You are here
Home > Arts > FEATURE: Threats, Quid Pro Quo Harassment, & Obscene Messages: Abuse on an Operatic Scale

FEATURE: Threats, Quid Pro Quo Harassment, & Obscene Messages: Abuse on an Operatic Scale

Photo by Toni Maksan.

[Editor’s update: Following the June 18th publication of this article, Stephen Lord resigned from Michigan Opera Theatre and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.]

[Warning: This article includes a detailed discussion of sexual harassment.]

“If you sleep with me, you would have so many jobs.”

“I could cast you in so many things…”

“I could make or break your career.”

“If only you’d slept with me…”

“One word from me…”

These are not made-up lines in a playscript. These are actual statements made by opera conductor Stephen Lord to opera singers, conductors, and pianists at some of the nation’s most prestigious opera companies. These statements are the tip of an iceberg of repeated and pervasive sexual harassment behaviors by Lord over the past decade.

Stephen Lord’s actions emerged during a year-long investigation by the Arts Reader into sexual harassment and abuse in the U.S. opera industry. For our investigation of Maestro Lord, as he is often known, we interviewed more than two dozen individuals who made harassment claims. We also collected copies of emails and other electronic messages by Lord and others, obtained corroborating statements from third parties, and spoke with the representatives of several opera companies at which Lord was employed. The findings not only document pervasive and persistent actions by Lord, but also how the threat of power and prestige silenced his victims.

Background

Conductor Stephen Lord’s official publicity photo. Photo by Christian Steiner.

Imagine that you are a young, up-and-coming professional in a highly competitive field. For years, you have been told about the importance of meeting and networking with the most powerful men in the industry. Then, the day comes – you have your chance to show one of these rare individuals what you have to offer. In the middle of your make-or-break moment, however, they lean over and say, “If you sleep with me…” You would never consider saying yes – but what would happen if you reported the sexual harassment, and it was your word against theirs?

Stephen Lord is one of those powerful men. As his official biography on Barrett Artists’ website proclaims, he was “chosen by Opera News as one of the ’25 Most Powerful Names in U.S. Opera’.” Over the years, he has headed some of the country’s most prestigious opera training and opera-making programs, including almost 40 years’ association with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and 17 years as the music director and principal conductor at Boston Lyric Opera. He has been involved in various capacities with several Young Artist Programs (YAPs) for training early-career opera professionals, as well as conservatory teaching, master classes, and advising.

To an early-career musician working in opera, Lord’s influence is hard to miss. Work under his baton and you’ll see that official biography splashed across the staff pages. Watched the finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions one year? You might have seen him. Read the bios of opera stars? His name jumps out of the credits and lists of prestigious teachers. His career includes ample work with the “who’s-who” of opera, and Lord is routinely listed high in the ranks of companies’ artistic and administrative leadership, often as principal conductor.

Public vs. Private: Perceptions and Reality

To the general public, Maestro Lord is one of the opera world’s luminaries, one of an elite number of super-conductors. Whether a visiting music director joining one production at a time, or in his regular capacity as Resident Conductor at several opera companies, he brings musically impeccable credentials, a flair with the baton, and a reputation for finding and cultivating exciting young talent. Countless reviews testify to his well-acknowledged musical talents. Behind the scenes, however, lies a much darker story.

“I learned to fear Maestro Lord,” said one singer who worked with the conductor at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “And to dread his messages.” Another musician, who encountered Lord as a young vocal coach-in-training, recalled, “I was warned to be careful around Lord – even before I met him. I was told to expect overtures, and to be careful how I acted. Redirect or ignore, but don’t report him – that’s career suicide.”

Is “career suicide” too extreme? Not if you’re plugged into some of opera’s whisper networks – unofficial channels in which information is exchanged. These days, whisper networks take many different forms – sometimes a WhatsApp group message chain, sometimes a private Facebook group, and sometimes old-fashioned, “off the record” verbal advice. Opera’s whisper networks are full of cautionary tales, anecdotes, and warnings – many of them about histories of unheard complaints and retaliation.

