#TheStories, part I

#TheStories, part I

Jenna Simeonov

This is one part in a series of personal accounts of harassment, abuse, and assault in the opera and classical music industries. These stories are published as told to me, with some names and details withheld at the author’s request.

The following was submitted by American bass Zachary James.

When I was a student at Florida State University I was cast in an opera being directed by a visiting guest stage director whom the university had hired from the “outside world”, Marc Astafan.

We were were under the impression he was a big deal and came from NYC and had various impressive professional credits and was highly influential. Growing up in Florida, this was one of the first moments of my life interacting with someone from the “real world” and I wanted to make a good impression. I was 20 and had just finished my sophomore year of college.

He began to favor me in rehearsal and move me to the front in ensemble formations and wink and smile at me. I thought I was doing a great job and was proud of myself. At the end of the first week of rehearsal he asked me to stay after and speak with him for a moment. I met him in the hallway and he told me he was having a get together for some of the cast and that I was invited but not to spread the word because he didn’t want everyone there, just a select group.

I felt extremely cool and included and validated. I was from a small town in the middle of Florida, with no connections at all and this supposed big-shot from NYC who could potentially help me on my journey had noticed me and taken an interest.

I was mortified and felt like an object. I felt trapped, stupid and used. I felt disgusting.

He gave me an address and confirmed the day and time to meet at his place. I was extremely nervous while getting ready to go…imagine me as a 20-year-old kid, with an empty closet and no money, trying to build up my confidence and put together an outfit to go to a social gathering hosted by a big-shot director from New York City.

Zachary James in 2002.

I arrived at his apartment and the lights were low, he showed me in and made small talk. I was encouraged to drink immediately upon arrival, which I did. There was no party. It was me and him. He sat across from me in the living room for a bit and then got up and stood behind me, put his hands on my shoulders and began to massage me and then began to undress me. He said we should go to the bedroom.

He removed his clothes and began doing whatever he wanted to me. He inhaled poppers, a popular amyl nitrite psychoactive inhalant also known as video head cleaner. I didn’t know what this was or the effects but he put it to my nose and told me to inhale. This repeated all night. He entered me and did whatever he wanted to me. To this day I do not know if he used a condom.

I was dizzy and felt like I was going to throw up.

I was mortified and felt like an object. I felt trapped, stupid and used. I felt disgusting. It was never explained or admitted that he fooled me into coming to spend this night with him. At the next rehearsal he winked and smiled at me.

Later that week he invited me to come over again and said that this time there would be more guys coming and he identified some of the other male students who would be in attendance from the chorus. I was dizzy and felt like I was going to throw up. While I felt victimized by him I had also felt special and singled out. When I realized he was going through the whole cast and taking his pick of the boys during his time working at the university, I was mortified and humiliated and felt like dirt.

I left a message saying I had a family emergency and could not attend. He never spoke to me again during rehearsals. On opening night he said it was nice working with me. I was glad he was leaving and hoped I would not see him again. Years later, I was an apprentice artist at Central City Opera. I shuddered to see his name slated to direct one of the shows.

He tracked me down on Facebook and sent lascivious messages.

I was understudying in his show and I was terrified to see him again. I thought about not going to Colorado, but I didn’t want to miss this important opportunity, one of the first professional engagements I was offered. I played it cool and didn’t interact with him. Then at a full company function, he asked me if he knew me from before that summer. I said no. He asked if I was sure, and then repeated, “have I known you?”

I knew what he meant. I was humiliated. He couldn’t remember. I said no, I didn’t think we had met. He later came up to me and said he remembered me and our experience and smiled. I kept my clear all summer. I quit opera for a time after that summer. I moved to NYC and began working on Broadway.

He tracked me down on Facebook and sent lascivious messages, fondly recalling our time together in Florida and inviting future interactions. I hated him. What he did to me in Florida when I was a 20-year-old student and he was an influential director from the outside world revolts me. When he resurfaced in my professional life and acted inappropriately I lost confidence, an experience which contributed to my deciding to stop pursuing opera as a career.

I did eventually return to opera after walking away that summer, and was very glad to learn of his retirement. I was comforted knowing I will not have to cross paths with him professionally.

This isn’t my only story of being on the other side of predatory behavior in professional settings, but it is an experience I think of regularly and one which has had a profound negative impact on my life.

If you have a true story of abuse or assault in the opera and classical music industries, send it to me at [email protected].

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