How To Deal With Misogyny in Opera: On the Heels of David Leigh’s Powerful Article

If you have not read the brilliant article by David Leigh, a young bass at the Metropolitan Opera, you should! I had the joy of teaching Mr. Leigh when I was in New York and he was one of the singers I missed very much when I moved to Europe full time. He is not only an extremely talented bass, but an intellectual heavyweight. I am not surprised by his multifaceted, well thought-out essay dealing with a very difficult subject.

I am not sure what the answers are ultimately but we all need to be having this conversation. The allegations against Placido Domingo have started a very heated debate on social media. I have been hearing these allegations about Domingo and James Levine (two of the operatic artists I most admired in my youth) since I entered the field 35 years ago. One of the questions that David Leigh does not ask directly but lets the reader conclude is:

Does the inherent misogyny in operatic libretti encourage misogynistic behavior offstage?

I have been part of more than 60 operatic productions in my life and can count on one hand the moments of inappropriate behavior that I personally witnessed. But it does not mean they did not happen–indeed perhaps much more than I noticed–especially considering the many friends who have shared horror stories of sexual harassment and objectification with me over the years.

The question I ask myself as a 53-year old heterosexual male and that I encourage other male friends to ask, is the following:

What did I consider harmless in my interactions with women in the past that may not be considered so harmless when examined through the lenses of modern, better informed times?

Women have lived in a male-dominated society forever. The Bible and other religious manuals have framed women as the source of man’s original sin. These books are still part of the spiritual education of the majority of people in the world, educating men and women both to propagate these beliefs even today. The #metoo movement is only beginning to open our eyes to the harm that has been done and continue to be done in the name of religion and therefore in the name of what we have accepted as social norms for as long as we have lived on this planet. And while we are having this conversation in places where the gender equality movement is encouraged, there are many places in the world where barbaric acts are routinely practiced against women and young girls. I am purposefully limiting the scope of this article to the relationship between heterosexual men and the women they target and how that relationship is mirrored in and influenced by the medium of opera itself. Sexual assault is as pervasive in homosexual relationships in our field as well, as the cases of James Levine and David Daniels exemplify.

What do we do going forward?

In terms of our behavior as men, there is only one answer worth entertaining. We, men, pose a potential threat to women just in terms of physical strength. The fact that most women, if not all, can point to moments of sexual oppression in their lives mean that even what might seem like harmless flirtation can have the effect of post-traumatic stress. It might feel like walking on eggshells for us men at times, but we simply have to be willing to listen and learn from women how they would prefer to be treated. This has been a systemic problem our entire lives. It will take time for us to work out solutions, but it is incumbent upon us men to simply listen and acknowledge that we all have contributed in little and substantial ways to the abuse of women and girls. We should be collectively sorry for our behavior!

As to how we deal with the misogyny in the different operatic scores we perform, I don’t believe in a revisionist approach any more than I believe in the ill-advised modern treatments of operas brought on by the excesses of so-called Regietheater. As a director of operas myself, I have always sought to find the stories behind the libretto. The most effective operas have very short libretti, which means the art form has always been symbolic at its best.

Let us take for example, La tragédie de Carmen! Indeed the Tragedy of Carmen! Is it less of a tragedy if instead of Carmen’s murder by José that she turns the knife on him instead? A recent production did just that! It probably provided a moment of celebration for the women in the audience who are sick of operas making victims of women. Yet in such a case, we miss the opportunity to reflect on the root cause of misogyny in life in general of which opera is a very visible byproduct. Great operatic productions take advantage of instrumental music for instance to develop the archetypical figures into three dimensional characters. If I were to stage Carmen, I would try to find every possibility to tell Carmen’s story from before we see her onstage so we understand how a fundamentally anti-female society produced this woman who appears to be a so-called femme fatale or man-eater to which the character is often reduced. I would do the same with José and Micaela. Who are these people? How did they get to the point we, the audience, encounter them? Yet we have forgotten that Opera is in great part about the miracle of the human voice trained to its most powerful and flexible level.

Is Shakespeare’s treatment of Lady Macbeth not misogynistic and Verdi’s is? Many operatic productions reduces the character to an ambitious bitch! It is partly incumbent upon the audience to educate itself about the root source of an opera libretto. It used to be a part of the experience. The audience knew the stories that were being told and could fill in the blank. The understanding of these characters was nuanced by understanding the sources they come from. It was understood that an opera reduced a story to its emotional essence, which when expressed by the human voice moves us to our core. Both the producers and the audiences have become lazy!

Nevertheless, we are coming to grips for the first time, as a society, with the inherent misogyny in our social development. By modern standards we can decide that every opera or play or movie heretofore is fundamentally misogynistic. It is too easy! And that is the fundamental problem with the way we deal with complex issues in our time.

