Opera America Conference 2018: What Opera Companies Can Do to Confront Sexual Harassment and Abuse

By Santosh Venkataraman

The opera world has been rocked by the sexual abuse scandal at the Metropolitan Opera centering around maestro James Levine.

The topic was confronted head on at Opera Conference 2018 hosted by OPERA America in a panel titled “Confronting Sexual Harassment, Abuse and Assault” that tackled these issues that have unfortunately become much too pertinent in the opera world.

The discussion was led by Washington University of St. Louis professor Adrienne D. Davis and served as vital education on a subject that can no longer be ignored.  The history of it is fairly recent, as Davis explained.

Historical Perspective

Sexual harassment came into the public consciousness during the testimony of Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

While that moved the conversation somewhat, attitudes have been difficult to change. Davis cited writings by Helen Gurley Brown about “scuttling,” the process in which men select a secretary for “depantying” – to chase down and take her panties off. Brown stunningly cited this practice yet also said that she was “not for stamping out sexual chemistry at work.”

What really brought the #MeToo movement into the public sphere are the scandals involving Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and other celebrities.  And the commonality of all of these people – besides being men – is that they are famous and have power.

It is the power dynamic that is the most difficult to overcome in issues of sexual harassment and abuse. Because the norm has been to not want to upset the apple cart.

“The practice has been to keep your mouth shut and look away and that is no longer an option,” Marsha LeBoeuf, Costume Director at the Washington National Opera said.

LeBoeuf talked about her experience working for many years as a costume designer for WNO and how her position required her to gain artists’ trust.  It is vital that such trust not be exploited since as Davis said “your body is part of the job like it isn’t in other professions.”

That power dynamic exists on many levels in the opera world from the repertoire being steamy, from performers sometimes required to get naked, and from the transient nature of the work with artists traveling from city to city. Throw in third-party people involved who have power, such as donors, along with the limited resources opera companies have to deal with as compared to corporate culture, and the consequences can be rife for exploitation.

How to Fight It?

What can be done to prevent sexual abuse? The way forward comes down to there not being any one solution.  Davis said that multiple points of reporting are needed so that anyone harassed or abused can find someone within the company who he or she feels comfortable sharing such information with. Another part of the answer is peer-led training so workers can learn how to act if they see a colleague victimized by such behavior.

That is increasingly important since a recent study at the university level showed that 72 percent of people didn’t know how to intervene if a peer was being victimized.  Companies should develop precise guidelines for how bystanders should react.

The fact that the subject is becoming more topical has clearly increased awareness.  Gone are the days when a “boys will be boys” attitude will suffice.

“There has historically been a jocular environment in the rehearsal room fed by the sexuality, the intimacy of the repertoire,” Opera On Site general director Eric Einhorn said.

Einhorn stated how odd it has been how behavior that would be wholly inappropriate in a college or university setting has somehow been condoned otherwise.

“For some reason, a lot of things go out the window as adults because ‘we can all take it,’” Einhorn said.  “And that’s no longer the case.”

Interestingly, the famed “zero-tolerance” which is so often bandied about isn’t something that Davis necessarily agrees with because it can be problematic to define and actively proceed.

“Zero-tolerance is something that is attractive to me as a feminist,” Davis said. “I do have a little pause as to how it hashes out in public with a rush to judgment.”

While the human aspect of harassment and abuse is evident, the business consequences are monumental with notable cautionary tales in the performing arts besides individuals losing jobs. Witness the story of Chicago’s famed Profiles Theater, a non-Equity venue once known for doing edgy, sophisticated work.  An expose by the Chicago Reader showed a pattern of abuse that forced the artistic director to resign and the company to close after 28 years and 81 productions, many that were award-winning.

An Experiment With Tough Realizations

Davis distributed a fictional scenario to attendees in which an opera company hired a “genius” director who was rumored to have harassed and/or abused artists and was in relationships with stars in previous productions. The task was to be in the shoes of a different company employee from a human relations worker to a young artist to an artistic director and probe what steps each person would take.

The thought-provoking exercise created numerous responses. One group stated that the director named “Pat” would be let go immediately despite whatever money was owed, although stating that without real money on the line is easier said than done.  Another idea was to implement policies for this individual to agree to abide by because the accusations were rumor.

Sexual harassment, abuse and assault is a subject that sadly will never go away.  What is certain is that increased education and discussion of it is required in order to create non-threatening environments that performing arts companies need in order to fulfill their mission.


Special Features