Film

Is Lydia Tár based on a real person?

Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Lydia Tár has garnered her an Oscar nomination, but the film has divided opinion, not least from the woman her character is rumoured to be based on

Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár

Cate Blanchett stars as Lydia Tár. Image: © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

Lydia Tár is giving the Berlin Philharmonic a briefing on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Her baton whips the air; the ensemble closely follows. The rehearsal gives an insider view on the internationally acclaimed – notorious, even – US conductor, whose accolades include Oscar, Tony, and Grammy awards. Scenes filmed in Tár’s industrial-chic Berlin apartment reveal intimate portraits of turbulent family life with her wife, Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster Sharon Goodnow and their young daughter. The detail in the documentary is exquisitely captured, from the rogue metronome in the music room to the footage of Tár running into the night and the ominous signs of abuse. Throughout the near three-hour film, spidey-senses tingle; we brood; all is not as it seems. Turns out, the Berlin Philharmonic is actually the Dresden Philharmonic. Despite the real-life setting and plentiful references to the classical music industry circa now – Tár is seen sending an email to Simon Rattle and discusses her mentor ‘Lenny’ Bernstein – the biopic is a fictional thriller, based on an entirely imaginary conductor.

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Or is it? Large chunks of Tár’s backstory appear to have been inspired by that of Marin Alsop, the American musician who was a notable Bernstein student, and went on to become the first female conductor to appear in the Last Night of the Proms in 2013. Unlike Tár, however, Alsop has never been accused of professional misconduct. In the film, it becomes clear that Tár has groomed multiple women. One victim, finding it impossible to continue her career after Tár instructs other orchestras not to hire her, dies by suicide. Understandably, Alsop has tried to distance herself from the film, telling The Times: “I’m offended by Tár as a woman, as a conductor, as a lesbian.”

Casting a female conductor as a predatory Weinstein figure has divided opinion. There is a view – expressed by Alsop, among others – that to portray a woman in a role that has traditionally been seen as a male domain and make her an abuser is dangerously limiting.

It is difficult enough for women and non-binary musicians to become conductors – it was only two years ago that Vasily Petrenko – then chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – let slip in an interview that he believed ensembles “react better when they have a man in front of them”. Just to ensure the bomb had been properly detonated, he added: “A cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things.”

In subsequent years, as PR machines went into overdrive, some meaningful change was achieved: conducting fellowships such as English National Opera’s encourage diversity, and Opera North offers an annual nine-week traineeship for a female conductor (currently held by Josephine Korda, who was guest conductor at Marin Alsop’s Women’s Conducting Masterclass held at the Southbank last year). But unlike in Tár, there is yet to be a female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Nonetheless, Tár is compelling and absorbing – with a satisfying twist in the tale. Like the late conductor James Levine, who left New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2017 after a series of sex abuse allegation made his position untenable, Lydia Tár gets a comeuppance of sorts. She’s not even who the viewers think she is: in the final scenes, we learn her name is Linda Tarr. What is certain is the quality of Cate Blanchett’s performance in the title role – as well as conveying the sinister manipulation of her underlings, she is a decent conductor and pianist. Blanchett worked with Natalie Murray Beale to learn the craft, and her downbeats and entries are surprisingly convincing. Perhaps Blanchett/Tár will appear at this year’s Last Night of the Proms.

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Listen to…

Album Artwork_Tar

Things take another turn for the meta with Deutsche Grammophon’s Tár album, which includes music by Mahler, Elgar and Hildur Guðnadóttir. The Icelandic composer – responsible for the soundtrack to 2019’s Joker – wrote works specifically for the film, subtly referencing the other compositions featured in the script to represent the music Tár is hearing. Cellist Sophie Kauer, who features as Tár’s on-screen target protégée, is the soloist for Elgar’s cello concerto, conducted by Beale and the London Symphony Orchestra. There are also extracts of Blanchett and the Dresden Philharmonic rehearsing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor

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