Ugliness in the House of Beauty: Sexual Harassment in the Classical Singing Industry

First published by Classical Singer.

“It’s nothing new,” read the subject line in the email. It came from a distinguished and well known colleague, a man who I have admired and looked up to since my college days. He had shared the same story with me before, two years ago, when I was collecting stories of sexual harassment and assault in the opera world for a report to AGMA (the American Guild of Musical Artists, our union). The story of how, at the callback for his very first opera gig, which was in a private home, the general director met him at the door wearing only a towel. How this man put his hand on his knee and said, “I want you to know that the kind of jobs you get with this company will have nothing to do with how good you are in bed.”

Like many of the stories that have been confided to me since, the general director’s name was well known. It was the name of someone I knew personally and had worked with. Someone who had been recommended to me in glowing terms by people I looked up to. Had been told other anecdotes about, from the people to whom they happened, including a personal friend.

“It’s nothing new,” the e-mail read.

And that was horribly, tragically, disgustingly right.

Sexual harassment and assault is big news these days. The biggest names in Hollywood and politics seem to be toppling like a house of cards. Every day a new celebrity tumbles. And, at the time of this writing, many in the performing arts wait quietly, anxiously, for our own monuments to be revealed for their feet of clay. We are not in the public eye to the degree that Hollywood or national politics are, but the classical music world nevertheless has its own deeply entrenched rape culture. But will we see an accounting similar to what we’re currently seeing elsewhere? What would it take for the whispers we’ve all heard to become shouts?

And so, two years after gathering stories of abuse for AGMA, I reached out again to singers. This is a topic that needs to be, that must be, talked about in our own industry. The stories I have collected in recent months I share here.

The topic of sexual misconduct is a complicated one, perhaps even more so in the theater, where the lines between professional and personal can easily be blurred and often a casual work atmosphere complete with flirtation and teasing prevails. Sex and attractiveness are, after all, commodities in our business, just as they are in the television and film industries—and too many people seem incapable or unwilling to recognize the line between image and acts presented for professional purposes and offstage life.

We travel and are often far from loved ones and those things that anchor us to “real life.” We are often lonely. We find ourselves portraying lovers in steamy scenes, and pretend passion can bleed over into real life. Questionable behavior may be dismissed as artistic temperament or a joke. And then, there are the layers and layers of power imbalance—from the young, naïve apprentice to the seasoned chorister to the established artist, all the way up to the administrators who must keep board members, donors, and prominent artists happy.

“We have to be desirable to be hired. It’s part of the picture when you’re a stage performer,” wrote one A-house soprano who enjoys an international career. “But the line between being desirable to a public and being desired by the people you work for or with is staggeringly thin and extremely fragile. I have certainly gotten better at shutting things down in a way that isn’t too dramatic as I’ve gotten older, but you always have that fear that one day it’s going to be someone you won’t be able to easily shut down and it will devastate you.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that our industrial culture and structure is a breeding ground for sexual bad behavior, and the indoctrination into entitlement and inevitability start early. It starts with outdated attitudes toward women, such as prominent Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons’ recent comment that women conductors were “not his cup of tea.” (After the social and traditional media outcry, he issued a statement calling his comments “undiplomatic, unnecessary, and counterproductive” and assuring women conductors that they had his support.)

It continues with the growing emphasis on looks being equal to or more important than talent, with opera companies touting how “sexy” their leading ladies and men are, with seemingly lighthearted objectification of singers via avenues such as the well known Barihunks blog, and with insensitivity in the classroom and studio, bolstered by the extreme competitiveness of our profession.

“I know other ladies have stories about [REDACTED] that are far, far more horrifying—my own is just sexist and sad. I was in a production he was directing, and when he discovered I was pregnant, he asked for me to be removed from the production. Pregnant women didn’t belong on his stage. The company refused. I didn’t start showing till we opened, so he’d forget and give me good blocking and then stop himself and try to hide me behind scenery. The last time I saw him, he was auditioning singers and he remarked on how much he enjoyed my voice. I asked flat out if he had any career advice and if I could audition. His response: Take care of your children. A mother doesn’t belong on stage—it’s not your place.”

