This story includes a graphic discussion of sexual assault.
One night in July, wigmaster Jolie O’Dell turned out the lights and went to bed. She awoke, she says, to find herself being groped by her house guest, a bass-baritone opera singer named Matthew Stump. Stump masturbated as he fondled her; amidst the angry yelling that followed, he refused to leave the building. Finally, O’Dell grabbed his phone and threw it out the front door. Stump ran outside to retrieve the phone and O’Dell locked the door behind him. Over the next two weeks, she learned that her experience was far from unique – and that several of her colleagues had similar stories to tell about Stump.
The opera world, like theatre in general, can be infamously small at times. Matthew Stump had been a two-time Adler Fellow singing at San Francisco Opera; Jolie O’Dell (a working name, as is common in the entertainment industry) had pursued a successful career in tech journalism before making the jump into theatre. The two had met some years ago in a classic gig-economy situation: Stump helping O’Dell move for some extra cash. First connected by the freelancer site Taskrabbit, their lives became professionally intertwined in opera when O’Dell was engaged by San Francisco Opera to do wigs and makeup. Somewhere in there they started dating, but by the summer of 2017 the two had gone their separate ways – Stump to Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and O’Dell to other theatrical wig & makeup engagements around the Bay Area.
Showbiz has a reputation for blurred boundaries, but the stories that have rolled the opera world in the last year have been about anything but blurriness. The allegations against former Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine and others have continued to build, often with disturbing and graphic detail as more people have come forward. In this electronic age, what might have been passed off as hearsay is increasingly backed by damning electronic evidence, as recorded phone calls, text messages, and other communications are easily archived and shared.
It’s doubtful that James Levine will face criminal charges from any of the accusations that have thus-far come to light. The statute of limitations for prosecution is as short as 1 year in some jurisdictions, and most of the allegations thus far have been decades-old. Timely reporting to the authorities is thus a recommended best practice, but one rarely followed. Jolie O’Dell was an exception: within days of the incident, she went to the Central Marin Police Authority and filled out a witness statement. This step not only made a concrete record of her claims, but also allowed her to press charges. (The Arts Reader has obtained an uncensored copy of the statement, correspondence with the Central Marin Police Authority, copies of messages from Stump confirming the assault, and a now-deleted Facebook post by Stump containing a confession and apology. The statement uses O’Dell’s legal name and references her working name, per normal practice with official documents.)
Sexual assault and harassment are at least as much an issue in opera as any other field or industry. After several high-level firings and resignations – not to mention bad PR – the opera world’s leadership is taking more notice and action. OPERA America, one of the art form’s premiere professional organizations, scheduled a panel entitled “Confronting Sexual Harassment, Abuse and Assault” at this year’s conference. A regional conference for its counterpart the National Opera Association has a presentation entitled “Staging Intimacy in the #MeToo Movement” scheduled for this September.
A parallel set of conversations is gaining increasing volume on the ground level. Read the right Facebook forums or frequent audition hotspots, and you’ll see women trading warnings about singers, conductors, and artistic programs. It’s the oral equivalent of the Burn Book of Bad Men and similar lists that circulated in 2017. Sometimes these warnings are whispered conversations in corridors, sometimes words of advice to take a friend or meet in a public place, sometimes an “avoid at all costs” all-points-bulletin posted on Facebook or other social media. It’s not a perfect system – calling someone out on social media can degenerate into a virtual shouting match of supporters on each side – but it’s a clear attempt to say “No more!”
Fairly or unfairly, word of mouth rarely stops abuse or derails a career. In the case of James Levine, allegations went back decades, even appearing sporadically in print. Hard evidence can be difficult to come by; in that case, the pile of evidence only snowballed into his firing after a police investigation and several people stepping forward to be interviewed by a major newspaper. Anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that there must be many, many other cases overdue for a roasting in the spotlight.
So how might Jane or Joe Schmoe, opera singer, get wind that someone is a “Shitty Man”, as one of the infamous spreadsheets labeled them? One typical notification scenario unfolds like this: an individual – usually, but not always female – posts in a forum asking for advice:
- Such-and-such a conductor kissed me on the lips without permission.
- This director asked me to come to his apartment late at night for a coaching.
- A person who seems to hold my career in his hands – who I depend on for gigs and my livelihood – is putting his hands places where I am not comfortable.
