The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Assaults in dressing rooms. Groping during lessons. Classical musicians reveal a profession rife with harassment.

(Isabel Seliger for The Washington Post)

Violinist Zeneba Bowers was 26 when she says she asked William Preucil, the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, out for a drink after a lesson in 1998. Bowers was a member of the New World Symphony in Miami, the elite training orchestra, which had hired Preucil, then 40 and widely hailed as the greatest living concertmaster, to teach the New World’s young musicians.

Cleveland concertmaster suspended over sexual harassment allegations

For a young violinist like Bowers, the chance to talk shop informally with someone at Preucil’s level was a precious opportunity, and Bowers said she would deliberately take the last lesson of the day with the hopes of talking with the teacher afterward.

On the night that they went out, Bowers says she was flattered and thought she had been accepted into an insider network when Preucil, after a few drinks, asked her back to his hotel room for a cigar. But once in his room she says he began aggressively kissing her, opening her buttons, pushing her onto the bed. She says she was stunned and horrified, and fought him off and ran home. A few minutes later, he called her and threatened to blacklist her if she told anybody, she says.

“We’re both adults,” Bowers says Preucil told her. “You know how this works.”

Bowers called her best friend immediately; her friend confirmed the call to a Washington Post reporter.

Preucil said through a Cleveland Orchestra spokesman that he was not available for comment.

Onstage, classical music is larger than life. But the preparation behind the scenes takes place in more intimate environments than most workplaces: dressing rooms, rehearsal studios or windowless practice rooms in hours of one-on-one instruction. And in a field that venerates authority and embraces the widespread fallacy that great artists live outside the mores of society, these conditions can create fertile ground for harassment.

The downfall of movie producer Harvey Weinstein in October led to the toppling of prominent men in many fields. Classical music’s #MeToo moment erupted in December, when star conductor James Levine was suspended from the Metropolitan Opera after people came forward with claims of abuse. Levine, who was later dismissed, denied the charges and is suing the Met, which is countersuing him.

Twelve international orchestras cut ties with the powerful conductor Charles Dutoit after multiple women accused him of abusive behavior, including rape. Dutoit denied the allegations, telling the Associated Press in January, “I am shaken to the core by this bewildering and baseless charge . . . I submit my categorical and complete denial.”

Conductor Daniel Lipton, who resigned from Opera Tampa last year, was accused of unwanted kissing and groping by two women after word that Canadian officials had issued an arrest warrant for a sexual assault in the late 1980s. Opera Tampa officials had bought out his contract in July because they had concerns, according to reports. Lipton denied the charges. “Not everything which one prints is correct,” he said. “Things which have been put in the press are totally inaccurate.”

Flute professor Bradley Garner retired from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music toward the end of an internal investigation that uncovered allegations that he had made unwanted sexual advances to students for years. Garner’s lawyer, Subodh Chandra, said Garner resigned because university officials denied him due process. “He submitted an affidavit under oath, in which he denied the allegations,” Chandra said.

Over a six-month period starting last November, The Washington Post spoke to more than 50 musicians who say they were victims of sexual harassment. These artists, many of whom shared their stories for the first time, described experiences ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault, at every level from local teachers to international superstars. Opera singers spoke of attempted assaults in dressing rooms or in the wings during performances. Students described teachers inappropriately touching their bodies during lessons.

Young artists in conservatories and training programs such as the New World Symphony are especially vulnerable, interviews showed. Individual teachers have enormous power over their students’ future careers: A good word can open doors, a bad one shut them forever. High-profile instructors like Preucil — whose alleged interaction with Bowers in Miami has not been previously reported — attract donors and new talent, and institutions might be reluctant to discipline them.

Deborah Borda, the president and chief executive of the New York Philharmonic and the highest-ranking female administrator in classical music, says she was harassed early in her career, an incident she says is still both vivid and painful to recall. “Harassment has been going on for centuries,” she says. “It will take us time to achieve true equality. That’s the story I see happening right now.”

Institutions raced to dump Levine. They should look hard at themselves.

The fear of coming forward

Landing a spot in a young-artist program at a major opera house is a ticket to a big career for emerging singers. Soprano Alicia Berneche was 24 on her first day at the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center in 1996, and she was beaming as she sat in the auditorium when Daniele Gatti, the internationally renowned conductor, then 34, stepped off the podium to speak to her. Berneche says that he offered her a coaching session — just the kind of opportunity the opera program recommended young artists take — and that she followed him to his dressing room to set up a time. But once inside, she claims, she found “his hands on my rear end, and his tongue down my throat.” One of Berneche’s friends confirmed to The Post that the singer had talked about the experience at the time.

Berneche isn’t the only one to make allegations about Gatti, who is now chief conductor of the great Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam (and will tour the United States with it in the spring of 2019). The soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet told The Post that Gatti tried something similar with her when she was singing in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” in Bologna, Italy, four years later. “I pushed him off and ran out of the room,” Charbonnet says. The company never hired her again. A friend of Charbonnet’s told The Post that she had told her about the incident, many years later.

