Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Metropolitan Opera Should Not Be Another Casualty of Sexual Abuse Allegations

Something unexpected is occurring in the world right now. Abusers are being named and shamed and people are actually giving a damn. In politics, business, sports, journalism, entertainment, the arts, and many other fields, powerful men are being accused of sexual assault and the victims are being given some credence, their allegations taken seriously, and in a few cases, criminal investigations have been opened. This isn't the first time this has happened, but never before have so many people come forward and demanded justice. Unfortunately, we haven't figured out what that justice should look like. In the case of those who hold political office, the loss of that office seems like an obvious step, though, in the political realm, abusers are not being taken down as easily in other areas. In the arts and entertainment industries (though hardly all areas - the gaming industry has been suspiciously absent from the headlines), abusers are losing their jobs, being stripped of awards and honorary degrees, being ejected from professional organizations, and having their projects suppressed, censored, or canceled. Few are actually being brought up on charges and the very real power that significant wealth and connections wield has not been stripped from the majority. But, good work has been started: a policy of total non-tolerance for sexual harassment, abuse, and assault is being brought to bear.

That doesn't mean that justice is actually being served. So what if these hugely privileged men lose a few privileges? There has been a general attitude that these men are 'finished' professionally, but that remains to be seen. The charges against Roman Polanski, merely to cite the most notorious case in Hollywood, have been proven in court, but he not only remains at large: he's continued to make films which critics have embraced, films that have earned profits and awards. A new attitude is emerging, at least for the present, that demands that abusers' work be shunned, ignored, or even destroyed. The point of this is to punish the abuser, to deny him access to the cultural conversation. But, punishment is one thing, redress another and reform yet another.

The question really does arise: who benefits from the repression, destruction, or cancellation of projects associated with these vile men, who have abused their positions of power in many cases for decades? It would be one thing if the projects that were being taken down were clearly vanity projects (like, at this point, every tiresome, repetitive film that flat-footedly quotes Bergman Woody Allen makes), but the projects that are endangered are not, generally speaking, vanity projects, with the possible exception of I Love You, Daddy, the creepy secret film Louis C.K. premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

Killing television series, films, production companies, periodicals, and arts organizations of all stripes doesn't solve any problems. Is punishing one (horrible, unacceptably abusive) person worth the simultaneous punishment of everyone who, for whatever reason, is involved in those projects? That seems to give these powerful abusers even greater power, since it treats their very image as so toxic, and so powerfully toxic, that it cannot be borne, rather than diminishing their power by refusing to grant it to them anymore. It's true that some creative situations have been found: Kevin Spacey's scenes in All the Money in the World has simply been excised and replaced with new scenes, with Spacey's character played by Christopher Plummer. But that kind of solution can't be applied when the project in question is an institution. And that is the case for the Metropolitan Opera.

Already speculation swirls on the fate of the Met, following allegations of pedophiliac abuse supposed to have been perpetrated by music director emeritus James Levine. These allegations have been the stuff of the rumor mill in the classical music world for decades. Everyone I know and knew in classical music, not to mention I myself, had heard gossip about Levine. It was common knowledge - this is the refrain we are hearing again and again as more and more allegations are lodged. It's true that Levine had a special relationship with the Met, a particularly intimate one, since he was not only its music director, and a popular one with donors, for decades: he became its representative face, almost its ideogram.

Levine is retired, so removing him from his position is impossible, though his formal title of music director emeritus could be redacted. An attempt at erasure, which has been the approach taken by NBC with Matt Lauer, could be made, though it would require erasing the Met's whole history from 1976 on, and with it all the contributions made by all the great conductors, musicians, composers, librettists, and production designers that have worked at the Met. Any real punishment, beyond the merely symbolic sort of retracting awards and so on, will have to come in a court of law in the form of charges. Whether that will happen depends on many factors. Changes to the Met are inevitable anyway, as the new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, takes up the reins.

If the allegations against Levine are true - and I follow a policy of believing the victims rather than the alleged perpetrator in such cases - then he should be held accountable, to the full extent of the law. But, the loss of the Met would be incalculable, an annihilation of a crucial foundation stone of culture in the United States. The Met is one of the last employers of musicians, dancers, choristers, and those who work on sets, costumes, and backdrops that provides regular work, with good salaries. It is the only opera house to operate on a full season, scheduling more than twenty operas and two hundred performances a year. Its broadcasts on radio and in cinemas permit access to world-class opera to the entire country. American culture cannot bear that loss.

It is tempting, in the midst of so many horrifying, heart-breaking stories of suffering, to zealously silence, censor, destroy. We have to approach each case with delicacy, not for the sake of these men, but because we risk harming others in our eagerness to punish abusers who fully deserve punishment. Those men don't deserve the power to take down people innocent of wrong-doing, artworks that were the fruit of collaboration, or institutions that produce and support the vitality of culture.