Of five qualities associated with sexual violence, the classical music world hits four of them.

What We Can All Learn From the #MeToo Moment at the Opera

What We Can All Learn From the #MeToo Moment at the Opera

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Better Life Lab
The Future of Work, Gender, and Social Policy
Dec. 12 2017 10:00 AM

Advocates Have Found Five Qualities Associated With Sexual Violence. The Classical Music World Hits Four of Them.

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Last week, the American sex abuse crisis reached the most elite and rarefied echelon of “entertainment”: the opera house. And while most Americans may never have seen The Marriage of Figaro, the classical music field is a surprisingly tidy case study in the environmental factors that make sexual abuse—and its cover-up—possible.

The conductor James Levine—who for four decades was the principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera—has been accused of sexual abuse by four different men, whose claims date as far back as the 1960s. Levine has denied the accusations, calling them "unfounded." Within the tightknit professional music community, rumors of Levine’s alleged behavior had long been an “open secret.” Now, it appears the lives of at least four young musicians may have been permanently altered by his alleged abuse of power.

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Although the stories about Levine’s alleged abuse are heart-wrenching, he’s not a figure that means much to most Americans. The average person isn’t wringing her hands about whether she can still ethically enjoy Levine’s recordings. But mainstream society, now awash in tarnished names much more famous than Levine’s, can learn something from the #MeToo moment at the opera.

Classical music institutions like the Met don’t have to dig very deep in order to understand where things went wrong. Through decades of research, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center—which rose out of the feminist rape crisis movement of the 1970s—has identified five problematic norms that contribute to an environment in which sexual violence takes place. As a workplace and as an art form, classical music is at risk in four of them. (The fifth one, normalizing violence, is less applicable—but tolerance of aggression and victim blaming make it a harder one to eliminate than you might think.)

Norms about women. Oppression, objectification, and limited roles for women are all markers of an environment where people of all genders could become victimized. While women have been winning orchestra jobs in increasing numbers (particularly since the advent of the blind audition), the most revered roles in the industry—composer and conductor—are still largely reserved for men. Of 103 high-budget orchestras in the United States, just 12 have female conductors at the helm. And when the Baltimore Symphony surveyed the 2016–17 programming of American orchestras, it found that just 1.3 percent of the selected music had been written by women. Classical music still hasn’t placed enough women in positions of true power, and that means all of its workplaces are at risk.

Norms about power. Where unequal power dynamics live, sexual abuse can thrive. Unequal power relations and strict hierarchies are deeply ingrained into the functioning of almost every symphony orchestra. In a typical rehearsal, the power of the conductor is absolute: He makes every artistic decision, is the only person who speaks, and in many organizations is still referred to as “maestro” (which translates roughly to “master”).

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Michael Lewanski, a conductor and assistant professor of music at DePaul University in Chicago, has experienced firsthand the tremendous power and reverence given to conductors. “The concentration of power in the classical music industry serves everyone poorly,” he said. “It puts many musicians and students in positions where they are powerless—or rather, positions where they have given away the power they have as humans. That’s how a well-meaning, hard-working teenager [like Levine’s accusers] ends up in a position to be exploited, sexually or otherwise, by a figure they’ve been trained to deify. And the conductor’s training is very much the opposite. His worst behaviors are enabled and excused.”

Norms about masculinity. Traditional constructs of manhood are another risk factor for a culture of sexual violence. And perhaps the most significant trope in professional classical music is that of the genius—the male genius. Using data gathered from more than 14 millions reviews on RateMyProfessor.com, professor Ben Schmidt of Northeastern University found that students in music were more than twice as likely to use the word genius about a male professor than a female one. (Music students were also more likely to use the word genius than students from any other discipline.)

The trope of the genius conductor remains persistent—even in coverage of his demise. On Dec. 6, as readers began to respond to the Levine accusations, the New York Times printed some letters to the editor under the exasperating headline: “Artistic genius and sexual misconduct.” Continuing to use this language is a perpetuation of the problem: It was precisely this insistence on male hero-worship that led to Levine’s impunity in the first place.

Norms about privacy. Overvaluing individual privacy fosters a climate of secrecy in which abuse can take place undetected—and a great deal of classical music training takes place in an extraordinarily private setting.

“Musicians choose a conservatory based almost entirely on a mentorship with one teacher,” said Patti Niemi, longtime percussionist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. “We spend an hour a week behind a closed door. This teacher then has the opportunity to tell you he’s fallen in love with you, that you’re the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up, and to kiss you. With these powerful mentors, we have no options once the abuse begins.” Niemi’s book, Sticking It Out, chronicles the harassment and abuse she endured at the hands of her percussion teacher—and her ultimately triumphant struggle to continue her career.

Throughout his career, Levine too has appealed to the notion of privacy, deflecting questions about what he called his “private life.” In a 1998 interview with the Times, Levine said: “When you do your work in public, your biggest responsibility to that public is to do what is necessary to protect and develop your talent.” The idea here is that Levine’s talent—his genius—is a precious commodity that must be given quiet room to rest. But it was within this proverbial private space that Levine likely would have conducted his alleged abuse. By nurturing his and others’ right to privacy above security and scrutiny, classical music has likely lost a great deal of genius to unseen abuse.

The conductor of the Boston Symphony, Andris Nelsons, recently put his foot in his mouth when he asserted that sexual misconduct wasn’t a serious problem for classical music. Later, in some backpedaling remarks, he said: “Though involvement in music … can’t cure all the ills of society, I do believe [it] has the potential to help us reflect ... on the better angels of our natures. Or more simply put by Beethoven—the genius composer of the ‘Ode to Joy’ symphony, considered the universal anthem of brotherly/sisterly love—‘Music can change the world.’ ”

It would be nice to pretend that musicians worked in the same utopia Beethoven imagined centuries ago. But the workplace is not yet as beautiful as the art. Making the concert hall a more humane place will require a particular kind of creative work: the work of culture change. This is a task not for a lone genius, but for a symphony of ordinary human beings who choose not to avert their eyes or their ears.

Better Life Lab is a partnership of Slate and New America.

Ellen McSweeney is a musician, writer, and social worker-in-training with a special interest in trauma. She spent two decades training and performing as a classical violinist, and has previously published essays on musicians’ mental health, sexism in contemporary music, and PTSD in professional performers.