It seems that Peter Gelb, the general manager of New York City’s world-famous Metropolitan Opera, doesn’t think we know what “corroboration” means.
According to reporting by NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas , Gelb called a meeting on Saturday with the opera company’s orchestra and chorus, in response to concerns about superstar singer Plácido Domingo. The subject: why he hadn’t suspended or investigated Domingo, a Met favorite for over 50 years who was cast in two fall productions, in light of 20 women accusing the singer of workplace sexual harassment that spanned decades.
Asking that those present keep it in confidence, Gelb allegedly gave these reasons. First, the women were all anonymous. (Wrong: two allowed journalists to use their names.) Second, he said they had only come forward to the Associated Press, which published the allegations over two articles, and not other credible news outlets. Thus, Gelb reportedly said, the reporting lacked “corroboration.”
Lacked corroboration. And this from the son of legendary newspaperman Arthur Gelb. Either Peter Gelb didn’t have the facts straight, or he deliberately fed his staff . . . shall we call them “alternative facts?”
Domingo, who has disputed the allegations, withdrew from his planned appearances at the Met late Tuesday afternoon, issuing a statement that indicated he would not return to the opera house. An accompanying statement from the Met suggested the opera house had asked for his resignation. Does that settle the matter?
Not this time. It’s too late. With his decision to go all-in defending the Spanish singer , Gelb proved that he cares more about one powerful, profitable man than the well-being of his staff. And with that, he’s proven himself unfit to lead America’s most iconic opera house.
So most of the accusers were anonymous. Of course they were! Reputation is everything in music: just one assertion that a musician is difficult to work with can spell doom. Two accusers, Angela Turner Wilson and Patricia Wulf, spoke on the record using their full names. One’s a teacher. One’s retired. The stakes aren’t as high.
Now, let’s talk corroboration. The AP articles describe how the allegations were supported and fact-checked. For the first article, the AP spoke with “almost three dozen” other opera-world professionals who confirmed Domingo’s behavior, verified the accusers worked where they said they did, and talked to colleagues the accusers confided in. For the second article, the AP obtained Wilson’s diary from 1999. These stories show the same patterns of behavior: late-night phone calls, unwanted kisses, clandestine strategies to avoid being alone with Domingo backstage. They read like a twisted rendition of the catalog aria from “Don Giovanni” — this many in L.A., this many in D.C., this many in Texas . . . “if she wears a skirt, you know what he does.”
No matter what journalists say, or how clearly they explain their rigorous process of reporting and verifying these stories, one gets the feeling that short of Domingo acting out in front of Gelb’s eyes, no evidence was ever going to be enough. To him, the word of that one man was more important than that of 20 women. All this while other American companies struck Domingo from the roster, Europe continued to receive him with standing ovations, and the singer’s superfans unleashed volleys of vitriol at anyone, reporter or opera fan, who posted a negative word online about their cherished Maestro.
If Gelb was attempting to reassure his rankled rank-and-file staff, he failed, and multiplied his troubles while he was at it. Gelb has gotten into dustups with the media before, but largely in response to negative reviews of Met productions. And classical music news usually doesn’t make waves outside of a small network of enthusiasts (just ask my click count). But questioning the integrity of both the accusations and the AP’s fact-checking? That’ll get Gelb attention, and not the kind he wants. Even Brad Hoylman, the New York state senator for the district including Lincoln Center, weighed in with a tweet that called the treatment of the women “appalling” and pushed for Domingo to withdraw.
It’s not like the Met is a stranger to handling allegations of backstage sex-pestery. The day after The New York Times published allegations of sexual abuse against longtime Met head honcho (and former Boston Symphony Orchestra music director) James Levine in December 2017, Gelb announced that Levine had been suspended and all his further Met conducting engagements were canceled. A scant several weeks later, stage director John Copley was dismissed from the Met’s production of Rossini’s “Semiramide” after a male chorister complained about a sexually charged remark. And just yesterday, the Met suspended tenor Vittorio Grigolo from all future performances pending an investigation by The Royal Opera; last week while touring Japan with the London company, Grigolo allegedly groped a female performer during a curtain call.
But in the Domingo case, the Met held to its initial decision to wait for the results of LA Opera’s independent investigation, which was announced the same day the AP’s first article came out. Why did Gelb double down to defend Domingo till the last minute?
I’ll take a wild guess and say it’s mostly about dollar bills. In an era of declining ticket sales, big names like Domingo sell seats. On Tuesday morning, seat maps for his Sept. 25 and 28 performances of Verdi’s “Macbeth” (opposite Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, another singer with a colossal fanbase who has been openly dismissive of #MeToo allegations) showed that the 3,800-seat house was almost entirely sold out.
That doesn’t happen often. And with Domingo scheduled to perform so early in the season, it was unlikely that any findings would surface in LA Opera’s investigation before he appeared a few times.
What’s more, Domingo has friends in very high places. To name one, there’s Met Board of Directors chair Ann Ziff, who has given many millions to the Met and sits on LA Opera’s board alongside Domingo. In the past two years, she underwrote exclusive 50th anniversary galas in the singer’s honor at both the Met and LA Opera.
Whatever the reasons for Gelb’s circling the wagons around Domingo, he simultaneously created a toxic environment for his staff and confirmed my worst fears about opera. His response reinforces a paradigm of opera as a hidebound, hierarchical world, where venerated men get away with absolutely anything. In the meantime, artists who depend on good relationships with the powerful few (a.k.a. almost everyone else working in opera) must stoically sing past all kinds of inappropriate behavior — or leave the field entirely.
It’s time to ask: what do we want opera to stand for? I know what I want: I want an opera world where no one has to worry about giggling and smiling through harassment when they go to work. I want a world where having a famous name, or the support of the top 0.01 percent, or legions of adoring fans to descend on accusers and critics, doesn’t mean it’s easier to escape accountability. I want a world where less sympathy is given to abusers than those they abused, no matter how well those abusers might sing.
It’s time for Gelb to go, and take the board with him. Time to bring in a team that wants to reclaim the beautiful living tradition of opera for the 21st century, this messy epoch that people still see as a newborn despite its being old enough to vote and almost old enough to drink. And until that happens, the Met Opera deserves every empty seat inside that house. Let them be testaments to all the singers and other professionals who ever learned, in some way or another, that what they survived didn’t matter.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.