Does opera have a Harvey Weinstein problem?

Does opera have a Harvey Weinstein problem?


norman lebrecht

October 14, 2017

Dan Kempson, a former opera singer who has worked at the Met and other US opera houses, has decided it is time to speak out about sexual harassment in the opera world.

He believes that gay young men are particularly vulnerable victims.


Opera is indisputably a very gay industry– for much of the 20th century, it was one of the few places where LGBT individuals could live their lives openly.
So then why does this happen? You could point to the Barihunks effect, where young singers are objectified and told their abs are more important than their voice. You could say it’s an extension of artistic license given to creative professionals — if you want incredible art from incredible artists, that might come with baggage. You could say it’s because a singer’s job description is an aberration, including kissing coworkers publicly and sometimes barely clothed (in rehearsal).
That’s all bullshit. It happens for the same reason it happens in Hollywood, and why it used to happen in corporate America: because those in power are often perpetrators — and those who aren’t perpetrators allow it to happen. 

Read on here.




  • JRO says:

    “….Non-physical sexual harassment is even more prevalent. The director screaming at a young gay singer for effeminate physical mannerisms, the casting director who says a singer isn’t butch enough to be cast, the Artistic Director who tells a singer to change out of a shiny blazer at a gala because “our patrons are too conservative to handle it”. Is this harassment or just self-hating homophobia projected on to young singers? Regardless of your personal definition, what corporate America views as a hostile and fireable offense is excused in the arts as merely “a creative personality….”

    Don’t know how much this “retired” 32 yo singer has seen and don’t doubt some of the stories, but thankfully I have not seen anything this bad in the European industry in my 20+ years there. What he does describe above however, can be a real
    challenge for stage and casting directors. In the days of individuality, many young singers forget their sexuality is to be left at the door, whether gay or straight. It is all an illusion for a character to be played on stage or in concert. Expectations of mannerism in stage direction and certain codes of dress for representation of the company is just part of being a professional and not a form of harassment.

    • Robert Holmén says:

      They’ve just been to an opera where someone has been raped or murdered or beheaded or burned at the stake… but it’s the shiny blazer after the opera that’s a problem.

  • harold braun says:

    Yes.And it was even worse 30 years ago.

  • respect says:

    Yes, but don’t assume the heterosexual leadership who control theaters and competitions are any less culpable.

  • Alice in Wondeland says:

    “Opera is a very gay industry for much of the 20th century, maybe in the US anything goes not over here. Complete load of bollix, ballet is “gay” not opera, are all those Wagner characters closet gays, eg Siegmund, sieglinde, Wotan, Brunnhilde Hagen etc?

    • Max Grimm says:

      A load of bollox indeed. The overwhelming majority of characters in ballets are about as gay as Siegmund, Wotan, Brünnhilde, Hagen et al.
      I’m fairly certain that “gay industry” was not in reference to roles or characters.

  • Anonymous says:

    He doesn’t say that gay men are particularly vulnerable, he says his direct experience is all he can personally vouch for.

    Sexual harassment, both homosexual and heterosexual, is a persistent problem in this industry. Let’s hope that this begins a new era where the victims are believed and not cast aside – and that some of these offenders are rooted out and prosecuted.

    • Respect says:

      Except it’s a small business, and people are too terrified to speak out. Some of these people are as litigious as Weinstein. I understand the author was speaking of
      Lgbt (ive been harassed myself), but think, given the overwhelming power of a handful of straight men, it should not be overlooked. I do think one must carefully state what one believes harrasment to be, a few examples mentioned are good but not the most egregious abuses. sometimes there are totally appropriate sexual situations, which is the difficulty legally. But speaking out is very unlikely.

  • Analeck Kram-Hammerbauer says:

    It depends on what kind of people is in charge.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Just wait until the ballet world shines a light!

  • Respect says:

    The authors ability to make his argument is undercut by his photos. He chose to use his sexuality to promote his name, then seems surprised that he was a target.

    • Cyril Blair says:

      Uh, no.

      NOTHING justifies sexual harassment or abuse. Not your photos, your abs, your clothing, your lack of clothing, what you wear onstage, what you wear on the street, your sexiness or lack of it.

    • Whodat says:


    • Anonymous says:

      So basically your argument is that he was asking for it and that there is no point in speaking up, as nothing will change? It’s like the last 10 days never happened. But Weinstein proves that when people do speak out, things change.

