studied with Music Professor DeWayne Wee, an experience that fully met her expectations. “It was wonderful,” she says. “I played a lot with singers, and I wanted to be a vocal coach. I still love art songs. I was traveling down that path, and I thought, ‘This is my fate. I love it.'”

But her senior year, fate threw her a curve ball. Eiji Oue, the conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, came to St. Olaf to conduct the St. Olaf Orchestra in a performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, with Dirks playing principal oboe. “He was so encouraging. Something about playing that piece and how encouraging he was made me do a complete 180. I decided I wanted to become a professional oboist.”

Powell Hall, a 1925 theater in mid-town St. Louis, is home to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Post-graduation, Dirks pursued a master’s degree at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and eventually landed a spot in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, where she worked with such musical greats as Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and Wynton Marsalis, among others. The Civic Orchestra also acts as a feeder program for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and when a one-year post opened up, Dirks was invited to audition for it.

“I got the job and spent five years playing with them. I was what was called a ‘permanent substitute,'” she says with a laugh.

In the end, however, the permanent position was awarded to another oboist. Dirks wondered if she should pursue a different career path. She and her husband discussed moving to California so that he could purse his interest in wine making. But the longer Dirks was away from an orchestra, the more she missed it. “They say sometimes you don’t realize how much you love something until you don’t have it anymore, and I’d say that was very true for me,” she says. “I realized that that’s what I wanted to do.”

So when a position at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra opened up, Dirks applied. “I’ve lost track of how many auditions I took before I finally won one,” Dirks recalls. “I think there were 90 players that went for the job here in St. Louis. I sort of had this feeling like all the stars had to align, your reed had to be just right, and everything had to just be in order to get the chair.” But she clinched it: at age 39, she became — like her parents and grandmother years before —an official member of an orchestra.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra currently has more female principals, including Dirks, than any other major American orchestra. “I don’t feel any different being a woman, which I think is an absolutely wonderful thing, and I feel very blessed with that,” she says. “Some of the stories my mother and my grandmother told me are very interesting and shocking. My mom talks about how when she first got into the San Diego Symphony, all the women had to sit on the inside with their hair up so that they’d look like they were men. The women were hidden from view, which just I found absolutely shocking.”

“I really appreciate the fact that St. Olaf takes care of the whole person. It makes life richer.”

Dirks doesn’t have much time for activities outside the orchestra, but she does enjoy gardening and restoring an old historic home with her husband. Such activities add balance to her life, she says, something she appreciates.

“I went to St. Olaf because I wanted an education that was well-rounded,” she says. “I wanted to take language classes and history classes and religion classes. Looking back on it, I really appreciate the fact that St. Olaf takes care of the whole person. It makes life richer.”

The soprano

Kelly Kaduce ’96 is on a break from rehearsing the opera Thaïs with the Minnesota Opera. She plays the title role in the work by Jules Massenet, about a beautiful Egyptian courtesan who is converted to Christianity by an obsessive priest. It’s a familiar part for the soprano, who has played Thaïs before. But this time, she says, the rehearsal process is different: the #MeToo movement has heightened everyone’s awareness of the story’s sexual elements.

“If the scene involves kissing or something physical, everyone is asking, ‘Are you okay with me touching you? Let me know if you’re uncomfortable with anything,’ ” Kaduce observes. “Before, you just assumed that because someone was in the business, they were okay with whatever you did. Now, the males in the cast in particular are careful about crossing boundaries without permission. They’ll ask me, ‘Are you okay with that?’ and I’ll say, ‘Thank you for asking. Yes, of course.’ ”

Kelly Kaduce performs the title role in Minnesota Opera’s production of Thaïs at the Ordway Theater in May 2017.

For Kaduce, who has spent her entire professional life in opera, it’s a welcome development — and she hopes it has a broader impact. Women are paid fairly well in the opera world (sopranos who can handle leading roles are always in demand), but their influence is often limited. The conductors, artistic directors, and general managers who make big decisions are mostly male. “I want to see more women in the field of conducting,” Kaduce says. “And I want to see more women running opera companies.”

Kaduce has built an enviable career in opera, playing leading roles every year in dozens of productions around the country. But opera as an art form was unfamiliar to Kaduce as a kid growing up in Winnebago, Minnesota. She played piano and French horn and sang solos at church (where her mother was the organist). Every year during the holidays, Kaduce recalls, her high school choir director would pull out a recording of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, but Kelly and her peers were unimpressed. “We were like, ‘Eh, we don’t want to hear it,’ ” she recalls, rolling her eyes at the memory.

Kelly Kaduce ’96 performs in Rusalka with the Minnesota Opera in 2016. She enrolled at St. Olaf intending to become a biology major and go into physical therapy. “I loved to play sports, and I was curious about how the human body worked. But when I realized I could do music lessons for credit, I was like, ‘I’m gonna do a double major,’ ” she says. Her voice instructor, Anna Mooy, however, encouraged her to consider a career in music. After graduation, she spent a brief period in Minneapolis before moving east and starting a master’s degree in music at Boston University.

“I had no idea what I was getting into, which is probably good, because I would have been terrified.”

Her last year at BU, she signed up to compete in two prestigious competitions, including one sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. “I had no idea what I was getting into, which is probably good, because I would have been terrified,” Kaduce says. To her surprise, she earned first place in both competitions, gaining recognition and walking away with prize money that she used to support herself as she practiced, entered competitions, and traveled to various cities for auditions. “It’s kind of insane that I actually won,” she says.

Today, Kaduce lives in Houston with her husband, a voice teacher, and their young son. She is often on the road, however. Last year, in addition to appearing as Thaïs in Minnesota, she sang the title role in Tosca in Detroit and played Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera in Boston. She especially likes performing new work: “When you’re doing a new opera, there’s a sense of freedom as a performer because there’s no preconceived notion about what the role should sound like or what some other singer in the past has done. It’s kind of free game when you show up.”