#TheStories, part 9Editorial
In the summer of 2007, I participated in a young artist program at an American summer opera festival directed by my former voice teacher, Amy.* One of the principal artists alongside Amy was a baritone, Dave, who was one of her closest friends from college. Right away, I could see why she got along so well with him - he was affable and charismatic.
Amy was so busy running the festival that I didn’t get to spend much downtime with her, but I did start to spend time with Dave - sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. At first it seemed within the scope of normal socializing with colleagues. I thought my boundaries were clear because he knew I had a boyfriend.
It is my sincere hope that men in the opera industry and in general will read stories like this and gain a deeper understanding of what real consent looks like.
Amy was very maternal towards me, so I assumed he would view me in a similar way - a half-generation younger, and certainly not an object of romantic interest. I was only 21 and they were in their mid-late 30s. Dave was also open about his history of addiction and his long-term sobriety, which I viewed as a sign of maturity and character. Amy trusted him, so I did, too.
Within days of meeting Dave, he asked me out to a movie, but I must have deflected that invitation, because I don’t recall going.
Days later, Dave asked me to come over for dinner at his home. When I agreed, I had assumed that it would be in the company of his host couple, but they left the house minutes after I arrived. I soon realized it had been Dave’s intention all along to make dinner for just the two of us in that dark, empty, and isolated house.
I had no idea what he expected me to do. It felt deeply violating, but I was so confused that I said nothing and did nothing.
After we finished eating, we were talking on the couch in the living room. Dave sat on the floor in front of me and asked me to rub his shoulders. I awkwardly obliged, despite my discomfort and my worry that this could send the wrong signal to him, because I didn’t want to seem rude or cold. While this was happening, he reached behind himself and inserted one of his fingers into my mouth. I had no idea what he expected me to do. It felt deeply violating, but I was so confused that I said nothing and did nothing. When he stopped, I thought he had realized that this move was unwelcome.
I have another memory of watching a movie with Dave on his laptop in his bedroom. (I don’t remember if it was later that same night or a different day.) When I made a passing remark conveying insecurity about my body, he lifted my shirt and started licking my abdomen. Again, though, I froze until he stopped.
I blamed myself for not saying no, and rationalized it as all just a misunderstanding. I had no idea if Dave’s behavior was common or would have been generally considered acceptable on what he seemed to think was a date. I didn’t consider that no one had ever done these things to me before, that he had neither asked for nor received my consent, and that there was a power differential between us. So I continued to spend time with him, believing that these unwelcome advances were outliers and that I would surely speak up for myself if he tried something again.
I froze until he stopped, then moved on as though nothing had happened.
Even though I told myself everything was under control, I felt deep shame about this awkward relationship. The night I had gone to Dave’s house, Amy’s husband John* called one of us, asking what we were up to. I felt certain it was because John suspected I was with Dave and he wanted to protect me, but I was stuck between wanting to escape from the situation and feeling too ashamed to accept the “out” - so we didn’t let on that we were alone together. The times that Dave and I walked into rehearsal together after hanging out, I was paranoid that my other colleagues assumed we were sleeping together, and I worried that they would think less of me.
Finally, Dave came over to my homestay on my last night to “say goodbye”. He knew that mere days later I was scheduled to have surgery to remove nodules on my vocal folds, so he used this as an opportunity for more unwanted sexual contact.
I kept quiet about this experience for a long time, because I was having difficulty processing it.
He asked me where on my body the surgery was going to be. Confused as to why he was asking a question he knew the answer to, I answered him anyway and pointed to my larynx. He then started kissing my neck. And just as before, I froze until he stopped, then moved on as though nothing had happened.
I haven’t seen him since, but he continued to try to chat with me and ask me to send him intimate pictures of myself for a year after all this occurred.
I kept quiet about this experience for a long time, because I was having difficulty processing it, and I worried that if I told anyone, I would be blamed for continuing to allow myself to be in compromising situations with Dave. I was particularly afraid that Amy would either view me as a liability and never hire me again, or be so disgusted by her friend that this would ruin their relationship and I would feel responsible.
Even I had a hard time understanding why it was so difficult for me to call him out or walk away. I think it’s because, when he wasn’t crossing the line sexually, he just seemed like a normal, fun colleague - in my mind he did not fit the profile of a predator. I did take his attraction to me as a kind of compliment, but at no point did I appreciate, invite, or reciprocate his sexual advances. Clearly he should have noticed this, but he did not.
This experience had quite an impact on my view of the opera industry, and on whether I wanted to pursue a full-time opera career at all.
When I finally worked up the courage to tell Amy all of the embarrassing details of this experience, I was disappointed to discover that she had already known about Dave’s toxic relationship patterns long before hiring him. However, she didn’t know what he had done to me, and she agreed that it was not my fault.
She confronted Dave about his behavior, and reported back to me that he had no idea he was crossing a line or that it had not been consensual. She is still extremely close to him as a friend.
Eventually, Dave stopped contacting me, but it wasn’t until ten years later that I overcame my fear of hurting his feelings enough to unfriend him on social media. (To this day, when any photos from that festival come up in my Facebook memories, the first and only thing I think of is this experience, and I feel sick to my stomach.) It took me even longer to talk about this in therapy and recognize Dave’s behavior as predatory.
This experience also had quite an impact on my view of the opera industry, and on whether I wanted to pursue a full-time opera career at all. I knew it would be hard enough being home so infrequently, and I just couldn’t imagine jumping from one toxic environment to another, gig to gig. While I did go on to do a master’s in opera, I couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice a normal, healthy personal life for it.
So now I freelance on my own terms, not as a primary source of income, and at an arm’s length from all of the dysfunction of the opera world. It is my sincere hope that men in the opera industry and in general will read stories like this and gain a deeper understanding of what real consent looks like, as well as the impact of their actions on others.
*All names changed for privacy.