The Israeli Opera is making efforts to remain relevant, but it’s enough to glance at their embarrassing PR announcement welcoming opera star Placido Domingo, who has been accused of sexual harassment by 20 women, to understand how disconnected and outdated this institution is. The tenor is due to come to Tel Aviv in October for the Operalia competition, which he established in 1993 – a kind of “The Voice” reality talent show for beginning opera singers – and he is even expected to conduct the Israeli Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion during the finals.
About the accusations, the Israeli Opera said that “The articles published in the newspaper about Domingo have yet to become an official complaint, no investigation has been opened because of them, no indictment or civil suit has been filed” and “there is no place for a field court-martial.”
This astonishing statement, tossed into the air as though there was no such thing as the #MeToo movement, takes on an ironic note after we read what the new general director of the opera house, Zach Granit, told Haaretz in an interview last October, when he spoke about the importance of fostering a trusting relationship with the audience. Granit claimed that he intends to attract new, younger audiences with “up-to-date and relevant opera,” and even went as far as to indirectly compare himself to director Quentin Tarantino.
But by blindly siding with Domingo, Granit is choosing to place himself and the institution he heads on the wrong side of history. On the way, it seems like he’s telling all those women who plucked up their courage and exposed the harassment that they suffered: “We don’t believe you.”
As opposed to the Israeli Opera, opera houses in the United States have actually demonstrated a moral backbone. Since the eruption of the affair, Domingo has been forced to leave his position as the general director of the Los Angeles Opera, which began an internal investigation, and had his performances canceled by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Dallas, Washington and San Francisco opera companies and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He even withdrew from an event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The Israeli Opera’s decision to rely on the fact that the tenor has not been indicted attests to ignorance. After all, if we have learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it’s that as long as law enforcement systems are incapable of providing a just solution to sexual assaults (just look at the statistics on the high percentage of sexual harassment cases that end without an indictment), the many victims will prefer to keep the attacks a secret – or to reveal them on social networks, where they can describe the event in their own words and control the narrative.
I warmly recommend that Mr. Granit and his spokesperson take a look at the #WhyIdidn’treport hashtag, and read the stories of thousands of men and women who explain why they decided not to file a complaint after being sexually abused.
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Domingo is a superstar in the opera world, and a celebrity in his own right. He is the winner of numerous Grammy awards, was for years the general director of the Los Angeles Opera, and all his performances are always sold out. As a member of The Three Tenors, he participated in one of the most widely sold classical albums in history, and the American version of “Sesame Street” named a character (Placido Flamingo) in his honor.
Two investigations by The Associated Press, published in August and September, demonstrate how he systematically and consistently exploited his tremendous power in the opera world for three decades to sexually harass young women – primarily singers who were just starting out – pressuring them into having sexual relations with him in exchange for roles and occasionally harassing them professionally if they refused him.
Sex before the performance
A total of 20 women – singers, dancers and other employees – said that Domingo had sexually harassed them in opera houses where he held senior managerial positions. Some said they had resorted to extreme measures in order to avoid him, such as not going to the women’s bathrooms near his office or asking male staff members to stay close when they worked with him. Some stopped answering their home phones.
Seven women said they believe their career was damaged after they rejected his proposals; some added that he harassed them professionally if they rejected him. Almost all of them described a repetitive pattern: Domingo contacted them repeatedly, called them at home late at night, expressed interest in their career and urged them to meet with him for a drink or a meal in his apartment or in a hotel room, under the guise of a professional meeting to promote their career.
Two of the women who did have sex with him said that they did it because they were afraid their career would be in danger if they refused. One of them said that he told her there is a superstition that he has to have sex before going onstage for a performance to “calm his nerves” and sing better. After the act, she added, he left her $10 on the hotel room nightstand.
Most of the women who have accused Domingo did so anonymously because they are afraid of harassment in a world controlled by him and other strong men. Only two revealed their names – former mezzo-soprano Patricia Wolf and soprano Angela Turner-Wilson. The latter told of how he had grabbed her breasts before a performance, leaving her stunned and humiliated. Another singer said that when she was working with Domingo in the mid-2000s at the Los Angeles Opera, he put his hand up her skirt.
In addition to the women’s testimony, employees in the various opera houses described to the AP how they tried to protect young women from the star’s long arms over the years, at a time when management insisted on burying its head in the sand. A production coordinator who worked with Domingo in the late 1980s at the Los Angeles and Houston opera houses told the AP that she made sure that Domingo would not be left alone in the makeup room with young singers, even if he asked. She also tried to hire male dressers for him.
Domingo denied everything in an interview with a Spanish news website in December. He said that Spanish men are hot-blooded, affectionate and loving by nature, and all he did was behave “gallantly.” In response, Wolf and Turner-Wilson replied that “There is nothing ‘gallant’ about grabbing women in the workplace – in any country or era.”
The accusations against the star have caused a rift in the opera world. While respected institutions in the United States have canceled events with the tenor, on the other side of the ocean, he still gets a royal welcome. He received a standing ovation at the Salzburg Festival in Austria and sang a lead role in Verdi’s “Nabucco” at the Zurich Opera. Last month he was cheered after a performance at the Berlin opera house, despite a protest by activists and female politicians.
How sad that the Israeli Opera has deliberately chosen to ignore the testimony of the 20 women. At least I hope that the audience of this veteran institution will make a more ethical and correct choice, and will vote with their feet.