PARENTAL ADVISORY: this article contains bad language and adult subject matter.
Sir Arnold: Power goes with permanence.
Sir Humphrey: Impermanence is impotence.
Sir Arnold: And rotation is castration.
– Yes Minister, Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay
“If you saw it, then why didn’t you report it?”
It’s a good question. A friend has recently moved to a new job in the classical music world, and has just had her eyes opened to the industry’s not-so-proud tradition of sexual harassment for the first time. It’s not the first thing she asks me. The first thing she asks me is,
“What the fuck is the matter with all these wankers?”
Another good question, to be fair.
As the conversation continues, she asks if I’ve ever witnessed any such behaviour myself. The honest answer is only once, kind of.
I’m sitting in an armchair in a dressing room at a major opera house. Watching the clock, trying not to watch my colleague changing. She’s asked me to be here as some sort of chaperone/bodyguard – there must be a technical term for it, but I skipped most of my music theory exams – since a senior colleague in a position of authority has been doing the rounds of the dressing rooms, conveniently enough always during the point in the female singers’ pre-show routine where they’re in their underwear. Make-up, wigs and costumes often have to go on in a particular order, so changing the routine isn’t an option. Neither is locking the door – they can’t be secured from the inside, and anyone backstage seems to be able to get in if they want to. Sure enough, regular as clockwork, here he is. Slightly taken aback to find his quarry with company. He takes it in his stride, courteous and charming, although I am not charmed. The rest of the evening passes without incident. I perform the same function twice more, and for the final performance (I’ve flown home by this point) she arranges for another trustworthy friend to be present. She later relates that the Lothario appears to realise what is going on by now, but again, all passes without further incident and that’s that.
That’s as close to first hand as I’ve ever been. I’m lucky: as a heterosexual man, I’m almost never on the receiving end of sexual harassment, and if I have been then I’m almost certainly too stupid to have noticed. Why didn’t I report it? I think about it a lot.
Firstly, I didn’t really witness anything untoward – my presence was intended to prevent that, and it worked. So in itself my testimony wouldn’t add up to much. Secondly, my colleague didn’t want to take the matter any further, and it was her story to tell or not, as she saw fit. Had she decided to pursue it, I hope I’d have been brave enough to back her up.
But the truth is, I’d have to take a very deep breath before reporting any such case. And that’s because I’m a freelance artist, and potential victim of harassment or not, I’m dispensable, and therefore vulnerable.
In her scintillating book Opera, or the Undoing of Women, Catherine Clément speculates that the reason opera houses so often demand that their prima donnas are foreign is less to do with the lure of the exotic, and more about removing them from their native environment and support network, increasing their vulnerability and ensuring they don’t get too powerful. As with most of her more compelling hypotheses, it applies to all singers, not just her fragile divas. Like any singer, I’ve occasionally been on the end of some pretty rancid behaviour, and when it’s happened abroad all I’ve wanted to do is get home safely in one piece. The idea of pursuing justice and correction is a long way from my mind.
There does appear to be a rule of thumb the world over that a huge number of singers rarely, if ever, appear at their “home” company. It’s a global art form, and there’s generally a glut of supply, so casting directors have a whole planet of singers to choose from. But you do look at some cast lists, taken over an extended period, and wonder at the absence of local talent. Audiences, meanwhile, often don’t seem to realise that singers don’t get to choose where we sing – we have to wait to be invited.
My colleague Axel was an exception, having appeared regularly as a freelance guest artist for his home opera company with great success. After many years of dedicated service, he moved to live elsewhere. Before leaving, he took the trouble to tell the company’s director (a non-native) that he’d be delighted to come back any time he could be of use to them, since appearing there meant so much to him. He was told that he should be grateful for what he’d been given. He hasn’t been invited back since. The colonial masters have spoken.
My point is, a singer who finds herself the target of harassment at work might first turn to her fellow cast members for support, only to find that they are in many ways as vulnerable as she is – freelance visitors, far from home, interchangeable and dispensable, however willing they are to help. Increasingly this may even apply to the chorus, and sometimes even the orchestra too.
