Classical music has a problem and that problem is sexual assault

By Andrew Riddles

This week, in the light of the revelations about assaults perpetuated by Harvey Weinstein and the denials and cover-ups that ensued from these, I read an article by Dan Kempson. In Opera’s sexual assault secret Kempson, who is a gay, married man, catalogued the instances and manner of physical assault and inappropriate communication executed by men in positions of power when he was a New York-based opera singer. These men exposed him to a litany of these incidents during his career. The response that he often gave was that he was married which, as he says, “is both true and wholly irrelevant to the inappropriate and horrible nature of these men’s behavior. And it was always summarily ignored.”

He goes on to list the ways he observed and heard that other male performers were so abused, and then points out that such abusive behaviour is even more prevalent for females in the opera world. I googled Kempson and found that he is a well built, muscular man. I only mention his appearance because it underscores that men in positions of power will pick on anyone they perceive to be in a weaker position, even those physically stronger than them. In fact, unlike many instances of defining of a specific rape culture, Kempson’s story highlights that rape cultures are not just about slight young women being slipped something in their drinks and assaulted; the abuse he suffered was enacted upon a physically strong male, and in a very overt manner, often in public, by other men.

(I mention rape cultures [plural] to emphasize the fact that the single rape culture often picked up and examined by society – the one wherein young, slightly built women are targeted by predatory males – is only one of many such dynamics. Others include intimate partner sexual assault, sexual assault against queer people in classical music, etc.)

Kempson is not the first person to shed light on sexual assault in opera. Last year Susanne Mentzer wrote about the same scenarios playing out again and again for her and other women in opera. In Classic(al) Sexual Harassment she spoke about the same cycle of working with conductors and directors, reaching a high caliber collaboration, then having to fend off a sexual advance, which led to less work from that conductor/director. While sexual assault happens with all sexualities and with people who, physically, we are too keen to assume can “defend themselves,” the pattern – and the reason the pattern can continue – is the same. As Mentzer says, “In the arts it is really near impossible to prove when sexual harassment occurs unless it is flat out sexual assault. It should not come to that. Some men in power are above any accountability. Many are tremendously talented. Few can even match their level, so people look the other way when they act inappropriately.”

Misogyny is pervasive in classical music. As an editorial in the Guardian last year notes, “London has five permanent symphony orchestras, all full of female players. Yet of the 20 conducting posts at these orchestras, just one is held by a woman.” It is estimated of the top 150 conductors in the world, only 5 are women. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York only two female composers have had their operas performed, and one of those was over a century ago.


Such statistics point to a cultural space where sexual assault is not exactly going to be deterred. Directors of opera houses, orchestras, fundraising initiatives and cultural administration are still predominantly male. They are not all rapists; but where they are, they are not going to be hampered by the dynamics of this kind of gender imbalance in leadership. On the contrary, many of the structures of organizations and communities help these predators.

Two years ago, I was a witness in, and gave a statement to police about, the case of a vicious and premeditated sexual assault. The perpetrator was a person who was known to a lot of my friends and acquaintances in the classical music community in Ottawa. I let people I know in many of my networks know who this individual is and what had happened. The response from some was immediate and impressive – the complete belief in the account of the survivor’s story and the elimination of this individual from their networks. But from some in the classical music community it was sadly predictable – men and women were keen to point out that they had known this man for a long time and that he couldn’t possibly be a rapist.

Everything in the testaments of the women assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, and in the accounts of Dan Kempson and Susanne Mentzer, reminds us of the dynamic – powerful men abuse those they know are not powerful enough to be believed. The perpetrators are well known individuals about whom people – often networks of women – warn the newcomers to the community. Usually claims of assault are ignored. Often the perpetrators can continue for decades in their actions and are never stopped.

Of course, these dynamics – power, denial, conspiracy – are microcosms of how sexual assault metastasizes in society in general. As my friend Andrea Stokes stated in a Facebook post about the all-permeating presence of sexual assault in the world, “It’s not Hollywood, it’s not OTHERTOWN, it’s fucking everywhere.”

All the dynamics of these environments that encourage and protect sexual assailants exist in the world of classical music. Young people with massive employment precarity (and a huge desire to succeed) are exposed to people who have the chance to make or break careers. Most people in those powerful positions are there to help make music, encourage careers, and give their energy and talent to producing beautiful. But some are there to exploit and act in a predatory role or to promote their own work through misogyny.

I don’t have to wrack my brain for examples of these kinds of people from my own friendship networks. One of America’s leading conductors who told the partner of my friend who was a soprano at the Paris Opera at the time not to fuck her too much that night as she had rehearsal in the morning; France’s most eminent composer told the same soprano to suck another composer’s cock, when he was present; directors who have told women I know they are too fat or busty for a role; the ballet instructor at one of the world’s leading opera houses who assaulted a friend in a classroom. The instructors who have touched more than one singer’s breasts to “illustrate a breathing technique”. I am sure the majority of my female friends haven’t mentioned even 1% of the things men have said or done to them.

