In the classical-music world, the most revered conductors have traditionally stood on the podium, clad in a tuxedo, baton in hand, to be met by cheers of “Bravo, maestro!” For Fiora Corradetti Contino, the acclamation would have been “Brava, maestra!”
Dr. Contino belonged to the elite cohort of female conductors who have achieved long and successful careers in operatic, orchestral and choral music. Sought after by regional opera companies across the United States, she became known for her expert, sensitive command of music in a genre historically led by men.
Dr. Contino died March 5 at a senior living community in Carmel, Ind. She was 91 and had arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, said her daughter Lisa Contino.
In her late 20s, she founded an opera company in Massachusetts, the Amherst Community Opera. She later served for many years as director of Opera Illinois, director of the Choral Institute in Aspen, Colo., and professor and choral department chair at Indiana University, her alma mater.
It was widely suggested that she would have risen to greater fame if she had not been a woman. She “is certainly one of the outstanding women conductors of our day,” music critic Byron Belt was quoted as writing. “We mention the sex . . . to underscore the fact because a man of her superlative gifts would surely be an international superstar today.”
Dr. Contino was particularly known for her interpretations of Italian verismo works of the late 19th century. Exemplified by composers including Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini, they replaced sentimentality with gritty realism.
She told an interviewer, Bruce Duffie, that although she had “never felt any animosity or any hostility” from an orchestra because of her gender, she did sense the musicians under her baton occasionally waiting “to see if you know your stuff.”
Interviewed in the book “Wisdom, Wit, and Will: Women Choral Conductors on Their Art” by Joan Catoni Conlon, she recalled directing Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
“They were captives and not very thrilled with some unknown woman,” she said. “The prelude is one of the most heart-searing works, and I didn’t like the way they were playing it. I found that a woman rather sounds like a kindergarten teacher when saying, ‘I don’t like this.’ I think that has to do with gender because a man sounds different when he complains about something.”
At the performance, though, “when I could show them what I wanted with my stick,” she said, “they were just terrific.”
She did not allow herself to be overly concerned with her membership in a minority musical group. Among the most noted female conductors who followed her are JoAnn Falletta, Marin Alsop, Gisele Ben-Dor and Xian Zhang.
“Being a woman conductor, as far as I am concerned, is not a cause,” she told Duffie. “It’s just there. If somebody is uncomfortable with it, that’s their problem and not my problem.”
Fiora d’Itala Rosa Corradetti was born in Lynbrook, N.Y., on June 17, 1925. Her mother, like her father, was an Italian immigrant. A half sister, Iris Adami Corradetti, a soprano, won acclaim as the title character of Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” and was later a prominent vocal coach.
Dr. Contino said that until her father’s death when she was 14, she trailed him “like a puppy.” He introduced her to the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, who encouraged her in her musical studies.
She was a 1947 graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, where she studied piano performance. At Indiana University, she received a master’s degree in 1962 and a doctorate in 1964, both in choral conducting. She also studied in Europe, including under the famed music coach and conductor Nadia Boulanger.
Dr. Contino taught at institutions including the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.
Her marriage to Joseph Contino ended in divorce, and her companion of nearly six decades, Jeraldine Baumgartner, died in 2012. Survivors include four children from her marriage, Lisa Contino, Adriana Contino and Francesca Levitt, all of Indianapolis, and Frederic Contino of Apple Valley, Minn.; nine grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
Dr. Contino was 73 when she made her New York debut in 1998, conducting the Teatro Grattacielo and the Oratorio Society of New York in a concert performance of Mascagni’s “Iris” at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. (Her half sister was a namesake of the opera’s title character.)
Age, she seemed to say, did nothing to diminish the most ineffable qualities of musicianship.
“I have the rubato,” she told the New York Times in 2001, using the Italian term whose literal translation is “stolen time,” referring to departures from a strict tempo to allow richer emotional expression. “It’s in the hands.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries