When it comes to opera, controversy is supposed to play out on the stage, for the entertainment of audiences and the promotion of the classic art form. Recently, though, opera has been in the headlines for much different reasons.
It began when international opera superstar Placido Domingo was accused of sexual harassment, leading to canceled shows and, essentially, the famed singer becoming an outcast in the U.S. According to various media reports, more than 20 women accused Domingo of “pressuring them” into relationships or otherwise “behaving inappropriately.” Some of these women added that, when they denied his advances, their careers suffered.
These public revelations prompted what some in the entertainment media have called a “time of soul searching” for power brokers and influencers in the opera community.
The communication coming from those sectors in the wake of the Domingo scandal has been mostly reactionary, though some proactive moves have been made. Leaders in the industry are making some claims about their intent to create “an environment free of sexual misconduct,” and yet many in the industry are telling the media there remains a strong stigma against speaking up.
One superstar not afraid to call it like she sees it is celebrated soprano Lauren Flanigan, who told the Associated Press, “The problem is so much bigger than Placido Domingo. It’s the whole environment… Almost every rehearsal I was ever in was sexualized… literally every rehearsal.”
One of the first responses to the building PR crisis was Domingo’s resignation from the Los Angeles Opera, where he had served as general director for 16 years. Domingo did not admit to any allegations, saying instead that the accusations “compromised” his ability to lead the company.
Shortly thereafter, one of the largest and most influential unions in the American opera industry, the American Guild of Musical Artists, began an investigation into the matter, saying the union did not trust the industry to conduct a fair and impartial probe on its own.
But neither action stemmed the tide of negative press. Singer Kyle Albertson went on record, telling the media that abuse was expected as part of the job. “I don’t think you could find one singer who has not been the victim of harassment, bullying, or abuse of some kind. I’m no exception.”
Albertson stopped short of naming names, but this only added fuel to the smoldering fire. As the industry moves into 2020, there are still some major PR issues for prominent decision-makers in the U.S. opera industry to address, and the dearth of positive or proactive counter-messaging isn’t helping.