A series of electronic communications related to ex-Opera Theatre of Saint Louis employee Damon Bristo.
Scandal hit Opera Theatre of Saint Louis on Tuesday, August 11. One of the company’s senior officials, Damon Bristo, had been arrested and charged with child sex trafficking. This was news to the public, but not to the administration: for more than a week, OTSL leadership sat on the news while quietly whitewashing the company’s online footprint.
This lack of prompt public action and communication at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is not unusual. In fact, it’s become part of an unofficial playbook for how many organizations respond to sex-related scandals in the #MeToo era. While the August 11 incident may have taken place a comfortable 500 miles south of the Twin Cities, the sequence of events is hardly unique. Indeed, it parallels events currently unfolding at Theatre in the Round, one of the Twin Cities’ oldest and most beloved theatre organizations.
This article is Part 1 in a new series on how artists, arts organizations, and adjacent institutions respond to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Deny. Obfuscate. Explain away. Ignore. Mount personal attacks.
“I’m sorry, we messed up” is not a phrase that public relations managers like to say. Indeed, corporate spokespersons are often trained to avoid admitting fault at all costs due to perceived legal liability. That’s one of the reasons that most so-called corporate apologies are in odd areas where there is no expected liability, or are statements that are entirely divorced from substantive action. These are the “we strongly condemn” and “hopes and prayers” missives of the corporate world.
In a way, it’s not surprising that for-profit corporations act this way. After all, the directors of most publicly traded corporations have a fiduciary duty to prioritize shareholders’ financial interests. You might expect that a non-profit organization, ostensibly chartered for the public good, would act differently in a case of reported sexual misconduct. This is often not the case.
In 2002, at the height of the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal, church leaders publicly stated that they were serious about accountability and review. To ensure this, they said, they appointed Frank Keating – among other things, a former governor for the State of Oklahoma – to the Catholic Church’s national Review Board. A year later, he resigned with an infamous letter lambasting Catholic bishops for obstructing his investigation.
Keating, a lifelong Catholic, did not mince his words. “To resist grand jury subpoenas,” he wrote, “to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church.”
The tactics that Keating called out – hiding information, denying problems, obfuscating the situation, and offering excuses – are now unfortunately familiar in classical music’s #MeToo movement. Another aspect, now increasingly become visible to the public in the Internet Age, is the threat of legal action.
“Weinstein used nondisclosure agreements like the one Gutierrez signed to evade accountability for claims of sexual harassment and assault for at least twenty years. He used these kinds of agreements with employees, business partners, and women who made allegations…who signed under pressure from attorneys on both sides.”
–Ronan Farrow, The New Yorker
It was relatively easy to bury information in the pre-Internet Age, a time when newspapers were difficult to search. Spreading personal stories widely required navigating a system of journalism with many gatekeepers. Many people tried to subvert the system, mailing complaints and publishing accounts in memoirs and reminiscences, but these quieter communications were easier to dismiss and ignore.
One of these complaints, about sexual misconduct by James Levine, reached the Metropolitan Opera’s leadership as early as 1979. As was often the case, the matter was quietly considered internally – and dismissed internally, with no public communications made. This enabled Levine to continue his abusive behaviors for four additional decades, before a bombshell set of journalistic features outlining decades of sexual abuse led to his suspension and firing.
For many years, the answer to a sex scandal was not “Why did you do that?” but “How much will this cost?” to suppress it. The now-disgraced Hollywood producer Weinstein and his organization, for example, developed their damage control mechanisms into a terrible but highly effective art. First, Weinstein unleashed a team of private detectives and ex-spies to dig up blackmail information on his victims and journalists expressing an interest in the story. Next, his attorneys made implied and explicit legal threats. Then, Weinstein opened his wallet – in some cases, buying off publishers several stages above the journalists. Victims and witnesses alike were pressured into signing nondisclosure agreements, often with threats hanging over their heads that their lives and careers would be ruined if they didn’t sign.
“I have never attacked a woman, I have never overstepped my bounds, it’s not part of my upbringing or part of who I am… I may have suggested names for leading roles, but for secondary ones, where some of the accusations are coming from, I can’t even remember which roles they might have been.”
Denial is the act of claiming that something is not true. As a defensive tactic, simply denying that a problem exists may not seem a very effective strategy – but it worked for opera superstar Plácido Domingo for a long, long time.
