In Todd Field’s film Tár, the Dresden Kulturpalast stage becomes a kind of battleground. As Cate Blanchett’s arms drop, an almighty boom echoes around the hall. Later, she charges headlong from the wings towards the podium, to rugby-tackle her inadequate replacement, falling into the abyss waiting beyond.

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss with the Dresdner Philharmonie in Tár
© Focus Features

Lydia Tár is the fictional chief conductor of a major Berlin orchestra. The film depicts her atop the heights of German culture, after an apparently frictionless rise – before her abusive nature is publicly revealed and she undergoes a rapid and surreal defenestration.

The sleek Dresden Kulturpalast is certainly close in design to the Berlin Philharmonie. “It is a so-called ‘vineyard hall’, though our hall more resembles the Sapporo Concert Hall in Japan,” Frauke Roth tells me. She has been Intendant of the Dresdner Philharmonie since 2015.

The Dresden orchestra plays a prominent role in the film – in front of whom Blanchett’s character has to appear not only as a conductor but as a wife. Nina Hoss plays Lydia Tár’s partner, who is also the first violinist of the orchestra. (She was tutored on violin playing by Dresden’s concertmaster, Wolfgang Hentrich.)

For the orchestra, signing on to a project like this might invite some trepidation, especially given the subject matter. “Actually, we didn’t get the whole script,” Roth says, “we just got a synopsis on an A4 page and that was that. We had only a vague idea of the story. But very soon after they called me, we had meetings, and then we had trust.”

Frauke Roth
© Timm Ziegenthaler

“I think it was maybe two or three days after that first call, that the whole team surrounding Todd Field actually showed up here, together with the German producer Uwe Schott,” Roth continues. “Very quickly, we were totally convinced of Todd Field’s seriousness. And then shortly after that, we met with Cate Blanchett. She is just a giant.”

How exactly is an actor supposed to prepare for the moment where one faces an orchestra? “I mean, I’m not an actor! But I think that is an actress’ work,” Roth posits. “If you have to ride a horse, then you take riding lessons.” Though, patently, an orchestra is much more than a horse. “What I understand is that she also watched a lot of videos of famous conductors, conducting in particular Mahler’s Fifth. She did what any world-class professional actor would do. Natalie Murray Beale did a fantastic job in teaching her.”

The Dresden Kulturpalast
© Jörg Simanowski

Tár’s career prior to the events of the film, as a young protégé of Leonard Bernstein, bears striking resemblance to another woman conductor: Marin Alsop. Interviewed in The Sunday Times as the film was being released in the UK, she said, “so many superficial aspects of Tár seemed to align with my own personal life.” She added that while these similarities seemed fairly minor, given the film’s subject matter, “I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.”

Any similarities between Tár and Alsop did not occur to Roth while the production was ongoing. “I know Marin Alsop and she’s a wonderful conductor. And I feel really sorry if she saw herself portrayed in person in this film, but I don’t think that was ever meant or intended at all. I see Lydia Tár being a character that has many aspects of many different personalities that we all know of.”

“Extremely successful, highly talented characters find themselves in constant tension between their genius and madness,” Roth continues. “And within institutions too, they are in structures where power plays a role, and so do power games. This is what power does to complex characters: you can very nicely show this using an artist’s personality. It is much more visible and tangible with an artist then it would probably be with a banker or a lawyer, and we’ve all seen that sort of role played before.”

Nevertheless the gender of the main character shouldn’t be dismissed entirely – at least on dramatic terms. Interviewed on the BBC, Cate Blanchett said, “I don’t think you could have talked about the corrupting nature of power in as nuanced a way as Todd Field has done as a filmmaker if there was a male at the centre of it, because we understand so absolutely what that looks like. I think that power is a corrupting force no matter what one’s gender is. I think it affects all of us.”

Yet it is notable that there is no woman chief conductor of a major German orchestra. European orchestras have been appointing many young (and perhaps inexperienced) conductors, hoping that a younger chief might aid with rejuvenating an ensemble’s musicality (or increasing box office draw). Klaus Mäkelä, born 1996, has recently been appointed chief at the Concertgebouw, for instance. Bachtrack’s 2022 data indicates that the average age of conductors has been dropping for several years.

Women conductors have been appointed chief in some places – Susanna Mälkki, Dalia Stasevska, Debora Waldman, Marie Jacquot, Elim Chan, Eva Ollikainen, Karina Canellakis, Anja Bihlmaier, Nathalie Stutzmann, and Joana Carneiro all have chief conductor positions in Finland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal. But there are no women chief conductors at all in Czechia, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Spain, Sweden or Switzerland. In Germany, only the Staatsphilharmonie Nürnberg is headed by a woman chief conductor, Joana Mallwitz. And with the departure of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla from Birmingham, there are no women chief conductors in the UK either.

Blanchett (and presumably Tár) was born in 1969, and Tár’s rise is supposed to have occurred not just in the last decade, but over the whole course of the later 90s and 2000s (as detailed in her biography, laid out by The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik in the opening scene). Yet of the women conductors mentioned above, almost all of them were born around 1980 and after.

Perhaps the most comparable figure to Tár generationally is not Marin Alsop, but Susanna Mälkki, also born in 1969. Mälkki is a figure whose career has been focused not on mainstream symphonic repertoire, but on contemporary music, notably with Ensemble InterContemporain, where she was music director 2006-13. In the 2000s, she was one of a small handful of women conductors working at an elite level in Europe. (Incidentally, in the film, Lydia Tár is sardonically dismissive of a piece of contemporary music by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvalsdóttir, and bullies the young conductor who is rehearsing it.)

In 2022 Mälkki made her long belated debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, with speculation she may be a possible appointee to chief status. A conductor of her stature and progressiveness would be well-suited to New York – and given her long career in France, it is revealing that no French or German orchestra has similarly courted her.

Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár
© Focus Features

Frauke Roth is curious about how the film will be received in Germany, where its release will come in early March. Whatever the controversy the film has attracted, Roth is optimistic, that the film reflects the increased visibility of women conductors. “The more women we have that start studying, the more at the end of it all we will have conductors in front of the orchestras. We see that at present, and I’m sure even more in twenty years. Things will have changed drastically, there will be more role models and more girls becoming young [conducting] students. So I’m quite optimistic in that respect.”

Tár will screen at the 73rd Berlin Film Festival, and will be on general release in Germany from 2nd March.