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EDITORIAL: On Abuse and the Performing Arts

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes (1620). Events in the pioneering female painter’s own personal life four centuries’ past illustrate some of the complicated ways that sexual abuse has been and continues to be handled legally and socially in the arts.

Weinstein. Spacey. CK. Lauer. Keillor. The list goes on of powerful men in the media and entertainment industries whose careers are sinking faster than the Titanic after multiple and public allegations of sexual abuse. Opera took its own hit over the weekend, as what started as an anonymous allegation against the Metropolitan Opera’s James Levine erupted into a trio of public accusations.

As more witnesses and details come forward, it seems likely that the labels “alleged” and “accused” will disappear from the public discourse – at least about these particular figures. They will continue to show up in the media, however; libel and slander laws, as well as journalistic ethics and practices, require a particular way of describing things that is sometimes at odds with what we would like to say and print.

Things would be different if the above figures publicly confessed, went on record admitting abuse, or were convicted in a court of law. The latter is unfortunately unlikely – not only are many victims unwilling to go through the process, but they are often unable to afford a civil lawsuit after a statute of limitations has expired. In Levine’s case, the three men who have thus far made public accusations have described events so far in the past as to make a criminal prosecution unlikely.

It is important here not to blame the victims for their late reporting. Even when they have been willing to make accusations, one need only look at the extensive means – financial and otherwise – employed by Harvey Weinstein to browbeat, discredit, or buy off accusers. In Levine’s case, rumors are currently circulating that the Metropolitan Opera or its board members have maintained a fund to pay off victims for their silence. Anecdotes from my professional acquaintances suggest that these rumors have circulated in some shape or form for decades, annoyingly lacking in specifics. Rumors and hearsay, after all, are generally inadmissible in a court of law. They are also difficult to act on compared to having specific names and details on record.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes.

Leaf through certain Internet discussion forums and social media, and you will find many other accounts of dubious behavior by many people in the performing arts. Wander through the hallways of a conservatory or a summer performing arts camp and you will hear some of the same. What is to be made – and what is to be done – about the secondhand and thirdhand reports? On the rare times when accusations make their way into print, they are usually veiled or brushed aside. (See Norman Lebrecht’s timeline of various activities and accusations related to James Levine.)

So what should a responsible Human Resources department do if they catch ear of student scuttlebutt about teachers, visiting artists, or older students’ extracurricular behavior? What actions are appropriate in the absence of formal allegations and established proof? What should happen when the details are problematically vague? An internal communication by Anthony A. Bliss obtained by the New York Times appears to show how the Metropolitan Opera approached such a situation involving Levine in 1978-1979, following the Met’s receipt of an anonymous letter accusing Levine of sexual improprieties. (The accusatory letter, as well as the rest of the internal correspondence, has yet to publicly emerge.)

Bliss was a lawyer who left a thriving legal practice to become the Executive Director of the financially struggling Metropolitan Opera in 1974. When the letter was received, he had been with the Met for four years; it was roughly seven years after Levine had become the company’s principal conductor and three years after he was named Music Director. Bliss’s communication refers both to an internal investigation and to knowledge of external journalistic investigations, noting that the former found factually incorrect parts of the accusations and that the latter failed to uncover evidence to support rumors. As one might expect from his legal background, Bliss iterated the need for proof – and that the accusation did not stand up to scrutiny.

Another item in Bliss’s communication provides an odd window into attitudes in New York City in the 1970s. “There is no question that the opera, indeed the musical and theatrical world, does contain many people in important positions who are homosexuals,” Bliss wrote. “And this has always been the case and probably always will be…I do not believe that the existence of homosexuals within management, or for that matter on our Board, can be considered a cause for dismissal.” The phrasing suggests that the anonymous accusation was not of child abuse, but of homosexuality – an outing with significant potential ramifications in that day and age. Without the rest of the correspondence, it is impossible to know for sure.

There are no answers here, only a conclusion by question. What does your performing arts organization plan on doing if you receive an anonymous accusation about its personnel? What if you catch wind of a rumor of unsavory and/or illegal behavior at a party or on the Internet?

Basil Considine