Classical music is also an arena where, by nature of its fierce discipline and years of training, the teacher-student relationship can be exceedingly close. One of the peripatetic instrument teachers who taught mainly at my high school was, years after I graduated, convicted of serial sexual assaults over more than one decade. In 2015, Philip Pickett was found guilty of two rapes and two other sexual assaults at the Guildhall School of Music. A report of the case in The Independent tells a familiar tale. The parents of one girl wrote to the “principal John Hosier complaining that their daughter had been attacked. When he finally responded the parents were told to take the 17-year-old elsewhere for lessons.” In Ottawa, Jose Hernandez, a well-known classical voice teacher, was charged in 2016 with assaulting at least three women who were his students.

I began with accounts from two opera singers, and I know experiences of thousands more singers of all genders would echo these. I would also argue that opera occupies a unique, ambivalent and often contradictory space in the classical music world when it comes to discussions of sexual assault. This is because as an art form it both promotes misogynistic content, and has, historically, examined sexual assault when other cultural mediums have ignored it; it has both promoted female singers to heights of artistic prominence that other schools of classical music have not, and controlled those women in terms of body image, dress, sexuality, and behaviour in general; it has been a world where professional criticism has both signal-boosted the misogyny in the medium, and decried it.

Does all of this mean there is a crisis of sexual assault in classical music? Not definitely, but from the accounts of survivors and victims, there is a probability there are a lot of assaults in the classical music realm, assaults which go ignored or unreported. Ask yourself if the fact people weren’t listening to reports of sexual assault in Harvey Weinstein’s office until last week means there wasn’t a long history of such assaults in Hollywood?


Recent events in Toronto showed some in the higher ranks of musical production are not even shy about recording their opinions on how women should look and dress – facets totally unrelated to their abilities as musical artists. Indeed, the Sheraton Cadwell Orchestras folded on the basis of not simply those attitudes but the hubris that its management exhibited. (This was limited not to just misogynistic comments; they also referred to the orchestra as “wallpaper” in comparison to the vocal soloists.) That their positions did not protect them does not really reflect some kind of axiomatic justice that works within in our creative communities but instead simply these managers’ hubristic ignorance in a world where social media wields some power to mobilize. In other words, if you say stupid shit and are arrogant enough to put it in an email then yes, it might bite you in the ass. But in reality, that is rare, and the dynamic that perpetuates assault and exploitation persists. Something, after all, led the Sheraton Cadwell management to believe they could enshrine their misogynistic commentary in electronic mail and get away with it.

Perhaps musical communities exist where misogyny, sexual predation and assault are non-existent. But if they do, that doesn’t mean that cannot change. If companies dwell on the physical appearance of their singers, normalize the non-consensual touching of performers by directors, and allow sexist commentary to go unchecked, then they can quickly become places where assault becomes prevalent.

Everybody in classical music needs to look at how they treat the other people in their communities. I know I have done problematic things since joining the community – I am a super flirtatious individual and have not particularly curbed my behaviour in that regard with the women I meet as part of my roles in the classical music scene; and I have dated community members who are, for example, a lot younger than myself. Not to take away from the agency of women to choose who they flirt with and date, but that kind of behaviour can totally be part of the problem when older men – even those not in the hiring/firing position –  partake, even if it is done with respect and no ill intent.

More than that, I have commented on the appearance of women I am singing with when they haven’t asked for my opinion, I have hugged my colleagues and touched them on stage without asking if it is okay, and I have said sexualized things to people in the community in passing with no idea how it might affect them. These kinds of behaviours are all things men must examine when they are actors in their classical music groups. I know I am examining these disturbing aspects of my own actions with the aim of stopping myself from doing them again. And just because I have done them doesn’t mean to say I cannot call out other men when they say and do things that are as bad or worse. Because if only men who have NEVER made sexual comments or lavished unwanted attention stand up to these actions, there will literally be no men doing so.

Mentioning this is not about being recognized as some kind of paladin who is seeking absolution; it is the absolute baseline minimum any man can do to start the process of stopping assault and harassment by themselves and others. I hope other men in classical music can talk about the things they have done wrong. Almost all of us owe women, and our communities, this.

The most important thing we can do is to look out for each other and listen to each other, and when we hear of things going on we must speak out. That responsibility increases exponentially the higher up the pecking order you are or the less you have to lose. If someone uses inappropriate language to someone in your company then tell them to stop. If someone tells you someone is acting inappropriately towards them, challenge them and if that doesn’t stop them, go above that person’s head. Believe survivors of assault.

As Kempson says, there are many reasons touted for such cultures where assault persists – the objectification of young singers, the highlighting of appearance over talent, the fact opera involves more physical romantic contact than other art forms. And, as he concludes, “That’s all bullshit. It happens for the same reason it happens in Hollywood…: because those in power are often perpetrators — and those who aren’t perpetrators allow it to happen.”