Modern society is fundamentally lazy. We want immediate gratification at every level. Fast food, fast education, fast opera. Insipid, inept and inane!

The Domingo case, which has given rise to the online frenzy about misogyny in Opera, is an opportunity for us to have an adult conversation about society as a whole for sure, but more fundamentally about the chaotic, plutocratic oligarchy that is the structure of the operatic field, which encourages lookism, racism and misogyny while discouraging talent development, assiduous education and administrative competence.

There cannot be truly great operatic stars if a few people are performing all over the world. They become fatigued, inconsistent and burned out. And they decline. Singers, conductors, directors, stage crews and administrators need time to train and understand the whole of the field they work in. Competence yields respect and valuing of all concerned. When singers are expendable, they are devalued, mistreated and ultimately abused. They cannot talk against incompetence or unfair treatment or even sexual harassment because they have no one to complain to who has the will to confront abuse of power.

The #metoo revolution should have taken shape in Opera when Deborah Voigt was fired from Covent Garden because her talent was deemed less important than a stupid black dress that they could not alter to help her look more glamorous. I am certain, a talented costume designer would have made Ms. Voigt the most glamorous person onstage. Instead we stood by and accepted the blatant misogyny by Peter Katona and Christoph Loy and their enablers on the administration of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Naturally, they thought they were at the forefront of bringing opera up to speed relative to modern theatrical innovations. If bringing opera into the future means discriminating against a large part of the population (whether by race, weight, etc) then it actually has the reverse effect. By trying to catch up, opera in such hands, only ends up always playing catch up, rather than lead the arts and society in terms of encouraging progressive social evolution. I have enjoyed several Christoph Loy productions since then. No doubt Mr. Loy is one of the most musical regisseurs I have experienced in the last 20 years. However, his talent and accomplishments do not give him the right to undermine a world-class talent like Deborah Voigt, then at her best. Such misogyny has major consequences for the victim and it is especially defeating for an opera singer who sacrifices so much for what is supposed to be a merit-based endeavor. Few human beings ever achieve Ms. Voigt’s level of technical-musical skill. The ugly manner by which she was diminished must have discouraged thousands of young women (and men) who invested so much to achieve such a level.

So many skills are needed to be truly convincing as an opera singer and no one is superlative at all of them. Domingo, arguably the most successful opera singer of all time, could have been better in several areas. He had a package of talents that fit the demands of those times and because he is a Caucasian male, he probably did not face many of the obstacles that so many singers must confront. Opera is not quantifiable except by real experts who understand it globally. In short, today, only singers truly understand singers and even among us, many do not understand the different challenges. Non-singers (stage directors, casting agents, artists managers, Operndirektoren, Intendanten, etc) today, unlike the past, have not the experience of their predecessors to appropriately distinguish between great singers and those that look pretty while crooning! Therefore, they make too many decisions based on superficial attributes that in the end have little impact on a live opera performance.

More insidious than mere lookism would be lookism for the opportunity of future sexual harassment/assault? Let’s not kid ourselves! It can be that insidious!

My apologies to the few talented conductors and directors out there (and the singers too) who persevere despite the chaos that this once glorious field has become. Many of us have held back our voices. On this blog I have been too polite, because I thought making a balanced argument might be more convincing. However, the only thing that seem to put a little fear in the heart of so many incompetent, self-aggrandizing bullshitters is a good scandal–Especially one that reaches to the top. I’m sick of seeing my talented, creative friends reduced to sheep so they can keep their jobs. But is it really what we spent all these years working our asses for? To capitulate to less invested people who have the mere talent of yelling louder about how great they are?

This cancer has existed a long time before now and has only become unbearable in a world that has also become unbearable.

The Washington Post suggest: “…let it die!” I have written about just that at least a couple of years ago on this blog. Why let it die? Because it is cancerous!

I dare say, there is nothing wrong with Opera as an art form. It is created to grab an audience, heart and soul. I am tired of people inside the field claiming how hard it is to sell. How the hell can you sell opera if you fundamentally do not believe in its power? Why do it if you think it needs to become more like musicals and more like movies? Why not just do movies and musicals and leave Opera to those who know it, believe in it and want it to thrive?

A few people are gorged until they burst (ungracefully die out) on more and more performances, more and more money, more and more exposure to the point that we get tired of them and even they of themselves! It becomes about over-blowing a few people at the expense of the field itself! How is that different from Wall Street? or Politics?

In short, the misogyny and chaos in Opera represents a microcosm of our society! Imagine if this little version of our world could reflect our humanity in ways we can truly process!

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