Josephine Miles

Opera’s worst-kept secret?

10:10, 20th September 2019

Twenty women have now accused Plácido Domingo of sexual harassment. Josephine Miles reflects on the opera world’s reaction, arguing that we must not forget the wider context of the allegations, and must continue striving to make the opera industry – and classical music industry as a whole – a supportive and open environment

Following last month’s allegations against Plácido Domingo, a further 11 women have come forward accusing the star of sexual harassment: the Associated Press published a report in early September recounting in particular the story of soprano Angela Turner Wilson, who said that Domingo physically harassed her before a performance at Washington Opera in 1999.

Several of the accusers claimed their careers were adversely affected after refusing Domingo’s advances. LA Opera, where Domingo has served as general director since 2003, opened an investigation into the allegations following the initial AP report in August.

No recent news in the opera world has evoked such strong and divisive responses. The women’s accusations form part of the #MeToo movement, which has proven to be an emotive subject. It is a difficult topic to write about, with myriad avenues and implications – but it is too important to overlook. I wish to provide my perspective on the allegations and the reaction they prompted, focusing on the key themes of presumption of innocence, reputation and press involvement.

Reaction from the opera world

Within hours of the initial allegations being published, the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera cancelled Domingo’s upcoming engagements with them. As a result of the second AP report, Dallas Opera cancelled a gala in which Domingo was due to perform next year.

The Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House were more cautious in their responses. The Met, for example, said it would await the results of LA Opera’s investigation before finalising any decisions about Domingo’s future at the company.

Mainland Europe, where #MeToo has not gained as much traction as in the US or UK, has been more definitive in its support of Domingo. Institutions including the Staatsoper Hamburg and the Palace of the Arts in Valencia emphasised the lack of legal action against the singer, citing the necessity of preserving the presumption of innocence.

Plácido Domingo (Photo credit: Rubert Martín)

The president of the Salzburg Festival, where Domingo performed to standing ovation on 25 August, said, ‘I have known Plácido Domingo for more than 25 years. In addition to his artistic competence, I was impressed from the very beginning by his appreciative treatment of all Festival employees … As a jurist by training, my assumption is in dubio pro reo. I would find it factually wrong and morally irresponsible to make irreversible judgments at this point’.

In Spain, where Domingo is something of a national hero, several opera singers expressed their support for the star. Soprano Pilar Jurado described Domingo as ‘a perfect gentleman’, going on to say, ‘I never felt harassed in my life or forced to do something that I did not want’. Soprano Ainhoa ​​Arteta, who won Domingo’s Operalia competition in 1993, said that Domingo ‘helped me a lot at the beginning of my career and asked me nothing in return.’

Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo published opinions citing the dangers of the press frenzy surrounding the allegations and reactions overlooking the presumption of innocence. They saw the allegations as holding little stead due to their ‘media-fuelled’ nature and the fact that most accusers chose to remain anonymous. Rubén Amón wrote: ‘There is no proportion … between the basis of the allegations to Domingo and the devastating effects of the public opinion judgment … I think I know enough about Domingo [for it] to be unlikely that he has abused or harassed women.’

Presuming innocence: difficult ground

For organisations and commentators to cite the presumption of innocence as the basis of their support for Domingo is, on the face of it, an eminently reasonable response. In the eyes of the law Domingo is innocent until proven guilty. However, for me the argument is woefully insufficient because it neglects to consider the wider context of the allegations and the power dynamics at play. Presuming innocence ideally requires a level playing field at the outset, and in a case like this, we have to remember that the playing field is rife with imbalance and historical baggage.

For a start, Domingo has enjoyed a position of almost unprecedented power in the opera world for many decades. His influence is enormous. Immediately, therefore, a man of immense power is pitted against women whose careers have, in one way or another, been influenced by his power. What’s more, his behaviour has allegedly been ‘opera’s worst-kept secret’ for several years, but has remained unchecked.

Why has his behaviour remained unchecked? Why didn’t these women step forward sooner? One might argue that the historical nature of the allegations makes them less credible and less serious. But this is a wildly invalid argument. Until recently, women have been afraid to report misconduct or to speak out against someone in power for fear of damaging their careers. For fear of being ridiculed. For fear of being ostracised.

The majority of managerial and decision-making positions were (and still are) held by men, and robust systems of support for victims of misconduct simply were not in place. Especially in the precarious classical music world, where reputation remains key to securing work, doing anything that might draw negative attention to oneself and impact chances of re-employment was and is understandably avoided. Who can blame the alleged victims for staying quiet?

Furthermore, the boundaries of physical contact and personal relationships are frequently blurry in the performing arts world. Unfortunately this sector often operates on the basis of personal networking and favours. People therefore may be able to ‘get away with’ behaviour that in other industries would be deemed unacceptable. Victims of harassment might be led to think that the unwanted behaviour they’re experiencing is just par for the course.

