Opera's sexual assault secret

Opera's sexual assault secret

Dan Kempson
This article was originally published on Medium, reposted here with permission from the author.

I’m a gay, married, 32-year old former opera singer living in New York City. There’s something I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time.

All of Hollywood, and much of the country, is talking about Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long history of sexual assault. After years of ignoring rumors, and silencing women who came forward, the media and the movie industry are finally taking it seriously.

It’s time for the opera world to also look at its own epidemic of sexual harassment and assault. As much as there is to say about what women go through, I’m starting from the gay perspective because it’s what I know.

The first time it happened, I was at a patron dinner, seated next to the donor who was funding my presence there. He touched me knee inappropriately a few times, before leaning over during the salad course and whispering in my ear “[the General Director] said you were a cute one.” I pushed him away, high tailed it for the bar, and didn’t return until dessert.

I innocently never expected it to happen again. But then there was the conductor who friended me on FB with a message promising a gig, but quickly pushed that aside in favor of descriptions of his prowess in bed that would appear in my inbox once a month for the next year or so. There was the up-and-coming composer whose work I premiered, and whose penis would subsequently appear in text messages sent at 2am, shrouded in a metal Chastity cage and accompanied by the words “hello, sir.”

To each of these, and many more, I usually responded “I’m married” — which is both true and wholly irrelevant to the inappropriate and horrible nature of these men’s behavior. And it was always summarily ignored. But beyond some inappropriate touching, I was relatively lucky.

There’s the singer at the major house YAP who rebuffed program director’s advances and kisses, and discovered the next day he had been removed from the rehearsal schedule.

There’s the singer who, when leaving the after party for a YAP masterclass, was sexually assaulted by the head of the opera program at a top grad school.

There’s the singer who was constantly scheduled for sessions with a coach who molested him, sometimes while “teaching technique”, and sometimes just as explicit assault.

Non-physical sexual harassment is even more prevalent. The director screaming at a young gay singer for effeminate physical mannerisms, the casting director who says a singer isn’t butch enough to be cast, the Artistic Director who tells a singer to change out of a shiny blazer at a gala because “our patrons are too conservative to handle it”. Is this harassment or just self-hating homophobia projected on to young singers? Regardless of your personal definition, what corporate America views as a hostile and fireable offense is excused in the arts as merely “a creative personality.”

There are the rumors of programs stockpiled with shockingly handsome young singers, the conductor who trolls dating apps for singers in his production, the director who always has to show singers how to stage a love scene by taking the soprano’s place and kissing the male lead.

This is also incredibly prevalent in opera outside the gay world: the married director who constantly gives his hotel room access card to chorus girls, the conductor and artistic director who has ended more than one coaching with sexual assault, the YAP music director whose fondling was so prevalent that newbies we were openly warned. But we are in a society that finds it particularly difficult to take the victimization of men seriously, and gay men specifically. And opera is indisputably a very gay industry– for much of the 20th century, it was one of the few places where LGBT individuals could live their lives openly.

So then why does this happen? You could point to the Barihunks effect, where young singers are objectified and told their abs are more important than their voice. You could say it’s an extension of artistic license given to creative professionals — if you want incredible art from incredible artists, that might come with baggage. You could say it’s because a singer’s job description is an aberration, including kissing coworkers publicly and sometimes barely clothed (in rehearsal).

That’s all bullshit. It happens for the same reason it happens in Hollywood, and why it used to happen in corporate America: because those in power are often perpetrators — and those who aren’t perpetrators allow it to happen.

The tech world is losing CEO’s and senior managers left and right — SoFi’s Mike Cagney, for example — because they allowed a culture of sexual harassment to fester. They know that lack of knowledge is no excuse when you run an organization. It’s no different than Volkswagen’s CEO being pushed out after middle-managers engineered fake emissions test results — A moment of reckoning where being a leader means being responsible for what happens under your watch, both obvious and clandestine.

The only reason I can write this, even without identifying a single perpetrator, is because I’ve left the business. I don’t need to ever sing again. Just like in Hollywood, singers are unprotected, stranded without HR and saddled with an ineffective union. Singers can’t speak out for fear of losing everything, because they all know someone who said no and who was never called again.

Hollywood is experiencing a turning point which, hopefully, will have an impact on the influence of sexual predators in the movie business. Years of victim statements were ignored and buried — it took the work of Ronan Farrow, a male journalist who also happens to be Hollywood royalty, for this to be taken seriously. And yet, they are treating it as the downfall of one man, instead of the indictment of an entire industry. The Good Ol’ Boys Club says they didn’t know.

But we in opera know that it’s not just one person. It’s a pervasive culture. And now it’s up to those in power to fight back, call it out, and make a change. Opera is an industry where 5 of the 7 largest companies have an LGBTQ individual in one of their three major senior management positions. They have a bully pulpit. It’s their responsibility to stop being complicit in their employee’s actions, and to put an end to it. Our noise won’t be listened to until we are joined by those in power.

Note: I invite people to share their stories. Either in comments, by email, or just with your friends. The epidemic can’t be stopped if people don’t talk.

Related Content


Unlike other sites, we're keeping Schmopera ad-free. We want to keep our site clean and our opinions our own. Support us for as little as $1.00 per month.