Stories about Domingo’s misbehavior in the opera industry date back to the 1980s, when his career was exploding from star to superstar status. For decades, the singer and his supporters simply denied that he was misbehaving. Sexual harassment and assault were explained away as “stolen kisses”, cultural misunderstandings, yellow journalism, jilted lovers, and more – not least by many fans who chose to not think ill of the dazzling performer. Meanwhile Domingo’s career was ascendant: he became one of the most famous classical singers in the world, a sure box office draw, and an opera impresario.
Public reckonings rarely lead to contrition and confession. Plácido Domingo’s public reckoning caught up with him in 2019, after which he issued an apology – and then famously walked it back. This Sunday, he went on a media counteroffensive, part of an apparent campaign designed to rehabilitate his image and career. “Never, never, never” did he engage in misconduct, the impresario told The Associated Press. “I have spent my whole life helping, and you know, encouraging and driving people.”
Will the comeback attempt work? If past successes are any indication, it might. For some, a forceful denial is enough to overlook the results of multiple investigations by news organizations, a longtime employer, and a musician’s union. After all, many of Domingo’s European gigs were only cancelled due to COVID-19 closures. Even James Levine sued the Metropolitan Opera over his firing; after a countersuit, the parties settled the case out of court. Now, Levine has a contract to conduct next season at the Maggio Musicale festival in Florence, Italy.
Levine continues to deny any fault – a tactic that continues to work in the face of ample evidence to the contrary.
“I always try to protect people that are demonized … rightly or wrongly, that’s how I am …”
–Maggio Musicale Director Alexander Pereira
Obfuscating the situation is another time-honored tactic. To do this, supporters of the accused often cite bonds of friendship and their knowledge of the accused’s character. Others repeat platitudes like “Art ennobles us” and argue that someone who creates great art cannot do such great wrongs.
The idea that art ennobles is a misquotation of Boethius, a 7th-century Roman philosopher and noted influence on Western musical thought. What Boethius actually wrote translates as “Music is part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior.” Artistic activities and successes, therefore, can be used nobly – or exploited and abused.
One of the most useful tools in the arsenal of obfuscation is crying “Censorship!”
James Levine’s current contract is with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. This is no obscure, small-town festival – it’s one of Europe’s most famous and prestigious music festivals, located in Florence, Italy. At this level, it would be hard for its administrators to claim ignorance of the many accusations against Levine. Festival director Alexander Pereira doesn’t try to do so – instead, defending Levine’s hiring, he spoke to the press at length. Pereira took pains to paint the conductor as the victim, using language that evoked accusations censorship.
“Levine has been silent for such a long time, after contributing so much to music,” Pereira said in an interview. “I think that the musical world needs to hear him…we worked hard with Levine’s agent to convince him.”
Many of Pereira’s remarks work by reframing the narrative. According to this narrative, it’s not Levine who was trying to make a comeback. Instead, the festival director painted a picture of a great, reluctant – misunderstood, even! – artist being coaxed back to the podium by a hungry and adoring public. In this version of the story, it is the desire to appease the fans – to make music – that is irresistible, overriding everything else. “I think what ultimately swayed [Levine’s] decision [to accept the contract],” Pereira said, “is that he is missing music making so much.”
Making music was never the problem.
Bristo, OTSL, and a Matter of Timing
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis announced its hiring of Damon Bristo as Director of Artistic Administration in August 2019. At the time – just weeks after longtime OTSL music director Stephen Lord’s resignation following an exposé by the Arts Reader – Bristo was a vice president and artist manager at Columbia Artists. Columbia Artists is one of the most prestigious artist agencies in the country; while there, Bristo represented high-profile clients like Broadway legend Rebecca Luker (of The Secret Garden and other fame).
At the time, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ General Director Andrew R. Jorgenson praised Bistro as bringing “a deep commitment to discovering and promoting young talent…an exciting new chapter in Opera Theatre’s artistic leadership.” Bristo was one of two high-profile hires announced at the same time – an injection of new leadership that promised to reinvigorate the organization.
Damon Bristo started work at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in September 2019. On July 22, 2020, he was arrested by the St. Louis County Police Department. The charge? Sex trafficking of a minor in the second degree.