- I was propositioned for sex.
- Should I say something?
- What should I do when I’ve asked them to stop and it keeps happening?
This scenario plays out any number of ways, sometimes online, and sometimes in the non-virtual world. Usually, sympathy and commiseration are offered. Often people come forward with similar accounts. Sometimes people offer to intervene. Only rarely is the accusation against someone who’s not male.
One thing that the #MeToo movement has done on a tangible level is made people aware that they are not alone or unique in their experiences of sexual misconduct. This realization makes a lot of people mad – not just a private anger, but a drive to say something and stop other people from experiencing the same trauma or manipulation. But what options are both practical and tangible? How publicly should you tell of your experience? Over all of this hangs a specific concern: whether or not the assaulted or harassed party is willing to go on record.
Being on record can mean many things depending on the context. If the incident was in a workplace setting, it could mean lodging a complaint with human resources, filing charges with the police, and anywhere in-between. If was outside of work, the police are always an option – some would say the best option, because it treats events with the seriousness and weight that they deserve.
The Internet Age brings with it another (and non-exclusive) option for going on record – going public on Facebook and other social media. This invites the court of public opinion to pass judgment, with all its pros and cons. Going public is both empowering and terrifying to people who really wish that the problem would just stop and that their life could get back to normal.
A decision to go on record is a personal calculus, usually balancing the assaulted or harassed party’s willingness to have the action take over and disrupt some part of their life. The disruption has no defined end date. It has no defined closure. It’s no surprise that in a tight-knit, ultra-competitive industry like opera, going on-record can bring a very real fear of being shut out of the industry. Is such-and-such a director friends with this other person I’m auditioning for? Will they back me up? What if I get a reputation for being difficult to work with? What if they don’t believe me?
The Numbers Game
That much of the opera industry hinges on personal relationships and networking is a huge factor in all sorts of decisions. So is the feeling of replaceability, especially if you’re young, female, and a soprano. In a recent Arts Reader study of five conservatory-level voice programs, eight of every ten students were women; by senior year, seven of those eight women were sopranos. (College singers often become recognized as sopranos as teachers help them unlock their higher register and top notes.) When they graduate, they enter an industry where the creative teams, backstage teams, and principal roles are predominantly male. It’s not a situation entirely unique to opera – theatre and music in general have this problem – but that’s cold comfort when you’re contemplating actions that might shut you out of your livelihood.
Most canonical operas from Mozart to present have far more leading men than women. After you subtract all the mothers, witches, and angry old women played by mezzos and contraltos, there aren’t too many choices for those sopranos who make up the vast majority of voice majors. Take Puccini’s Tosca, one of the most-performed operas in the world: it has just one woman – the titular Floria Tosca – among its nine featured roles. You can squeeze in a second woman by recasting the boy soprano, but that’s still just raises the numbers to 22%. Tosca is hardly an exception with its gender imbalance. Verdi’s La Traviata, another of the most-performed operas each year, has 12 named parts. Three (33%) are women, but one of them is a maid with just as many lines as you’d expect.
This casting situation is typical. While there are the occasional operas set in a harem, bordello, or nunnery, those operas barely register on the scale against the imbalance. Even a chorus part isn’t guaranteed; La Fanciulla del West, set in the Wild West, has an all-male chorus to go with its 18 principals – only two of whom are women and one of whom sings in just one scene. Like The Hunger Games, the odds are never in your favor if you’re an operatic soprano. (Much the same could also be said about musical theatre as well, a genre that many opera singers dip in and out of.)
With this backdrop, the thinking goes, is a conundrum. If you complain to a backstage or creative team that is primarily male, surrounded by men, who is going to be believed? If you get a reputation for speaking out, casting agents and directors might simply decide that you’re not worth the trouble. Why should they take a chance when there are so many talented and experienced people waiting in the wings, eager to take your part?
This problem doesn’t stop at the stage’s edge, nor does only involve sexual misconduct from the upper echelons. A similar imbalance and atmosphere extends to designers, directors, assistants, technicians, and even volunteers. It’s not for nothing that the Actors’ Equity Association now requires that companies hiring their members post clear, publicly available policies against harassment. Having a procedure doesn’t mean that it is used, though – a not small concern when one’s career seems to be on the line.