All of this leads to a complex state of affairs. Falling back on the presumption of innocence is somehow too simplistic. And it leaves a particularly sour taste in the mouth because it defends an alleged perpetrator rather than alleged victims, sometimes to the extent of implying that the accusers are lying.

But in cases such as this, there is never going to be definitive, tangible evidence. How can it ever be proven whether Domingo did or did not behave as alleged? Some accusers cite repeated phone calls, but 20 or 30 years on such evidence will likely be unobtainable. Ultimately it is one person’s word against another’s. And when these words come from a world in which there existed significant power imbalances and fear to report misconduct – when the playing field is inherently not level – taking an easy stance will not suffice.

The problem of reputation

Another recurring theme in arguments of support for Domingo has been the sentiment, ‘I know Domingo to be a brilliant man and he’s never harassed me / anyone I know’. This may be perfectly legitimate, but it doesn’t negate the possibility that others have had different experiences. A harasser may be a ‘perfect gentleman’ towards one person, and predatory towards another. To cite Domingo’s admirable qualities and the exemplary work he has done for opera is all very well, but it doesn’t mean that he is incapable of sexual harassment. This is not to deny Domingo’s achievements, nor the exclusively positive experiences many people have had with him, but these do not constitute real arguments in the face of the allegations.

Do we witness here a state of denial from Domingo’s supporters? His stardom is such that it is impossible to conceive he could do any wrong? His reputation must be protected at all costs? Herein lies a sticky and paradoxical situation previously alluded to: that reputation (rightly or wrongly) is so fundamental to the opera and performing arts worlds – it is what makes stars, and stars are how opera houses attract audiences and money – and yet reputation brings the power and influence that enable the abuse of position and the brushing of unacceptable behaviour under the carpet.

Should the press get involved?

Hovering above the allegations themselves is the wider question of press involvement. Does the exposure of the allegations by a news agency reduce their credibility, and just turn the whole thing into a media frenzy? On the contrary, sometimes it seems that the press is needed for such issues to be given the attention they deserve and for action to be taken.

James Levine (Photo credit: Marty Sohl)

Take the case of James Levine, former music director of the Met who was fired in March 2018 for sexual abuse and harassment. In 2016, a police report was filed against Levine. The report was brought to the attention of the Met, but was essentially overlooked: ‘At the time Jim [Levine] said that the charges were completely false, and we didn’t hear anything further from the police’, said Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met. It was only when the Met began receiving media inquiries in 2017 about Levine’s behaviour that it opened an investigation, and only when the New York Times discovered three other men claiming to have been abused by Levine that it suspended the conductor. The investigation uncovered ‘credible evidence’ that Levine had engaged in sexually abusive behaviour towards vulnerable artists, and resulted in his dismissal.

The press has been shown to be an effective catalyst and a force for justice in many other scenarios. Indeed, it was thanks to the October 2017 reports by the New York Times and the New Yorker of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein that sexual assault and abuse in professional relationships was brought to global public attention, empowering victims to share their stories through #MeToo and hold perpetrators to account. Both publications were awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their coverage of Weinstein.

But, some say, hasn’t #MeToo turned into a press-inflamed witch hunt? Press involvement in #MeToo undoubtedly has both pros and cons – and there is no excuse for false allegations, or for causing a stir for the sake of a good story – but it cannot be denied that the topic of sexual harassment and abuse deserves considerable attention. The women concerned in the Domingo case may have felt that presenting their allegations in the press was the best way to make their voices heard because employers, when presented with historical allegations, may be inclined to ignore them or not take them seriously.

Noise needs to be made, and needs to continue being made, in order for things to change.

Closing thoughts

At this point, we do not know whether Domingo will face implications from the charges laid against him. What is important, though, is that the publication of the allegations keeps alive conversations about sexual misconduct in the opera and classical music worlds. I’m not talking about ‘Did he or didn’t he do it?’ conversations, but wider conversations about the abuse of power, cultures of fear, sexism, the weight of reputation, and the need for effective institutional support systems. Musical organisations do have safeguarding policies in place and strive to create comfortable working environments, but culture change doesn’t happen overnight. More work needs to be done.

Most importantly, let’s hope that the publication of the allegations will encourage others to feel empowered to report misconduct and to speak out where they feel necessary. Patricia Wulf, a retired opera singer and the first accuser to give her name, said she spoke out now to end the culture of silence about abuse and harassment in the opera world: ‘I’m stepping forward because I hope that it can help other women come forward, or be strong enough to say no.’ This is the real message. For women – or anybody – experiencing behaviour that in some way violates them, makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, or threatens them, to know that it is OK to report this behaviour. Problems will not be solved, and change will not happen, without awareness and ongoing discussion.

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