Sexual misconduct controversy hits the New York Met Opera
‘Conversations I’ve had with victims over the years suggests that Ireland is no different in relation to these issues’
New York’s Metropolitan Opera says it will investigate allegations that its longtime conductor, James Levine, sexually abused a teenager in the mid-1980s. Photograph: AP/Michael Dwyer
One of the world’s largest musical institutions, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, is the latest organisation to find itself embroiled in a controversy over sexual misconduct.
The Met is the largest performing arts institution in the US, and over the last 10 years and more it has transformed itself into a glamorous international brand through its Met Opera Live in HD screenings in cinemas around the world. It is also the mainstay of weekly opera provision on RTÉ Lyric FM.
On Saturday, the New York Post named the Met’s music director emeritus and former long-time music director James Levine in the context of sexual misconduct. Levine is the subject of a police report into alleged sexual abuse of a minor in Illinois.
The Met had been informed of the police report last year, but accepted Levine’s denials. It only decided to start its own investigation after it began receiving media inquiries about the issue.
The matter escalated quickly. On Sunday, after two more accusers emerged, reporting incidents that took place as far back as 1968, the Met announced that it was suspending Levine, pending its investigation. “Mr Levine will not be involved in any Met activities, including conducting scheduled performances at the Met this season,” it said in a statement.
Accusations about Levine have been to-ing and fro-ing on the classical grapevine for decades. The New York Times has published a 1979 letter from Met management to a board member on foot of an anonymous letter accusing Levine of criminal activities.
The issue surfaced in print much earlier, too. In July 1987 John Rockwell, writing in the New York Times, brought up “rumours about his private life” with Levine himself.
The conductor replied, saying”This is nothing new for me. Ten years ago, Tony Bliss [then the Met’s general manager] called me about reports of a morals charge in Pittsburgh or Hawaii or Dallas. Both my friends and my enemies checked it out and to this day, I don’t have the faintest idea where those rumours came from or what purpose they served. Ron Wilford [Levine’s manager] says it’s because people can’t believe the real story, that I’m too good to be true.’’
In Germany, Der Spiegel touched on the issue in 1997 when Levine was being discussed as the successor to Sergiu Celibidache at the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Johanna Fiedler’s 2001 book Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera mentions “malicious gossip, rumours of orgies, and homosexuality, and chamber music played in the nude”. Fielder, a former press officer at the Met, largely debunks the rumours.
Whatever transpires, Levine appears damaged and the Met is too.
The news from New York broke on the same day that BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme carried an item on bullying and sexual harassment in the classical music world.
Britain’s Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) carried out a survey of its members. ISM chief executive Deborah Annetts said that, of the 250 responses received, “60 per cent are reporting discrimination of some sort or another and the chief form of discrimination is actually around sexual harassment”.
It takes place, she said, primarily in orchestras and ensembles but also in schools and conservatories. The incidence is higher among self-employed musicians than among musicians in regular employment, and 75 per cent of victims choose not to report sexual harassment.
“The reason for that,” she said, “is because people are frightened that they are going to lose work if they make a complaint. We really need to tackle this culture, because the culture is just not acceptable in 21st-century Britain.”
Music Matters put the survey’s findings in the context of another survey, carried out online by Arts Professional magazine in October and November. That survey was not restricted to musicians and received 1,580 responses, most of them from Britain. It revealed that 80 per cent of its respondents were aware of harassment having taken place, 48 per cent had experienced it personally, and in 69 per cent of cases the perpetrator was in a more senior position.
Only 23 per cent of those who reported an incident to their employer felt that they received an appropriate response.
Arts Professional’s editor Frances Richens spoke of a lack of capacity within arts organisations to deal with instances when they occur and also in some instances a lack of willingness, too. “There’s the fact that a lot of arts organisations are micro-businesses,” she said. “They’re run by very small teams of people, who are under-resourced and over-stretched. They don’t have somebody who is responsible for HR and trained in HR. So they can really struggle to deal with this. But also quite often they will have personal, close relationship with the person who is being accused of sexual harassment.”
The survey also found that arts organisations can be unwilling to deal with the issue “if they fear that tackling the harassment will have unfortunate ramifications for their reputation, may lead to a loss of audiences, a loss of funding, even”.
This sounds like a description of the Met. And conversations I’ve had with victims over the years suggests that Ireland is no different in relation to these issues than Britain or the US.