Closer to home, sexual misconduct on and off the theatrical stage is an unfortunately familiar headline. Last year, news broke that Gregory Stavrou, the former executive director of the Rochester Civic Theatre, had been accused of sexually harassing multiple women on the job. Stavrou is no longer with RCT, but only after years of allegedly groping, fondling, kissing, and propositioning different women there. As a Minnesota Public Radio investigation noted, two of the women stated that they were worried about reprisals and losing their positions if incidents were reported to the Board of Directors, the only entity in the organization with oversight over Stavrou.
This fear of reprisals is a direct consequence not just of a superior rank, but also the tilted numbers game facing women in theatre and opera. As Leah Cooper, co-artistic director of Wonderlust Productions, summarized it, “Every actor knows that if they upset a director, that director is not going to hire them again.” This is one of the essential problems in reporting sexual misconduct in the performing arts. It exists at every level, from a small community theatre to the heights of Broadway to the great opera houses of the world. In almost every story, you find someone who says they kept silent because of a culture of fear.
The fear is not just of reprisal. It’s also, sometimes, a fear that speaking up will do no good. A recent scandal at the Guthrie Theater included claims of sexual harassment by colleagues and supervisors in the company’s scene shop. According to several people involved, at least one supervisor took steps to block complaints and terminate the reporting and investigation process. Over in Wisconsin, whispers about Florentine Opera in Milwaukee’s William Florescu’s misconduct persisted for years before an internal investigation finally finished with his firing.
Hero worship – in this case, the idea that an artist can do no wrong because of their accomplishments – will hopefully go out of the window soon. If there are any signs that a “no more heroes” attitude is emerging, however, it’s largely for unfortunate reasons. Over in the TV/film world, actor Fred Savage of Wonder Years fame was accused of sexually harassing his costumer in 1993. At the time, the accusations did little to tarnish his name. In the sunlight of #MeToo, however, new allegations made this year – much more recent ones, by his costumer for The Grinder, caused a much larger media storm. (A related lawsuit is still ongoing.)
In an abstract world, the Harassment-Reporting-Disciplinary Action chain sounds easy to follow. But what should you do when it involves someone you know, or even have been intimate with before? What, indeed, if the misconduct falls outside of work?
The life of an early-career opera singer usually involves being an itinerant. You follow where the opportunities are, and if you’re lucky, people start chasing you. Those who work in and around opera tend to see their friends and associates coming in and out of their lives, depending on whether someone’s engaged for an extended season or a young artist program, or just in town for a gig.
Two years after Jolie O’Dell and Matthew Stump met during her apartment move, Stump was preparing for his own big move to New York City – home to the country’s greatest concentration of opera companies and well-paying singing engagements. From a bird’s-eye perspective, things looked pretty sweet: after finishing his time as an Adler Fellow, he’d sung at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Michigan Opera Theatre, and even finished his master’s degree. In this year’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, he was one of just 25 singers – and only 2 bass-baritones – to make it to the semi-finals in New York. He’d even been signed by Piper Anselmi Artists Management. Back in the Bay Area, O’Dell was running a successful theatrical wig business and testing the waters as an opera director.
By the spring of 2018, things seemed to be going pretty well for the two artists. O’Dell and Stump had navigated the post-breakup rapids and been just friends for years – happily so, according to her – and kept in touch. When the Met Auditions came calling, O’Dell flew out to New York City to help. She not only took his measurements, went shopping for him, and fitted his performance outfit, but also did barbering services, hairstyling, and makeup to get him looking his best for the competition. Stump didn’t progress further in the competition, but it was still a career highpoint. Afterwards, they started to talk about a reciprocal visit with his coming to the Bay Area for the 4th of July.
When Stump asked to stay at O’Dell’s place, it was not an unusual request. Their past acquaintance aside, such arrangements are commonplace in opera, especially among itinerant and auditioning singers. Ask any 10 singers crashing in New York and you’ll probably find some sleeping on floors, couches, air mattresses, or even one side of the host’s bed. The Bay Area’s skyrocketing rents put any “friend with a couch” or “friend with a free bit of floor” in extra demand. When O’Dell agreed to host Stump, though, signing up for sexual assault was furthest from her mind.
In a statement to the Arts Reader, O’Dell summarized the incident, stating,
After a night of unwanted groping in a shared bed, followed by a day of quarreling, I chose to spend the following night on the couch. In the morning, I returned to bed briefly and woke to a fully nude Stump masturbating next to me.