Berneche says she wanted to report Gatti’s behavior but a well-meaning adviser to whom she had turned said, “If you come forward, you will be fired, and he will continue.” Meanwhile, she had another month of rehearsals with Gatti to get through. The solution she came up with was to take the blame herself. “I wrote him a letter,” she says, “apologizing for coming on to him.”

In a statement delivered through a spokesman, Gatti said he was surprised by the charges. “All my life I have always been totally alien to any behavior that may be referred to [by] the term harassment, whether psychological or sexual,” he said. “Every time I have approached someone, I have always done it fully convinced that the interest was mutual. The facts referred to took place a long time ago, but if I have offended anyone, I sincerely apologize.”

In the upper echelons of the classical music world, stars often don’t face accountability for their actions. Opera is a largely freelance field, where artists come in for a few weeks to rehearse and perform a production, and then move on to the next one. Human resources officials who deal with the concerns of chorus members and apprentices may not have much clout with a jet-setting conductor.

“The fear was that somehow it would get back to the person that the complaint was made about, and it would ruin a career or diminish opportunities,” says Deborah Allton-Maher, associate executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union that represents performing artists including ballet dancers and opera singers.

Three years ago, prompted by a discussion in a closed Facebook group of hundreds of opera professionals, union members compiled dozens of anonymous stories of abuse and brought them to the union leadership. The union responded, Allton-Maher said, by creating an online system where people could anonymously report harassment. No one had used it before the reckoning on sexual harassment captured the nation’s attention, she said, “But we have had more reports from members since this has become front and center.”

“It says a lot about the climate. It was still far too risky to make a complaint,” she said.

'I lost my confidence'

Bernard Uzan, 73, is a ubiquitous presence in mid-level opera companies. Born in Tunisia and educated in France, he has been an administrator, a director and an artist’s manager — someone who helps singers find work — over a career spanning many decades. He used to run the Opera de Montreal; he is now a co-director of the young artists’ program at the Florida Grand Opera. Four women spoke on the record to The Washington Post with allegations about Uzan’s behavior — charges he denies.

Soprano Diane Alexander says Uzan embraced her and pressed his erection against her in a hotel elevator when she was in the Merola young-artist program at the San Francisco Opera in 1986. Seventeen years later, when she needed new management after her agent retired, she joined Uzan’s roster, thinking the incident was long forgotten, until she says Uzan reminded her that he had long been attracted to her. Still, he represented her without incident for about a year, until 2005, when she starred in a production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” at Opera Carolina in Charlotte. Not only did Uzan find her the job, he also was directing the production. Alexander says Uzan began propositioning her via online messages late at night. She blocked his messages, and, she says, his sexual advances stopped — but he became critical of her performance for the rest of the run. “It was more emotional abuse, more a power thing,” Alexander says. It also undermined her confidence and made it difficult to perform. Alexander’s teacher told The Post that she remembers speaking to her almost nightly to try to help her through the experience.

In 2008, mezzo-soprano Erin Elizabeth Smith, then 29, went out for drinks to discuss her career with Uzan, who had just taken her onto his roster. Uzan had other things on his mind, she says. “This is what you do to me,” Smith recalls Uzan saying as he pushed himself back from the table so she could see his erect penis inside his pants. Then, she says, he stuck his thumb in her mouth and asked her to suck it. Smith says that she made excuses and left but that Uzan continued calling for days, until she told him she didn’t want a physical relationship. A few days later, she says, Uzan dropped her from his roster, citing other reasons. A friend corroborated that she had told him about Uzan’s behavior soon after it occurred.

“I lost my confidence,” Smith says. She felt, she says, “the only reason I’m on his roster is that he wanted to sleep with me. It made me doubt my talent.”

Xixi Shepard, a mezzo-soprano formerly known as Elspeth Kincaid, recalls her first meeting with Uzan in 2008, at dinner, shortly after she joined his roster. After drinking a lot of wine, she says, he told her at length about his talent for oral sex “and invited me to experience this so-called talent of his directly after dinner.” Her mother confirmed that Shepard told her about the incident immediately after it happened.

Mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov had been on Uzan’s roster for about a year when she says he cornered her at a 2010 audition and said “something along the lines of, ‘I’ve been waiting for this. I want to sleep with you.’ ” She says that after she declined, he began telling companies that she wasn’t interested in working with them, and saying negative things about her and her lack of sexual attractiveness. Finally, in 2011, during a rehearsal of a “Rigoletto” that Uzan was directing in Detroit, Dirlikov says he put his hand on her breast in a crowded rehearsal room. “I stepped back and said, ‘What the hell are you doing,’ ” Dirlikov says. “And he said, ‘I felt like it.’ ” A colleague recalls the incident and talking to upset cast members about it afterward.