“When I first went to college (19), I was assigned a new male voice teacher. He seemed nice at first, but then came many sexual innuendos and comments. He would often comment on what I was wearing, grab me around the rib cage to feel me ‘breathe’ only to stay there and comment about my breasts, laugh it off, and go back to his chair. Once, I had a pencil in my mouth and he said ‘Oh, you must have many oral fixations . . . what else do you like to put in your mouth?’”

“In opera scene study, the teacher had my (young, clueless, and cocky) scene partner roughly manhandle me and put his hands on my body, and when I requested a change in the blocking, that it was making me feel uncomfortable and triggered, the teacher made fun of the word triggered and said that I should be uncomfortable with the scene and that it is a rape scene and I should be made to think about sex and violence while acting it.”

“My female professor used to tell me that I was going to be a soubrette because I was ‘all tits and ass.’ I am a dramatic soprano. She would often give me rape scenes/music about abuse because she thought it ‘fit me.’ At the time I was prosecuting my ex-husband for rape and living through hell as he stalked me throughout the process.”

“At the A house where I coached, there was one artist who invited me to dinner, and I was naive enough to go. Let me emphasize that I was eight years married at this point and not a child. This singer attacked me after dinner and I had to fight him off. When I approached colleagues that I trusted, I was told that it was my mistake, I should have known, what was I thinking.

“I learned that it was not only my job to assist and support singers and conductors in their work, and as performers in the line of fire, but to manage their behavior and their responses to me on every level.”

The idea of the casting couch is an entrenched part of theater lore, so much so that many people accept it as part of the “cost of doing business.” Another entrenched and dangerous concept is that “anything goes,” on stage or in the rehearsal room, in the name of creating art, and that those who don’t play along aren’t committed or are making a mountain out of a molehill. And, sometimes, the very people who should be protecting and nurturing artists are themselves abusers or refuse to be allies.

“When I was a young artist in an A house, a mainstage singer kept saying very inappropriate things to me. It got to the point where others in the cast made a point to tell him to stop because it was offensive and I had a boyfriend. He began pressing into me repeatedly during rehearsals . . . beyond what was acceptable for the staging. I went to the artistic head of the company. I was told that I should be flattered. That I needed to grow thicker skin because stuff like this happened all the time. I was then scheduled for a coaching with this man (the company hired him to work with us). I refused to do it. Was told by the head of the Young Artist Program that I was being ridiculous and to just try and get through it. Was basically told that I had no choice but to try and get through a coaching. I ended up being scheduled again for a coaching . . . began singing and knew I was going to cry, so I walked out. This singer is still a working bass.” 

“My first professional gig had a rather extended love scene which was staged in a very comfortable way and I was quite happy how it was being handled, until the first performance. Onstage, the tenor (my scene partner) started deviating from our stage plans and pulled down the strap of my nightie, and my breast was exposed. He caressed my breast and essentially used this scene as way to feel me up. After the performance I talked to the stage manager, who informed me ‘that’s just something that [said tenor] does, he likes to improvise on stage.’ The tenor was very good friends with the director of the company, and I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, so I didn’t pursue any more recourse. The tenor is still singing. The stage manager has quit and now works in real estate.”

“The director of artistic administration, who is gay, made so many inappropriate comments to my gay castmates, about their bodies, how hot they were, how all alone he was out there in the country. We’re pretty sure he took video of my castmate’s butt during a workout. It all felt awkward but sadly par for the course. After his contract ended, my castmate did send the heads of the YAP direct feedback, naming names. Nothing was done about it to my knowledge.”

“The director kept characterizing Carmen in rehearsal as a whore, a prostitute, a slut, in the most derogatory terms and laughing about it, getting the whole cast in on it. The men of the chorus really took it to heart. They began making comments to me anytime they ran into me off stage. Then they began touching me inappropriately onstage. I confronted them at the end of the scene, saying something along the lines of, ‘Hey guys, that’s not cool. You need to tone it down, and any touching, especially when I’m actually singing, needs to be agreed upon in advance.’ They responded saying, ‘Hey, we’re just buying what you’re selling!’