Whisper networks have many uses, but also some pitfalls. One pitfall is the trouble translating anecdotal accounts into coherent data, to give warnings lasting effect. Another is the inherent opposition between “safe” anonymity and knowing who to believe. These factors collided last year in one social media-based whisper network, when some singers began creating their own version of 2017’s crowdsourced Shitty Media Men spreadsheet for opera. Allowing anonymous edited backfired: some contributors started maliciously editing entries, scrubbing complaints; within a week, the effort was dead.

Predatory Grooming

The steps of predatory grooming.

There’s a term used to describe how some sexual predators work their way into the lives of potential victims: grooming. The term – once more narrowly applied – describes a process used by predators to gain contact with and desensitize their targets. Acquiring contact information is an early step in the grooming process; in Lord’s case, the rise of Facebook and its messaging service gave an easy way in – which, by coincidence, wouldn’t have been tracked by organizational email systems.

“One of the first things we [the whole cast and creative team] did after the first rehearsal was friend each other on Facebook,” said one singer, who worked with Lord at a North American opera company that he asked not be identified. “It’s just something you do – it’s networking, you want to tag people in photos and posts about the performance. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

That was before the Facebook messages started to arrive – entirely unsolicited and, after a quick read, quite unwelcome. “Stephen just messaged me out of the blue,” the same singer said. “I remember it was kind of inappropriate and I deleted it immediately. That was followed by ‘I hope I didn’t offend you.’ I didn’t engage, but the messages kept coming. And they got worse and more sexually explicit.”

Ignoring the messages didn’t make them stop. Nor did asking not to be messaged – as shown in multiple sets of Facebook messages provided to the Arts Reader. If confronted, Lord often would claim that his message was an off-color joke. Then, after an interval, his messages resumed.

That deflection and subtler manipulations of the truth are characteristics of Lord’s verbal and written sexual overtures. They’re also important actions in Steps 4 and 6 of the grooming process of abuse: isolating the victim and maintaining control. If that sounds familiar, you may have heard it from one of the scandals of yesteryear. (James Levine used cult-like ultimatums like “If you pick me, you will close the door, step into this house, and be with me forever.” Also being on the list of opera’s 25 most powerful probably did not hurt Levine’s aura.)

Several singers who worked under Lord’s baton at the English National Opera and Opera Maine relayed stories of Lord mixing professional and sexual overtures, putting a dark spin on the “Come coach with me” invitation common between singers and conductor-coaches. A singer who coached Lord during his time at the New England Conservatory similarly recalled the conductor advising them to leave their teacher – something that opera’s whisper networks hasten to label a big red flag.

The Law

The Code of Federal Regulations describes several potential conditions for identifying forms of sexual harassment:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Arguably the easiest to prove is the first category, what is commonly termed quid pro quo harassment. This was plainly seen in some of the electronic messages supplied by Lord’s targets, in which the conductor responded to complaints about these offers by making jokes, sometimes offering different variations. The second category, however, can be very difficult to prove. Did you not get the gig because someone sang better than you, or because the panel had someone else in mind, or because someone’s blackened your name? What if it’s an audition panel for something like the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, where even a slight change in the vote could ruin your progression?

Proving that an employment decision was linked to unwelcome sexual advances and other behaviors is an especially difficult thing in opera. Most opera companies have a relatively small core staff, with most musicians classified as contractors. The industry’s major professional pathway to the top, Young Artist Programs, are highly competitive and prone to recruiting interventions (good and bad) by high-profile artists.

These high stakes and the leverage that they might provide did not escape notice. Three individuals interviewed about Lord recalled his dangling access to YAPs at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Michigan Opera Theatre (the latter more formally known as the Michigan Opera Theatre Studio). Others had stories of his “offering” to pull strings with other programs, with quid pro quo demands that raised from subtly veiled to impossible to miss. Lord’s potential leverage was large, and the fear of making an enemy out of him even greater.

“I felt powerless,” said one singer who worked with Lord on several productions and found himself on the receiving end of repeated, unwanted messages. “I thought he’d be an advocate in the future to help me be hired at different companies. When someone holds that much power in this industry, it takes so much to speak out against it, and I still feel that way. I fear blacklisting.”