We had been close, but he had known for two days that my body was off limits. That was very clear. He tested the limit Sunday night. Monday night, I slept on the couch. Tuesday morning, he crossed the line.
On Media and Madness
While the biggest headlines of the #MeToo movement have been about the titans of the entertainment industry and their falls – the James Levines, the Harvey Weinsteins, the Kevin Spaceys, the Bill Cosbys – sexual assault and harassment can and do occur at any level, from top to bottom and organizations large and small. These celebrity cases notwithstanding, however, media coverage of sexual assault and harassment is limited as a whole. This creates a demand for communication met by informal whisper networks, as individuals try to make sense of allegations and second-hand stories. Does a Facebook or Twitter post count as enough? What if it’s a blog? What about Buzzfeed – a site made famous by fluffy lists and quirky videos, but which also broke the Kevin Spacey story?
News media has an important role in documenting allegations of sexual misconduct, and speaks with a weight often beyond an individual’s isolated voice. But media can also be slow to respond to breaking events, and even on major stories it can take years for the investigation to manifest in an exposé. The mandates for fact-checking, accountability, and integrity are ultimately a good thing, but timeliness is not always the news media’s foremost virtue. The long process of gathering and examining evidence also makes the process vulnerable to subversion, allowing Harvey Weinstein to directly and indirectly buy victims’ silence for decades. This has led to a still-new phenomenon: victims of misconduct taking their allegations and evidence and posting them online for the court of public opinion to decide.
T.E. Carter wrote, “The court of public opinion moves much faster than the law.” It also follows none of the law’s obligations, and as a bypassing of the journalistic checks and balances has a great potential for abuse. At their best, though, public accusations on social media work the same was as Émile Zola’s famous “J’accuse” letter. Zola was tried and convicted of libel, but the letter set in motion a tidal wave of public opinion that eventually reached the courts. The final outcome exonerated Alfred Dreyfus of anti-Semitic charges of treason, validating Zola. When people out someone online for sexual misconduct, being the start of a lasting change is one of the their hopes.
Proof is a tricky thing, and often expensive to obtain. In a “he said, she said” situation with only two parties and no witnesses, it may be impossible to determine. Nor are the numbers of allegations and accusers necessarily read as damning or producing legal results. After all, more than one U.S. presidential candidate has dodged allegations of sexual misconduct all the way into the Oval Office. Then there’s the fear that comes from living in a society that’s famously litigious. When people post their allegations on the Internet, the moderators of Internet forums, groups, and discussion boards often ask this: What is my liability and responsibility for allowing people to post allegations that aren’t backed up by legal filings, confessions, or documentation in the media?
This is not an idle discussion for members of the larger Twin Cities theatre community, a body that includes many opera professionals. Up until last fall, one of the community’s prime online gatherings was an active Facebook group called Twin Cities Theater People. On the morning of October 23, 2017, the long-running group had more than 6,000 members, mostly people working in, studying, or otherwise passionate about theatre. By the late evening, however, the group had shut down. The trigger? Member warnings about an actor “with a reputation” moving from Los Angeles to the Twin Cities, setting off an incredibly polarizing debate about allegations, proof, character assassination, liability, and censorship that eventually spun out of control.
Adding fuel to the fire of social media is a new wrinkle: with the advent of smartphones, it’s incredibly easy to record conversations and phone calls, take screenshots of text messages, and record events on video. This is theoretically a good thing: when Anthony Weiner sent sexually explicit messages to a minor, a crime for which he was convicted, preliminary evidence could be gathered simply by taking screenshots on a smartphone. Such evidence can help push someone accused of sexual misconduct out the door, but what if it’s not a sexually explicit photograph, but a damning conversation instead?
Legal and Other Standards for Behavior
The U.S. Department of Justice describes sexual assault as “any nonconsensual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks a capacity to consent.” Read through the U.S. Code of Laws and you’ll find a more detailed set of definitions, of which that of criminal sexual contact is germane: “the intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person”.
By this standard, a hand on the back or leg might be defended as legally ambiguous. A hand on the buttocks with visible and stated sexual intent is not – especially when the other party is sleeping and has explicitly said “No” prior. While the social norms and standards for consent are shifting in some communities, especially on college campuses, there appears to be little wiggle room here. O’Dell states that she directly refused sexual advances from Stump for several days leading up to the alleged assault, a statement backed up by electronic messages.