“Then came the dress rehearsal. It was my first entrance and I was singing the Habanera. I got trapped in by some of the men who weren’t where they were supposed to be, and the one kneeling behind me started running his hand up my leg, and up, and up, until he was actively cupping my ass and squeezing. No one in the audience could see; it wasn’t to add to the stage action. He was just feeling me up while I was trapped. I froze for a moment (but kept singing, dammit!), then simply pushed my way out, staging be damned, and finished the aria. I have never before or since been so glad to be done with a production. The director encouraged the whole cast to treat me as a prostitute, and they embraced that culture on and off the stage. Confronting them directly was brushed off. It was such a powerless feeling.”

Young artists are among the most vulnerable. New to the business, eager to make good impressions and contacts, anxious to avoid missteps, understandably impressed and flattered by successful mentors, and lacking professional stature, they are prime targets for sexual predators.

“My story is absolutely textbook. Early in my career, at a summer festival, my teacher—a prominent, married baritone—enticed me to his hotel room after an evening of dinner and swimming, on pretense of talking about my career potential. He poured me a glass of expensive bourbon and went into the bathroom, ostensibly to change. When he came out, he was in a robe. He came to the bed and sat down next to me with drink in hand, talking about when he was my age and at my stage of the career, how exciting it was to find this new talent, and all the people he wanted to introduce me to. Then he became professorial and offered to show me how to release tension to make my sound more free. ‘Nothing weird, just total relaxation,’ he said. It started with a hand massage, and then he told me I was still too tight and needed to lay back and focus on my breathing. And then I felt his hand on my thigh . . . I was paralyzed, and didn’t know why or how my body responded to his actions when my brain was repulsed. I just kept thinking, ‘If I lay here and just let him do this, it will be done, and then I’ll get to go home.’ . . . I requested to be put in a different studio and I did not have any real encounter with him again at the festival. And 12 years later, I still refuse to sing for competitions where he is a judge and always wonder if today is the day that I am going to run into him at NOLA or Opera America.

“This man had authority over me as a mentor, an idol, and potential work. He used that authority and power to take advantage of me and to convince me that he wasn’t doing the exact thing that he was doing. By offering all of these opportunities, he made me make a choice of whether or not his anointing me as the ‘next big thing’ was worth dealing with a little psychological discomfort. He was fully aware of what he was doing, and I wish I knew then what I know now. It makes me absolutely sick to think of the other people that he may have placed in similar situations during my years of silence.

“I hope that people that are reading this can take from my experience that even if you physiologically respond to the experience, it doesn’t mean that you want it, and that there is no reason why you should ever blame yourself for an unwanted experience.”

These experiences have lasting impacts on the survivors. Many simply shouldered the burden, afraid that speaking out would negatively impact their careers. Many expressed feelings of anger, guilt, and shame. Many never told another living soul, or told only one person, before they agreed to share their story with Classical Singer. Some declined roles to avoid working with abusers. Some stopped performing because of their experiences.

“When I was coaching at [an A house], there were men, a singer and several conductors, who would try to fondle me or would expose themselves to me or would verbally proposition me when I went to their dressing rooms to give them notes. When I spoke to colleagues about this, it was greeted with laughter and knowing smiles. ‘Don’t you know about him? What did you expect?’ Other colleagues would then take care of liaising with those artists. So, in order to have access to those powerful men, I had to accept the behavior. The other choice was to be left out.”

“In graduate school there was a professor that all women were warned about. While I had no direct experience with him, I had many friends who did and filed a complaint against him. The administration dismissed the complaint since there were no witnesses (other than the victims) to the events. It made me feel incredibly unsafe at school, and I didn’t audition for an opera I really wanted to be in because he was the director and I didn’t want to put myself in harm’s way.”

“The artistic director was instantly over-complimentary and flirtatious. Toward the end of a fundraising dinner at which I was seated next to him, he put his hand up my dress under the table. I hid in the bathroom for 20 minutes. I had no idea what to do. As luck would have it, when I finally did steel myself to open the bathroom door, he was standing right in front of me, having just emerged from the men’s room across the hall. He smiled, grabbed my arm, pulled me toward him, and whispered in my ear: ‘If you say anything to anyone, I will ruin you.’ I completed the contract, returned home, and quit singing. I never told anyone why.”

