fb-pixelClassical music saw a #MeToo backlash in 2019 - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Classical music saw a #MeToo backlash in 2019

Violinist Lara St. John told The Philadelphia Inquirer she was sexually abused in the 1980s by her teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music.Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer

It was early October 2017, an earthshaking expose in The New York Times had unveiled a slew of allegations of sexual misconduct against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo was taking over social media, and the entire world seemed to wait for another shoe — any shoe — to drop.

“Classical music is much more insular than Hollywood, and equally if not more open to predators,” musicologist and scholar Will Robin tweeted, sharing an article by a former opera singer who claimed to have experienced and witnessed countless instances of misconduct. “I doubt there will be a reckoning, and if there is, it will be ugly.”


Then, down came a reckoning, domino after domino falling. The “open secret” that was James Levine’s lifetime of abuse was revealed, analyzed, and taken to court. The names kept coming: conductors Charles Dutoit and Daniele Gatti, countertenor David Daniels, Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil, and many others who never loomed so large in the national consciousness but still held inestimable power at conservatories and smaller companies around the country.

But if the last three months of 2017 and most of 2018 can be counted as a time for reckoning, 2019 was the year the ugliness bled through like never before.

As long as there have been #MeToo cases in classical music, there has been backlash. Speaking to classic.fm in April 2018, soprano Anna Netrebko called allegations against Levine and Dutoit “total [expletive],” saying that “nobody will ever force you to do anything ... if you did it, it means that you allowed that." (The singer later clarified that she wasn’t trying to blame victims, citing concern about accused people’s careers being impacted by public outcries.) It was never hard to find someone saying that the accusers were just raising a fuss to get money or attention, whether that was an anonymous Twitter troll or a lawyer speaking on the record.


But in 2019, actual institutions started to make their own statements. Dutoit and Gatti were back on the podium in Europe; reports about the former’s last-minute engagement at Orchestre National de France indicated that a majority of musicians opposed his return but orchestra administration decided he was the only conductor available with the credentials to lead Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.” When violinist Lara St. John told The Philadelphia Inquirer this summer that she had been sexually abused in the 1980s by her teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, the late Jascha Brodsky, and then had her claims dismissed by the school’s administration, the school announced it would review its sexual assault policy, but not before sending an e-mail to students, parents, and alumni asking them not to discuss the article publicly or on social media, “out of respect for those involved.”

Don’t talk about it, keep everyone else from talking about it, and maybe it’ll go away; this was the approach also initially adopted by Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb in response to his staff’s concerns about the world’s most famous ex-tenor, Plácido Domingo, whose ability to sell out a house apparently outweighed 20 women’s accusations of harassment, detailed and corroborated in two articles by the Associated Press. The singer withdrew from his Met engagements roughly 24 hours before he was slated to take the stage as the title character in Verdi’s “Macbeth”; many engagements in Europe still stand. He was received with standing ovations at this year’s Salzburg Festival, where he’ll also be singing in 2020 pending any new information uncovered by the internal investigation by LA Opera, which he formerly directed.


Is the backlash indication that things will slowly trend back to a status quo of silence? I’m trying my best to instead see it as an encouraging sign, the desperate death rattle of the old lies. Some organizations are visibly and proactively doing their part: When Boston Lyric Opera presented Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” and Ruders’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” last spring, they worked with Boston Area Rape Crisis Centerc and Casa Myrna to train staff on sexual violence 101 and offer support and resources to audience members. And when tenor Vittorio Grigolo was reportedly caught groping a female chorister during a curtain call, the leading man was swiftly suspended and then fired from London’s Royal Opera as well as the Met, following an investigation.

Of all the myths and cliches that persist about classical music, the king of them all is that liking it, listening to it, or being good at playing it automatically makes you a better person, as if our darkest impulses can be somehow obliterated by its Apollonian beam. And in its composers, conductors, and teachers, classical music continues to lean hard on the great-man myth — they are almost always men, our master Maestros — and brush aside any inconveniences in their biographies, such as sexism or Nazism.


Few will outright admit it, but the old myth lingers in the classical music world’s reaction to its celebrities behaving badly. Is it so surprising that institutions would be invested in polishing their legacies, not taking their statues off the pedestals? Blinking, we ask how someone who created such beauty could do these awful things. Then, when necessary, their faces vanish from the concert-hall walls, their biography Web pages turn up with “Not Found” messages, their recordings disappear from the gift shop, and the conversation stops. The way forward, then, is not to let this fire die.

When survivors speak up about what happened to them, when institutions proactively work to destabilize power structures that keep a select few “geniuses” above accountability, and when music lovers of all stripes refuse to tacitly accept abuse as part of the culture, it becomes more difficult for music organizations to maintain the illusion of neutrality. Then, perhaps we can start talking about how there was never a neutral position in the first place, and the real, messy, long reckoning can begin.

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her @knitandlisten.