In the days that followed the assault, Stump sent O’Dell dozens of electronic messages. Some were words of apology. Some were an attempted defense of his actions, claiming that O’Dell had “not been involved” despite the touching. Then there were the threats, pleading, and negotiation.
“Look, I messed up,” reads one. “It does not nullify everything.” The next day, “I’m here if you ever need someone.” A few days later, “You’ve crossed the line…This is the last time you will hear from me without legal council [sic].”
Perhaps one of the more revealing aspects of the #MeToo scandal is how little words matter when not supported by actions. Weinstein, after all, was once held up as (and cultivated an image of himself as) a champion of women. In Stump’s messages, he alternately professes innocence and ignorance, presents himself as a victim, and promises reformation and reconciliation. (Much of this was despite O’Dell’s repeated requests that he stop contacting her.) After O’Dell posted publicly about the incident on Facebook – and filed a signed witness statement with the police – the tone of his messages switches to what might charitably be called emotional blackmail and threats.
As part of its investigation into the July incident, the Arts Reader obtained messages from three different women reporting similar behavior by Stump. One woman, Jennifer Abigail Martin, spoke to the Arts Reader about having Stump over as a houseguest in October 2016. One day, she said, she awoke to find Stump not only in her bedroom, but also naked and pressing his erection against her. Another woman recounted waking up to find Stump committing what she characterized as disturbing acts of sexual aggression while she was sleeping.
Arguably the worst “apology” of the #MeToo movement was Kevin Spacey’s coming out, in which he simultaneously denied remembering abusing an underage Anthony Rapp and announced that he himself was gay. Spacey’s blatant attempt at misdirection was lambasted in the press and on social media, and his theatre/film/tv career collapsed. Still, his case was more the exception than the rule, and Spacey’s estimated $100 million personal wealth leaves him well-to-do at the end of the day.
In some of his messages, Matthew Stump promised that he would reform and make amends. O’Dell asked him to make a public apology; if he did so, they agreed, she would drop the charges. The apology went up on Facebook, with its privacy set to Public, so O’Dell wrote the officer in charge of the case as agreed. Within one minute of that email going out, however, Stump had deleted the posting. Its total time online? About six minutes.
The now-deleted post states, among other things, “While I was Jolie O’Dell’s houseguest two weeks ago, I violated her consent. I touched her sexually and masturbated fully nude next to her, knowing that she would not have consented…” One is tempted to draw parallels with the now-disgraced comedian Louis C.K., who admitted to several incidents where he masturbated in front of younger, female comedians. While Louis C.K. has retreated from the spotlight, however, his public apology stands. Stump didn’t stop with deleting his apology; by the day’s end, his Facebook account was no longer visible, either deleted or set to Private.
Those six minutes that the post was online were eventful ones. Soon after Stump posted his apology, commentators began lambasting his behavior. This continued even after the post was deleted, thanks in part to O’Dell and others grabbing and sharing screenshots. As other people started their own posts, sometimes tagging Stump, he began to individually block them on Facebook. Soon, they descended on the blog portion of his professional website as well, leaving excoriating comments. Soon, Stump deleted that portion of his website, removing all personal contact information. As an image protection device, perhaps, it worked in the short term – but as they say, the Internet never really forgets.
Following an Arts Reader’s inquiry, San Francisco Opera’s Director of Communications Jon Finck released a statement, saying,
San Francisco Opera was not aware of this alleged incident between Matthew Stump (former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow 2015 and 2016) and Jolie O’Dell (not real name) (freelance wig/make-up artist for two operas in 2016) until your email surfaced today.
Both Matthew Stump and Jolie O’Dell do not currently work for San Francisco Opera and have not been associated with the company since 2016. It is important to note that our understanding is both individuals originally met and formed a friendship/association prior to their working for the Company. San Francisco Opera maintains a very strong anti-sexual harassment policy and has always required all company members to adhere to the highest standards of professional conduct. Neither physical or verbal sexual harassment is tolerated behavior. While San Francisco Opera is now aware of this troubling and serious allegation between Mr. Stump and Ms. O’Dell, it would appear that this is a most private and urgent matter between these individuals.