Members of the company and the union asked Dirlikov about pressing charges, but Uzan was still her manager and she was too scared to do anything. “I didn’t see another path,” she says. “It was either, you learn to get a thick skin and you learn to deal with the industry and you’re lucky you have work . . . or work at Starbucks, or go back to school.” But she did eventually leave Uzan’s roster and find another path, performing as head of her own not-for-profit organization that links music with social activism.

“I want women to know they can stand up for themselves,” she says now.

Uzan, contacted by phone, denies the charges. “Groping, that I deny completely,” he says. “Yes, probably I have been flirting with women, that’s possible. Did I insist or push somebody? That’s not possible. Did I push somebody verbally to sleep with me? Absolutely not. Did I blackmail somebody? Absolutely not.”

“I hurt people, I am sure,” he adds. “I am a big temperament, and I always say exactly what I think. I may have said things that were not taken well.” But his “enemies,” he says, “believe I have so much power. I never did.”

'Humongously impactful'

William Preucil, the violinist whom Bowers encountered in Miami, is celebrated as the best concertmaster in the country, at one of the country’s greatest orchestras. A faculty member at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he often travels elsewhere for teaching gigs.

A violinist who played in the New World Symphony says Preucil propositioned her after an uncomfortable dinner at a Miami steakhouse in 2000. When she dropped him off at his hotel, he suggested she come up to his room. “I can see you at the audition next month or you can come upstairs and let me lick you all over,” she recalls him saying. She drove away and soon thereafter told a friend about the incident, which the friend confirmed. The musician spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the insular nature of the orchestra world. Although Preucil did not respond to multiple Washington Post requests for an interview, Justin Holden, the director of public relations at the Cleveland Orchestra, said in an email, “We reached Mr. Preucil and informed him of your request. He indicated that he is not available.”

A 2007 article in the Cleveland Scene about Preucil and his influence at the Cleveland Orchestra describes an allegation of a sexual advance toward one of his students. According to that story, Preucil responded to the allegation in an email to the reporter, “The issue was fully reviewed by the institution and was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.”

In 2010, more than 10 years after the Miami encounter, Bowers learned that Preucil had been hired as guest concertmaster for a program with the Nashville Symphony, the orchestra she joined in 1999. She was so upset that she told the orchestra’s human resources office about the earlier incident and said she couldn’t play with him. An official at the orchestra confirmed that Bowers and her husband, a cellist, were given excused absences for the week Preucil was in Nashville.

Bowers still plays with the Nashville Symphony. Her history with Preucil “shut off the options of going to a lot of places,” she says. “I would look and see where he was, and make a plan not to go. This was a humongously impactful thing on my career. It changed where I would consider auditioning.”

'This is not okay'

There is no consensus about whether the #MeToo movement will lead to meaningful change in the field. But there are signs people are starting to push back. In November, students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston marched in the streets in protest after revelations that 11 teachers had been dismissed on sexual harassment charges in the previous 13 years, complaining of the school’s insufficient response. Other music schools are taking note. “We are going through an extensive revision of our policy right now, as everybody’s doing,” says K. James McDowell, president and artistic director of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, a leading training center for opera singers.

Artists who had been silent are telling their stories. Former soprano Robin Follman didn’t tell anyone for a decade about her experiences with William Florescu, general director of the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee, where she sang “Madame Butterfly.” She says Florescu’s continuous harassment culminated on a night when he drove her to a secluded area and subjected her to nonconsensual sexual acts. It was the worst experience of her career, but she never spoke about it. “There wasn’t the right person to go to then,” Follman says. “When you’re being followed by [the general director], there’s no one to go to.”

But earlier this year, after speaking to a Post reporter, Follman confided in a friend, who immediately contacted the Florentine Opera board. The company quickly sent a team to interview her, twice, about what had happened. “I’m so impressed with how the opera company handled it,” she says.

Florescu resigned in May, and the company later said his departure was “related to his violation of the Florentine Opera’s policies and prohibitions concerning sexual misconduct.”

Follman says she decided to speak now not only because of the changing climate, but also because she has the security of an entirely different life. “Back then, it was my livelihood,” says Follman, now chief executive of a manufacturing company. “My ability to put food on the table was threatened. I was just trying to get the next job.” The incident was a major factor in her decision to leave opera a few years later. “I never got over that,” she says.

Multiple attempts to reach Florescu for comment were unsuccessful.

The response of companies like the Florentine Opera has begun to shift musicians’ ideas about institutional complicity.

Reevaluating the past, and bringing old stories into the open, can be a significant step in changing the narrative.

“I thought this behavior was totally okay and normal,” Smith says now. “It’s only recently that I’ve been waking up to the fact that this is not okay.”

“Realizing that men like that are losing their power because of this, this women’s movement really is just so, so great,” says mezzo-soprano Shepard. “These people don’t have power anymore, once you realize in your head what happened.”