With the Metropolitan Opera’s sacking of James Levine came the surest sign yet that sexual and mental abuse exists at the highest levels of our industry. And if it exists at the top, it exists further down too. The day of reckoning for serial abusers of power is stretching into its second year. It will take a long time for our industry and others to clean up their acts and even longer for a new set of attitudes to take root.
One positive that the orchestral and operatic worlds can take from all this is that they were, in a creative sense, ahead of the curve. Over the last three decades we have seen the role of the conductor change subtly but vitally. He – and thankfully now she – is still charged with communicating the heart, soul and pulse of a piece of music to a group of receptive musicians. But most conductors’ methods in this still new millennium are strikingly different to those of 40 years ago and the interpretative results feel far more in tune with our times.
There is hardly a conductor on earth who would disagree with the idea that in 2018, collaborative, democratic leadership is a better way of getting the best from an ensemble than deploying dubious power games and indulging in abusive rehearsal techniques. It was precisely the latter that led to a culture in which the behaviour of the conductor was never questioned. As soon as that situation exists, we have an environment in which serial abuse will go unchallenged.
However enlightened his rehearsal techniques, there are plenty who allege that such a culture existed around James Levine. We see a similar situation at so many institutions where serial abusers have been allowed to flourish by the major institutions they purportedly serve. In such situations, the abusers have often been put on a pedestal: untouchable geniuses on whose personal wellbeing the creative fortunes of the organisation hang. Such pedestals are highly dangerous for those on top of them – both personally damaging and creatively corrosive. As we have seen, they can be even more dangerous for those further down the pecking order.
If one word encapsulates the fawning attitude some sections of the industry still entertain in the face of certain conductors, it’s the word ‘maestro’. Personally, I admit to cringing whenever I hear it (and yes, I am sure I have used it myself a good few times). The word is particularly riling when used by agents or PRs to emphasise the status of their clients and reinforce the idea that any journalistic access is a privilege. When students use the prefix before a conductor’s name, it smacks of naive hero worship or desperate sucking-up. When orchestras bestow it on their music directors, it feels at best like a marketing ploy and at worst like a dangerous assumption of godlike qualities in someone who exists on the payroll like everybody else. Conducting orchestras is the hardest job in the world and I have the utmost respect for the women and men who do it well. But we must remember, for their sake as well as ours, that they are just women and men.
As in conducting, methods of communication at orchestras and opera companies have transformed in recent years. In my experience, we are hearing and seeing the m-word a lot less. That might be because nobody really knows what it means. It might be that the public have cottoned on to the fact that, as it can be bestowed upon anyone and by anyone at will, it has zero value.
So here’s an idea: as the process of overthrowing redundant privilege systems seems to have accelerated in the last 18 months, wouldn’t now be a good time to put the word out of its misery altogether? Not only does it emit the stench of classical music’s rotten old world order, it is arguably complicit in creating situations whereby horrifying crimes have gone unchecked. On the positive side, we might benefit from viewing our greatest conductors as exceptional mortals rather than untouchable gods. And hey, it might just encourage talented young musicians of all backgrounds and sexes to believe that they could conduct symphonies and operas too.