This wasn’t always the case. The last remnants of it have all but died away in the UK, but a generation or two ago, opera houses had a backbone of permanent company principals: a genuine company of artists. Far easier, with that far greater degree of security, for singers to call out bad behaviour by colleagues, or to support them when they’re the victims of it. Not that sexual harassment wasn’t prevalent in the old days… but if anything our current situation makes it even harder to deal with.
Might we return to such a system? The answers to our current problems surely lie ahead of us, not behind, and even before this extraordinary crisis, the world had changed. Aside from anything else, permanent singers cost a UK company more than freelancers, with National Insurance, holiday pay, pensions and so on to be thrown into the mix. Our new friend Rishi Sunak has been one of the more impressive members of the government during the current crisis – admittedly that’s leaping over a bar which is not so much low as subterranean – but you sense his largesse might not last much longer, and already fresh rumblings about the supposedly privileged status of the Self Employed have been emerging from his direction. Canny employers will already have been looking closely at the fine detail of the IR35 legislation in preparation for potential battles ahead.
However, we face more urgent problems. The state will, we hope, at some point soon step in to ensure that our most valuable arts organisations and institutions don’t go bankrupt and disappear forever. But as freelance musicians, we rely entirely on performance fees as the mechanism for passing on the industry’s funds to us. In an era where few if any of us are permanently affiliated to a company, when those companies aren’t giving performances, how can the industry accurately target support for us too? Assuming that safeguarding our futures is considered as important as doing the same for buildings and administrative staff, that is.
No one made much fuss while it was happening, but perhaps companies are also beginning to realise what they lost when their permanent principals were quietly allowed to drift away without being replaced. The recent situation at the Royal Opera, where a performance of Don Carlo had to be cancelled since there was no cover for the lead soprano, and no time to fly anyone in from elsewhere (international opera’s addiction to carbon-intensive solutions to foreseeable problems is a topic for another time), would never have happened in the old days, old lags assure me, when there would have been several Elisabettas in the House at any one time.
Given time, any system will eventually expose its own flaws. It’s all very well taking down a figurehead like Placido Domingo, but if you leave intact the system that allowed him that amount of unchecked power, you’ve achieved nothing. Domingo should know that well enough himself, given how often he’s been on stage at the end of Tosca; even when Scarpia dies, the soprano still loses.
Power corrupts, and positions of unsupervised power will tend to attract those who are least well-equipped to resist the corruption. It’s entirely right that the accusations against him were taken seriously and that he faces the consequences, but once the dust settles it’s the system that produced and enabled Domingo which needs closest examination. Any industry which allows as a matter of course, for example, a situation where certain male artists are only allocated male wardrobe and make-up assistants, keeping female employees well away from those dressing rooms for their own protection, has more fundamental problems than the behaviour of one individual, however prominent.
“If you saw it, why didn’t you report it?”
Power goes with permanence. This job is, has somehow become, my life. I hate it and I love it and I can’t live without it. Every time I stick my head above the parapet, I risk losing that: casting is a subjective process, and choosing one singer over another for a role, whatever the real reasons, cannot be challenged and requires no justification. I’m expendable. I know it. They know it. They know that I know it.
Impermanence is impotence. I’m scared to speak up. I want to work. I want the conductor, director, casting director, designer, critics, sponsors, audience, colleagues, company managers, chorus, wardrobe assistants, the guy who does the stage door night shift and the taxi driver on the way home, to like me. Because I want to be invited back. To be a freelance artist is to live your life like a startled rabbit, constantly checking for potential danger to your career. I want to help, to be an ally. But above everything else, I’m scared, an addict terrified of being denied his drug.
Rotation is castration. What would change that? Is there a way to keep us in one place for longer? To feel we belong, so that we can set the standards, draw the lines? To allow some of us to put down a few roots for once? Give us permanence, and with it will come the power to speak out. Then, perhaps, some of us might be able to help. If we’re brave enough.