The Veil of Silence

The first time I heard of misconduct by Stephen Lord was around 2012, when I was a doctoral student in music at Boston University. One evening in the BU College of Fine Arts basement, I overheard a pair of students from the New England Conservatory of Music who were sitting in the lounge and talking in veiled tones. (Then, as now, BU’s state-of-the-art practice rooms frequently become an unofficial practice home to NEC students on nights and weekends.) The two were discussing how to respond to an indecent overture by Lord, one of the city’s leading opera conductors – and, to make the lines of power even clearer, a man recently ensconced as the NEC Opera program’s artistic advisor. The reasons for doing nothing, they enumerated, included casting repercussions, threats to financial aid, and being labeled as “difficult to work with” – a term often used in opera as a cover for blacklisting someone who complains.

Seven years later, when interviewing people for this story, not a lot has changed. Being an early-career opera singer can be a hand-to-mouth lifestyle filled with scrimping and stretching to make ends meet, waiting for paychecks to arrive, and traveling wherever someone will have you. Putting up with sexual harassment is rarely someone’s first choice, but the fear of a financial chasm has a chilling effect on reporting. One of the oldest people who agreed to be interviewed for this article, a singer now in their mid-30s, explained it in these terms: “It makes me sick to think about this, but what am I supposed to do? I made $25,000 last year and it was one of my better years; I don’t have a financial safety blanket and I don’t have money for a lawyer. It only takes Stephen thinking that it was me and then I’m out of work. I have a family and I can’t take that kind of risk, even now.”

Perhaps one of the hardest ironies of the #MeToo era is that many people now desperately yearn to tell their stories of harassment and abuse, while being even less confident of response and action. In the comedy world, Louis C.K. is again performing, even after the fallout of public accusations and his confession. In the symphonic music world, Daniele Gatti was fired by a Dutch orchestra for harassment but hired the next season by the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Read the news and several high-profile artists still deny that there’s even an issue. It’s no wonder that if you hang out on one of those opera whisper networks, you’ll see almost every story of harassment and abuse paired with an “I said something and they did nothing” response in the comments.

“It’s ironic,” said one singer. “To perform Rigoletto and Don Giovanni – opera about men behaving badly – and have the same thing happening off-stage.”

A Coverup, A Surprise, and a Twist

An email from Stephen Lord about Matthew Stump’s hiring by Michigan Opera Theatre.

Back in July 2018, an investigation by the Arts Reader published several women’s sexual assault allegations against one Matthew Stump, a bass-baritone who was quickly dropped by his artist agency. Stump soon disappeared from the opera scene, but on Wednesday, June 12th, the British music critic Norman Lebrecht noted that Matthew Stump had been hired by Michigan Opera Theatre for its October production of Don Giovanni. His role-to-be? Leporello – the manservant who enables Don Giovanni’s seductions and rapes. “The opera industry has issues with short-term memory,” Lebrecht opined dryly.

Also at Michigan Opera Theatre was its Principal Conductor, Stephen Lord – the man scheduled to lead its season-opening gala, Sweeney Todd, and Pagliacci. As it turns out, Lord was advocating for Stump behind the scenes, while simultaneously engaging in victim blaming and character assassination against Stump’s accusers – several of who themselves work in the U.S. opera industry.

As news of Stump’s hiring spread, a storm of social media and subscriber criticism whipped up. Michigan Opera Theatre’s Facebook page was besieged by complaints, and on Thursday, June 13th – just one day after the casting decision reached the media – the company responded to these posts with a public message: “Michigan Opera Theatre strives to respond to social media posts within 24 hours. Due to the serious nature of this issue, we will provide a statement by noon tomorrow, June 14. Please know that we take this very seriously, and we appreciate your patience.”

Behind the scenes, Lord was attempting to deflect criticism of Stump. In an internal email obtained by the Arts Reader, the maestro was free in his criticisms of others. Norman Lebrecht – one of Britain’s most-respected music critics – was a “muck raker”. One of the women who’d accused the singer of sexual assault? Just a gold-digging, would-be blackmailer. The strategy, one designed to maintain control of the message, is #6 on the list of predatory grooming habits. This variation was a close relation to gaslighting, a strategy of twisting the narrative to confuse, befuddle, and ultimately disempower victims.

