Power behind the baton: the conductor who prepared Cate Blanchett for Tár

The Oscar-winning actor turned to Natalie Murray Beale to learn the conducting skills that underpin her latest film role

Cate Blanchett’s new film role as an imposing orchestral conductor is earning her a shot at another top acting award. But it has already given the Oscar-winner the skills to lead a real orchestra through a score.

The actor, who plays fictional American conductor Lydia Tár in the film, Tár, mastered the complexities of the job by training with Natalie Murray Beale, an established star in the field who lives in London and who spent weeks coaching Blanchett for the part.

Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár in Tár
Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár. Photograph: Courtesy of Focus Features/AP

Murray Beale, the hidden force behind the powerful performance, supervised the orchestral scenes after guiding Blanchett during rehearsals.

“Cate can conduct now, if she wants,” Murray Beale told the Observer. “She is very musical, sings beautifully and now she has the tools to conduct. I suggested she learn the musical lines of the pieces by heart, rather than learning the score or copying another performance.” Murray Beale, 46, conducts opera, concerts and film scores and, like Blanchett, is Australian.

“We developed her own style, but she’s an actress who changes all the time and we didn’t want it to be fixed, since at that level of conducting there is no strict, standard way to do it. A top orchestra is virtuosic, so you don’t need to do all the basics; you can express yourself more. We looked a lot at the physical aspects, ensuring she would not be too reverent of the conductor’s podium, because after all it’s just her workplace.”

Some early audiences have protested about director Todd Field’s portrayal of a manipulative and selfish woman in a rare position of authority, but the musicianship and the examination of toxic power have convinced many who work in classical music.

“I’m delighted that colleagues say it is authentic,” said Murray Beale. “We went into great detail on the psychology of conducting. These abusive behaviours do still exist. There are not many places where a boss has such power. A conductor is a gatekeeper. I have witnessed anger in rehearsal and even a tussle between conductor and musician. It’s a highly competitive field.”

As a young conservatoire student in Australia, Murray Beale herself was affected. “I experienced inappropriate behaviour from a teacher, which I reported. And yet the person concerned was protected. It’s very difficult for institutions because they don’t want things to reflect badly on them.”

The conductor believes “the old boys’ club” has been broken down “to some extent”. “There is much more diversity now and the musicians have much more voice. That is a significant, positive change.”

Field’s decision to cast a woman in the role of an abusive “maestro”, she argues, allows audiences to see the problem “with fresh eyes”. Whatever cinemagoers decide about the treatment of the subject, Murray Beale adds, there is an overriding value to showing a woman as a highly skilled, admired musician.

“It’s very easy for people to have a strong personal reaction to this film, but for me the lack of visibility for female conductors is the real problem. So it was exciting to realise this film will be seen all over the world, particularly in places where women are never shown in such authoritative roles.”

One of the hardest elements of conducting is the task of absorbing all the musical material, but for Blanchett, Murray Beale suspects, the most difficult moment was her first encounter with the full orchestra in Dresden, Germany, where the film was largely shot. “Because of the lockdowns we hadn’t had much practice with that. Luckily, we were able to have some rehearsals. I said to Cate, ‘Just don’t be apologetic,’ and she developed a fantastic rapport. Whenever the musicians were drained and fatigued, she was able to flip the atmosphere by making them laugh.”

And Murray Beale soon detected a helpful, unexpected parallel between the plot of the film and the musical work of a conductor. “You need to create a lot of tension as a conductor, building up the sense in a concert piece that at some point it all has to break. I think this screenplay, and particularly the way the film has been edited, are just like that.”


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Thank you, Cate Blanchett, for taking up the baton for female conductors
I’ve been trying to get more women on the podium for years. The actor’s star turn in her new film Tár is a huge help

Alice Farnham

16, Jan, 2023 @1:00 PM

Article image
Tár review – Cate Blanchett is colossal as a conductor in crisis
Venice film festival: The actor is utterly magnetic as an imperious maestro in this ultra-stylish drama with a shocking climax

Peter Bradshaw

01, Sep, 2022 @3:15 PM

Article image
Puccini and prawn cocktail: live music goes on cafe menu to tempt customers
Classical, jazz, cabaret and even circus tricks are being laid on by restaurants and pubs to win back clientele in an ever-tougher market

Vanessa Thorpe, Arts and Media Correspondent

22, Jan, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
Carol review - Cate Blanchett captivates in woozily obsessive lesbian romance
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt has become an entrancing Cannes premiere directed by Todd Haynes, beautifully made and outstandingly intelligent

Peter Bradshaw

16, May, 2015 @8:45 PM

Article image
From ice queen to hothead: how Cate Blanchett negotiated stardom on her own terms
The versatile actor is back on the small screen in two contrasting roles – Phyllis Schlafly, America’s scourge of second-wave feminism, and as an Australian cult leader

Sarah Hughes

05, Jul, 2020 @8:09 AM

Article image
Pow! Why female writers are a top draw in the world of comics
As 15,000 fans gather in Yorkshire this weekend, authors tell how the male domination of the genre was broken

David Barnett

13, Nov, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Life inside the wild London club where lesbians were free to be themselves
A new documentary takes viewers back down the rickety stairs to the trailblazing Gateways in Chelsea

Ginny Dougary

18, Jun, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
K-boom! South Korea’s art and high culture lands in Britain with a bang
After K-pop and kimchi led the way, a major UK exhibition and cultural season will celebrate the best of the country’s art, music and style

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

20, Aug, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Adelaide festival 2017 program: Cate Blanchett and Shakespeare get dark, weird and surreal
Program spanning opera, film, dance, music, performance art and theatre to feature Rufus Wainwright’s ‘symphonic visual concert’ and Neil Armfield’s outdoor production of The Secret River

Steph Harmon

27, Oct, 2016 @2:47 AM

Article image
Harassment, hierarchies and discreetly rubbed trousers: the exhausting politics of orchestras
Cate Blanchett film Tár shows how damaging a maniacal conductor can be – but, as musicians explain, orchestras are riven with other serious structural issues

Hugh Morris

01, Mar, 2023 @11:14 AM