      This is not a matter of someone touching someone else’s boob. I know of artists who have been raped, who’ve not only lost their career; but some of their sanity, too. Should we not speak up about that? And this is not a historical problem. This is not just occurring in those currently at the top of the industry, even. There are up and comers who are abusing. People I’ve seen reported on this site as the industry leaders of the future…

    • William Safford says:

      You may find the following article helpful to understand why your viewpoint is off base:

  • WorkingOperaSinger says:

    I’m posting anonymously because I am a working opera singer, but opera most definitely has a Harvey Weinstein problem. The former music director of WW Opera in the US was fired for it (after one year and that is the person the young artists were getting warnings about mentioned in Dan’s article). Women and gay men have it the worst. Numerous female singers have spoken to me directly about the pressure to sleep with conductors in order to maintain their career. The former music director of XX Opera did this all the time. YY is an open secret in the business, although it has diminished recently with his health. ZZ is extremely well known in opera circles to sleep with female singers and then cast them. Several major singers openly discuss sleeping with Z to get ahead including one of the leading Verdi sopranos. AA sleeps with men and women all the time and even has a literal casting coach. A recently fired, successful general director, sexually harassed every male singer (likely the company Dan mentioned) as did a recently retired music director of a summer festival. Singers are just as bad with many male singers shoving their tongues down people’s throats from the first day of rehearsal to get into “character.” This is a huge problem in every industry, but even more so when casting is so subjective and can be blamed on numerous factors. [Redacted in consideration of UK libel law.]

  • Bruce says:

    Abusers in power (abusers of power) can tell whose sense of self-worth is intertwined with their hope of success in the field: those are the ones who will be too afraid to say no.

    These people are predators; they have a predator’s instinct for prey.

  • BellaDonna says:

    It does exist but I doubt anyone from the business will speak openly about it .
    What about me – I can already write a book about all these nonsense stories that has happened to me already and yes , I am a young attractive female singer , but NO – nobody gives a right to them to make these offers and treat you like a sexual object. And yes, there are many ladies who take advantage of this system and doing pretty well , but NO – I can’t do that to myself, and of course I had to say good bye to some alluring career opportunities. Does it make it any easier ? Hell, no. But I believe that there’s another way of making my career and I promise : once I’m getting some stability and power, I will reveal all the names LOL

    • David R Osborne says:

      Belladonna, please think about what you just said. Don’t be part of the problem. Those who see themselves as having little choice but to acquiesce are victims.

      Bear in mind that you are hardly in a position to claim any sort of high moral ground when you are a) posting under a pseudonym and b) claiming you ‘have some dirt’ but not coming forward with details because at this stage it might harm your career.

  • stweart says:

    That’s “SHOW BUSINESS” !!!!

  • Sixtus says:

    I’m just waiting for the Eurotrash production of Weinstein as Scarpia in Tosca.

  • symphony musician says:

    I’ve always presumed there was at some point a real-life inspiration behind the following joke, which has been doing the rounds for at least 30 years:
    What’s the difference between an opera director and a baby? A baby sucks its fingers…

  • David R Osborne says:

    A problem inherent to all top-down, dissent averse systems. It flourishes in workplaces that have an oversupply of talented young people competing for very limited places. The larger that oversupply is, the more compliant those in the pool are forced to be.

    Crucially, problems with this kind of structure are in no way limited to this kind of abuse, awful though it is. In my experience, bullying of a non sexual nature has also always been rife in the music world, that too tends to get passed down from, indeed covertly encouraged by, those at the top.

  • herrera says:

    Name names!

    Until victims start to systematically name names and out and shame the perpetrators, sexual harassment will continue.

    • David R Osborne says:

      Herrera, problems like this will continue until the system either collapses, or voluntarily changes in a fundamental way.

  • PL says:

    Susanne Mentzer gave us a full rundown a year ago and she alludes to one of the greatest artists in our field who is known for sleeping with younger females and casting them in his productions

  • Hilary says:

    It would be worth considering preventative measures for this age-old problem. For example : classes at Music Conservativatoires called “life skills” where students are prepared for the possibilities of these encounters and advised the best way of handling the situation. Maybe via role-play etc.