There are more stories. Too many more. Most people have more than one. Many people accept it as the price of having a career in the arts.

What would it take to change that?

In film and television, one brave whistleblower started the avalanche. And like a rolling snowball, these stories gather strength and momentum, and more survivors are emboldened to share their stories. The phenomenon spreads to other professions—at least, where high-profile abusers reign. Classical music needs its own whistleblower. We need that one courageous soul who either has nothing to lose or to whom sharing their story and bringing down the evil has become more important than keeping silence. We need that one person who is willing to start our snowball rolling.

And we need allies. In fact, no matter what happens, we must all be allies. It’s no longer enough just to be a decent person who would never do such things yourself. It’s time to use whatever personal privilege and power you may have to speak up when a scene partner is being made uncomfortable in rehearsal, when you’re privy to locker room talk, or when someone makes inappropriate jokes. It’s time to shut down gaslighting, such as “Aw, can’t you take a joke?” “You’re crazy. I didn’t mean it that way.” “You’re so emotional!”

 

“My anger, even to this day when I think about it, never really centered on him. It was my colleagues and the staff that made me both livid and hurt. I couldn’t believe no one in the room said anything or helped me. I was surrounded by people but completely alone. Everyone knew it was wrong. There were at least six other people in the rehearsal besides the two of us, and no one said a thing.

“I never reported him. It seemed obvious that this was just how he behaved, and everyone knew it. He was a big star, and I was just another young soprano.”

 

It’s time to let your colleagues know you have their backs. If you can’t speak up, you can still make sure someone gets back to their hotel room or car without unwanted company. You can use your acting skills to “obliviously” interrupt a conversation where someone is being made uncomfortable. You can talk to a colleague who is the object of unwanted attention and let them know you see, you hear, and you believe them. Amplify survivors’ voices on these matters.

You can also encourage them to report the incidents to AGMA. In 2015, the American Opera Soloists, a loosely organized group of professional soloists dedicated to advocacy, encouraged AGMA to taken a stronger stance against sexual harassment. They were especially concerned about the safety of young artists, including stronger language prohibiting it and a reporting mechanism. The late Alan Gordon, then executive director, was appalled by the stories and by the number of them and immediately established the confidential reporting system.

In light of the recent exposure of so many powerful men, Deborah Allton-Maher, the associate executive director of AGMA and the person in charge of receiving complaints of sexual harassment, released a statement in November 2017 encouraging artists to contact her. “I feel compelled to reach out personally to all of our members with reassurance and support and to urge anyone who has experienced this trauma to utilize the reporting method that AGMA has provided,” she wrote. “All you need to do is to call me or e-mail me to report any behavior that has made you uncomfortable, fearful, or . . . threatened in any way.”

While the reports are not anonymous, they are strictly confidential and no names are attached. “If we receive multiple reports against an individual we notify the employers of the offending person to either conduct an investigation or to take precaution against inappropriate behavior from that individual. Member reports do not have to be limited to union employers or to sexual harassment only,” Allton-Maher said.  Non-union members may also make reports. To file a report, contact Allton-Maher at deborah@musicalartists.org.

Companies can also do their part. If it’s not already there, a policy statement on harassment should have a prominent place in the welcome packet and in the welcome address to the company—and it should be rigorously enforced. This includes taking initiative when harassment has occurred—not waiting for a complaint, but privately addressing the individual to hear their story and find out what, if any, action is required. It means letting the individual know you’ve got their back, are dealing with the offender, and are actively keeping an eye on the situation to make sure they are safe. It means talking to your board members and your staff to let them know artists, and especially young artists, are off limits and bad behavior will not be tolerated. It means educating and empowering your artists and not putting them in vulnerable situations. It means checking with AGMA—even if you’re not a signatory company—in case any of your hires have been reported for misconduct, just so you can keep eyes open.

Creating, performing, and sharing art is an act of love and healing. We can use it to reach those who are hurting, we can use it to show young people that there are choices and dreams worth striving for beyond what they may see around them, and we can use it to create dialogue and change in our society. It is past time that this art form, which gives the world so much beauty, cleaned out the ugliness in its own house.