#TheStories, part 6Editorial
James L. Engdahl was the opera coach at American Singers Opera Project held at Winston Salem University. We were all supposed to have a chance to talk about our careers with James and he would give us advice - something we were all hungry for. He pulled me aside at one point in rehearsal, supposedly to do this, and started to shower on compliments.
I was playing a pants role in this production. He complimented me on my physicality and how I embodied the teenage boy look, and then asked me if I was a lesbian. I was flustered and said no. Then he proceeded to tell me about how he was working on writing an opera with a very important mezzo character in it that I might be good for.
Looking back, I am so outraged that the leaders of the festival weren’t immediately shocked and angered by what had happened to me.
I can’t remember the plot of what I’m sure was a completely made up opera, but it was raunchy and set in a film noir style and the character was clearly supposed to be slutty and a sex object. He wanted to know if I was interested in the role. I made some kind of excuse and got out of there, immediately feeling gross, dirty, and like I had something to hide.
I feel very fortunate that, at the moment I caught myself thinking that I had some gross secret, I knew I needed to do the opposite of keeping it hidden. I called my mom and told her everything, and then told the leaders of the workshop, who made excuses for him and said he was on some weird medications and that made him act strangely. I didn’t buy that one bit and avoided him the rest of the workshop, which thankfully was only a few more days.
We were staying in dorms on campus and in the dressing rooms for the show, some of the other women in my cast started talking about how cool James was and that he was partying and drinking with them after rehearsals ended in the evenings. I told them that he had behaved creepily toward me and that they should all stay away from him and that that behavior - partying and drinking with students in their dorms - was completely gross and inappropriate. I made it a point to tell as many fellow students as I could to stay away from him.
I have never recommended the program to anyone and have told my friends and their students not to attend it.
It’s sad to say that I feel lucky that this is the worst thing that has happened to me in this business. I wish I had done more at the time. Looking back, I am so outraged that the leaders of the festival weren’t immediately shocked and angered by what had happened to me, and that they didn’t take any action to secure the safety of me and my fellow singers.
I’m not someone who had money to do expensive month- or summer-long opera programs, or even to get myself to the city where auditions for these programs are held. This was my first full role that I learned and it was an important line on my resume. I have never recommended the program to anyone and have told my friends and their students not to attend it. I understand that the organization now no longer exists and that Engdahl died two years ago.