On Friday, June 14th, however, MOT made its next response on schedule, stating that it “will be making a casting change for the role of Leporello in the company’s fall 2019 production of Don Giovanni. Casting details will be forthcoming.” Stump was out.

Confuse, Befuddle, Disempower

Stephen Lord Quits Facebook, Blames Others

The day that Matthew Stump’s firing from MOT broke, Stephen Lord made his own post to Facebook. “Greetings [sic] friends!” it read. “Lesson learned these last days: no good deed goes unpunished. Defending an artist in whom I have believed – as I have with so many of you – I did it on social media and answering a far from kind email thread. This has come back to haunt me in a thoroughly unhappy way. I fell into the Internet Trap…” With that, and a few other remarks, Lord announced that he would be shutting down his Facebook account.

Whatever the dubious sincerity of these platitudes, it would be difficult for Lord to plausibly deny any awareness of his own culpability. Several persons sent the Arts Reader before-and-after screenshots of the conductor’s Facebook messages, showing how he periodically deleted obscene image attachments and then tried to twist the narrative and play down their severity. The “pernicious place”, as he called it, was getting wise.

Official Responses

Fears and perceptions have a chilling affect on incident reporting, whether it’s to the press or to the opera companies that employ performers and creative staff like Stephen Lord. In practical terms, the result undercuts new efforts at many opera companies to build a safe creative space and publicize anti-harassment policies. If fears of retaliation preemptively stop reporting in its tracks, it’s hard for an organization to act…and how to solve that problem is an open question.

This problem – or, some say, a reputation or expectation – afflicts companies large and small. Caroline Koelker, the Executive Director of Opera Maine (formerly PORTopera), noted that the company includes a clearly labeled sexual harassment policy in its artist contracts, and posts related materials in rehearsal rooms. As one singer summarized their concerns, however, “There are four people on staff for Opera Maine. One of them is Lord, and I…am replaceable. They can’t replace what I’d lose financially, even if they replace him, too.” It’s not surprising in a small shop that, as Opera Maine stated, “There had been no complaints to the artistic or executive directors,” the company’s two personnel for hearing harassment complaints.

Things are not much different at the much larger Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where Lord – now the Emeritus Music Director – still casts a long shadow. In a communication with the Arts Reader, Anh Le (Acting Director of Marketing & Public Relations) enumerated several efforts made to promote the company’s anti-harassment policies, including expanding the numbers, genders, and age variety of people to whom problems could be reported. OTSL also distributes copies of its sexual harassment policies to all singers, instrumentalists, volunteers, and staff. However, a chilling balance of numbers still exists. While eight musicians spoke to the Arts Reader on-record about Lord’s harassing them at OTSL, none were willing to lodge a complaint through official channels. “I like still working in opera,” said one pianist.

After being contacted by the Arts Reader, the English National Opera issued the following statement:

ENO is horrified to learn that allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment have been made against a freelance artist whilst he was employed by the company several years ago.

ENO has a zero tolerance approach to any form of misconduct such as those that have been alleged, and are committed to providing a safe and respectful workplace for all. This is evidenced by our Dignity at Work and Code of Conduct policies. 

We take any such allegations extremely seriously and will offer our full support to any investigation that may follow these allegations.

So long as actions must predate changes in perception and the reality of precedent, it’s a problem without a solution.

Postscript: J’Accuse

One of the most famous essays in history is Émile Zola’s J’Accuse…!, an indictment of the French national government’s unjust persecution of Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was French, Jewish, an army officer, and the chosen scapegoat – an innocent man made a victim. It’s a topic that would make a great opera some day. The events recounted in this story would make a terrible opera, because that’s what they already are.

This article bears my name, so it falls to me to make Zola’s accusation. Stephen Lord, j’accuse.

 

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017. He was previously the Regional Governor for the National Opera Association's North Central Region.
Top