The way in which the public learned of Bristo’s arrest is a testament to the power and importance of social media in the #MeToo movement and classical music’s ongoing reckoning with sexual misconduct of all sorts. At 9:59 AM on August 11, tenor and journalist Zach Finkelstein posted a message to Twitter:
According to a website that collects arrest data in the St. Louis region, on July 23rd, 2020, Opera Theatre of St. Louis @OTSL director of artistic administration, Damon Bristo was arrested and charged with child sex trafficking in the 2nd degree.— Zach Finkelstein (@zachfinkelstein) August 11, 2020
Will @OTSL issue a statement? pic.twitter.com/PV0L4JrzaJ
An hour later, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ response came:
Official statement on the arrest of Damon Bristo: We were shocked by the allegations of criminal activity, which have no link to his employment or role with us. Upon learning of the arrest, the employee was immediately placed on unpaid administrative leave and later resigned.1/2— Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (@OTSL) August 11, 2020
We have a strict code of ethics and strong values that we expect our employees to uphold inside and outside of the workplace. 2/2— Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (@OTSL) August 11, 2020
While the response was fast, all things considered, evidence shows that OTSL knew of Bristo’s arrest well before Finkelstein and STL Mugshots brought this to public attention. An investigation by the Arts Reader found that the company spent more than a week quietly purging mentions of Bristo from its website and social media. Except for the official statements on his departure on social media, and some external news pieces, his employment with the organization has effectively been erased from their public record.
After an inquiry by the Arts Reader, OTSL issued a further statement from its general director. “We were shocked by the arrest of Mr. Bristo and accepted his resignation from his role effective immediately,” Jorgensen stated. “While he was an employee at Opera Theatre, we received no negative reports or complaints about this individual, but we take any allegation of criminal conduct extremely seriously. We have commenced a search for a new director of artistic administration to fulfill this role, and the current acting director is Paul Kilmer.”
The implied timing of Bristo’s resignation differs notably from an earlier statement given by OTSL to Opera Wire, which said, “Upon learning of the arrest, the employee was immediately placed on unpaid administrative leave and later resigned.”
OTSL also claimed that the website purge was the result of a technical issue. “Opera Theatre’s original website went down on July 19 – well before the arrest,” it said in a statement, “as a result of a technical error on the part of our hosting company. We have a temporary site in place while we work to develop a new website.” This explanation does not entirely align with the Arts Reader’s comparison of archival snapshots of the website.
As for the social media purge? “The social media videos of our former employee were removed,” said OTSL, “given [that] he has been arrested for a serious matter and the content is used by our followers on an ongoing basis.”
It’s hardly surprising that an organization would want to distance itself from allegations of employees’ sexual misconduct – especially when the allegation is sexual trafficking of a minor. OTSL is hardly alone in this respect; many of Bristo’s former clients have been doing the same thing.
Search online for “Columbia Artists”, “Damon Bristo”, and “agent”, and you’ll find a dwindling set of results from company and artist webpages. Just three weeks ago, most of those results had working links – evidence, perhaps, of a lack of regular updating by their owners. (Bristo, after all, departed Columbia Artists a year ago.) Now, two and half weeks after the news of his arrest broke, most of those search results lead to broken links or pages from which his name has been scrubbed. The remainder, excluding news organizations, are mostly from sites that have clearly not been updated in some time.
It’s as if there never was a connection.
Going Off Mission
How should a performing arts organization react to bad news, especially when it involves employee misconduct? Should they announce the bad news immediately, or wait until challenged? Answering these questions is complicated by the fact that Bristo wasn’t simply a rank-and-file employee: he was one of OSTL’s public faces of the company, actively participating in COVID-era video discussions, speaking about anti-racism efforts in opera, and more. Defusing this sort of association well requires a concerted action plan, but where should you begin?
In its guide to social media crisis management, the Internet publishing company HootSuite lists nine steps for anticipating and defusing social media crises, most of which involve advance planning. Once a crisis happens, however, specific actions are crucial. Step 6 is “Stop all scheduled posts”, Step 7 is “Engage–but don’t argue”, and Step 9 is “Learn from the experience.”
If you visit Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ Twitter and Facebook pages, you’ll see that Step 6 is in action – the company hasn’t posted anything since August 11. This is a distinct change from its buzz of postings during the COVID-19 pandemic, even allowing for a normal August lull.
Step 7, “Engage–but don’t argue”, is less in evidence. Poke around the company’s social media postings, and you’ll see that a number of persons who are or have been employed by the company leaping to its defense and arguing with other people online. One of these ex-employees was none other than conductor and music director Stephen Lord. (Lord, in case you’ve forgotten, resigned or was fired from his positions last year, following an exposé by this publication.) Lord chose Bristo’s arrest as the occasion to re-emerge on social media and try to rehabilitate himself.
In his posts, Lord struck a familiar tone to James Levine when the latter sued the Metropolitan Opera, claiming that he was the injured party. When confronted, he denied fault, attacked the credibility of his accusers, and then vanished from the public eye – much like Harvey Weinstein testing the waters for a potential comeback with a public appearance last October.