  • Rufis says:

    GAYS ARE KILLING OPERA, GAYS RUN THE MUSIC BUSINESS Discrimination in these cases is real, they are not just employing the ones they fancy or adore…they employ the ones they get under, over or on top of their desks and the worst is that the Gays discriminate against the heterosexual male/female talent… be it directors, singers or conductors, especially manly ones who know how to conduct, sing or produce opera in a real fashion. The end will soon be here and the worst is no one will talk about it because everyone is scared and shitting their pants with fear. Fear they will never get hired or will get fired…. how do they know? because they see it every day in action from the excused tenor who is never in rehearsal to the conductor who is allowed to get up without knowing the score to pretend and to the assistant directors/dramaturges who are now agents or Intendants. People develop cancer, brain tumors or sicknesses which gets them fazed out either by death or other means. Shame on those who pray on others, shame on those who misuse their power and shame on those who are killing art ……as well as artists………the blood is on your filthy hands.

    • Steve P says:


    • David R Osborne says:

      I really hope that was a poorly judged attempt at satire.

    • Hilary says:

      It’s a bit of an over reaction. Gays don’t run the music business. Eg. the former/current director of the BBC Proms= straight.
      Some conductors were gay/bi. I concede : Bernstein, Boulez, Karajan and Mitropulous. Not many though.

      • Mark Henriksen says:

        Boulez? Site a reference on that one.

        • Cubs Fan says:

          “Music critic Norman Lebrecht, who knew Boulez personally, speculated that he was gay, citing the fact that for many years he shared his home in Baden-Baden with Hans Messmer,[1] whom he sometimes referred to as his valet.”


          • David R Osborne says:

            So a discussion on a serious issue like sexual assault in the workplace has all of a sudden become a speculation- fest as to whether or not PB was gay? It really shouldn’t come to this, especially in the light of the fact that he, as was his right, chose to keep his sexuality a private matter.

            But here then is our problem. In classical music, it is difficult to have a mature discussion on the important issues that should concern us all, because the traditional top-down structure has left us ill-prepared to do just that. As a consequence we either get people trying to shut the discussion down, or bat-shit crazy rants about a ‘gay conspiracy’ hell bent on destroying the art-form from within, such as the one above. Both of these responses are of course, equally unhelpful.

            Any individuals striving to a) speak out about the very real and serious issues we are confronted with and b) keep these discussions on a rational level, will very quickly find themselves picking their way through a minefield.

            It is not unreasonable to speculate on whether the behaviour of Pierre Boulez as an influential public figure in music, was indeed informed by his experience as a private gay man. Nor is it unreasonable to speculate whether his formative personal experiences in wartime, or for that matter the lack of public acceptance of his own work, might also have informed his public role. However, that speculation will only ever lead us on a path away from the ‘main game’. Someone like Pierre Boulez should never have been in a position in the first place to wield the sort of power that he did. Because nobody should. It’s called undue influence, and is a direct result of an art-form with a power structure that is fundamentally flawed. Sadly, as we have seen with institutions like the Catholic Church whose structure very much mirrors our own, that there can be other, even more insidious outcomes.

    • Bruce says:

      As Mr. T used to say: Stay on drugs. Don’t do school.

    • Steinway Fanatic says:

      Rufus, please, take your meds.

  • Anonymous says:

    @David – very well said. It’s almost as if a comment like that is written to deflect attention.

    Look, opera has a huge problem – and it hasn’t got any better in the decades I’ve worked in the art form. Take Germany, for example. An Intendant or an Operndirektor in a major German house wields enough power for him never to be questioned within his own organisation. In theory, the Sprecher assigned to the singers is there to defend their interests; but if the Intendant is already involved in the corruption, what happens then? In reality, major figures in a house can do pretty much whatever they want until someone sues. The singer could go to the Culture Minister for their region, I suppose; but then the Culture Minister rings the Intendant, and the Intendant says everything’s fine and gives a really, really nice reference to the Operndirektor the next job he applies to – and the singer gets fired when the next Fest Contracts come up. If you think it sounds a lot like the Catholic Church, it’s because it IS a lot like the Catholic Church.

    • rufis says:

      upon the meds thanks….. and you see … some are chiming in .. those who agree with me ar not mentioning who they are and what they do but somehow know and are leaving some words here… funny that..the rest of you, are in the club anyway… so you will do whatever it takes to defend the click… like most of hollywood… high school bullies, who believe they are above the rest and point fingers at others making fun like little queen bees… so poor….and in the end, all alone.

  • Purple says:

    funny now when one wants to speak or reply they will be blocked, o norman, your an asshole. in the club and acting just like the ones you try to throw under your bus.

  • Anonymous says:

    Horrifying and heartening to see how many opera singers are posting under the #metoo hashtag on Twitter and Facebook. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.