At first glance, Stephen Lord’s appearance on OTSL’s Facebook page might seem a spontaneous event – but such appearances are a common tactic used by celebrities trying to re-engage the public after a scandal. Shortly before the Arts Reader published its exposé on Lord, the conductor publicly announced that he was quitting Facebook. “Defending an artist in whom I have believed – as I have with so many of you…has come back to haunt me in a thoroughly unhappy way,” he wrote. “So many people have been affected by the incidents I tried out of compassion to help with.”
As a short-term strategy, it worked: the post attracted hundreds of “likes” on Facebook. After the exposé ran, however, Lord lay low for half a year. Then, word emerged that he would conduct La Traviata for the Toronto-based Canadian Opera Company. However, this first comeback attempt was unsuccessful: public outcry soon led the Canadian Opera Company to withdraw the contract. Lord turned back to preaching the “Deny and Obfuscate” gospel on Instagram for some time, periodically tests the Facebook waters, and routinely blocks persons who disagree with him. (Lord deactivated his Facebook account after the OTSL posts, but has since reactivated it).
Legal Threats and Obfuscations
Almost one year after the Arts Reader exposé – and two months after the failure of the COC comeback attempt – Lord engaged a New York City-based law firm to go after the perceived root of his problems: this publication. This, again, is a well-recognized tactic: using implicit and explicit threats of legal action to try and coerce accusers and journalists into silence.
On May 18, 2020, an email arrived in the Arts Reader inbox, containing a memo from George Birnbaum Law. In this 3-page memo, Lord’s attorney attempted to dismiss a multi-year investigation by alleging that, among other things, it had relied on a single source, did not follow journalistic standards, and ignored the willingness of Lord’s friends to make supporting statements on his behalf.
Besides the claims, the letter – signed by George Birnbaum – uses rhetoric that appears clearly designed to instill fear of legal action. The Arts Reader exposé, Birnbaum claimed, was “reminiscent of the worst days of McCarthyism and blacklisting in this country.” Furthermore, he added, “In the 1950s, many of those instances were found to have been improperly motivated, by self-aggrandizement, power, money or malice. Legal action against you and your publication will certainly explore the issue of similar improper motivation here. A jury will surely be interested in why…”
Two further statements made the threat more explicit:
5. This letter will serve to put you on notice that, pending legal action, you should not destroy or dispose of any documents in your possession, directly or indirectly, concerned with Mr. Lord or having anything to do with the Twin Cities Arts Reader article of June 18, 2019. Destroying evidence is both a civil and criminal offense, and you should be governed accordingly.
6. Finally, please take notice that this is your final opportunity to mitigate the extraordinary damage you have caused Mr. Lord by printing, in the Twin Cities Arts Reader, a retraction, clarifying that you did not live up to journalistic standards, that Mr. Lord had no opportunity to comment, and that he denies all of the accusations. Your failure to do so will have additional legal consequences and you should be governed accordingly.
To this, a response was sent on May 18, CC’d to Stephen Lord:
Thank you for your communication. You are, of course, free to engage in whatever proceedings you see fit on behalf of your client. I am likewise free to defend myself using that most straightforward counter to accusations of defamation: truth.
While it is hardly my place to tell you how to do your job, you seem to have no compunctions about the same. Thus, I will tell you that I was particularly entertained to read the flight of fancy in the second paragraph of your item #3, as neither the sourcing that you allege nor the person I believe you were referring to were involved in the research for this piece.
Should you and your client wish to proceed along the lines implied by your memo, I will of course make full use of the options available to me under the law. You can make your own judgment about who you think might be harmed by anything that would follow, but I, for one, take confidence in a large stack of testimonials about your client’s behavior.
Three months later, neither Stephen Lord nor the firm of George Birnbaum Law have replied.
Update: After this article went to press, Columbia Artists Management Inc. (Damon Bristo’s former employer) announced on 8/29 that the agency would shut down, effective 8/31. This announcement cited financial pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the closure.
Up next: Sexual misconduct and Theatre in the Round.
- FEATURE: Unsafe on Any Stage: Alcoholism and Silence at Theatre in the Round - September 30, 2020
- PREVIEW: Minnesota Opera Returns…to the Baseball Stadium? - September 24, 2020
- FEATURE: Erasing the Tracks: How Individuals and Arts Organizations Respond to Sexual Misconduct - August 29, 2020