The Fall 2019 issue of AGMAZINE is finally out. It is focused on the theme of harassment in our industry, what it is, and what to do about it. I’m honored to be a guest writer for this issue, which includes many other thoughtful and forceful pieces written by members of the American Guild of Musical Artists. With perspectives and stories offered by soloists, choristers, dancers, and administrators, this issue is a concerted and communal effort to do some needed work.
There’s so much good writing and speaking and WORK happening now to address our industry’s history of abuse. If you’re feeling isolated within your institution or organization, investigate the channels through which you can reach out, or find some colleagues you can trust. In changing a culture – long-standing practices, stereotypes, attitudes – progress is never fast or flawless enough. But I feel so encouraged. None of these conversations were possible when I was coming up.
Here is the link to the magazine online. Below is the text of my essay.
Thank you everybody who does this work together! And major kudos to Melody Moore-Wagner, Lucas Meachem, Joshua Dennis, Ned Hanlon, Aria Umezawa, Kathryn Lewek, and Teresa Reichlin for their unflinching words.
We can figure this out. We have to.
I’m honored that AGMA invited me to write for this issue as a guest. I submit the following with the greatest respect for AGMA’s membership and with gratitude to the leadership for featuring this topic. Thanks to RT, AS, and EHS for the eyes and ears— KK
From the beginning, music and theater served so many functions of prime importance in my life. They opened an escape hatch into a world of richer identity; through them, I could channel my anxiety and fantasies into work and even beauty. I loved to be inspired by words, by music, and by the performers and teachers whose work and charisma could transport me and push me to be better. I loved the chance to follow their rules and be rigorous in one moment, and at the next to follow their lead in daring experimentation. Music and theater meant both solitary practice and teamwork, discipline and play, disappointment and faith. I learned to enjoy the trip across those boundaries, which elsewhere seemed so impenetrable.
In my choir, or at the piano, or on the stage, I was suddenly not so shy. I could dare to say things I otherwise wouldn’t. The pressure started to increase along with the attention, and even when I was scared, I was exhilarated. I learned to love crossing between those two states.
When I decided to be a serious student, taking on the scary trust exercise of seeking mentorship, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. When I started to take riskier steps, experiencing failure on the road to progress, it often felt terrible and wonderful at the same time. I was often most discouraged right before a big leap forward. I learned to expect and hope for that delicious shift as well.
So on that night when I was the only person on the top floor of the music building, when the conductor of the new music ensemble suddenly entered my practice room without knocking and stood blocking the door, when he said his wife was out of town and he knew my husband was too, when he invited me out for a drink and laughed that he wouldn’t take no for an answer, when he joked that maybe there’d be nothing more for me to play in the ensemble if I kept turning him down, I am sure that I laughed with him, I am sure that my face flushed, I am sure that my admiration for him was visible alongside my discomfort. Maybe it was all that he saw or chose to see.
But eventually, he went home. And after the next concert, I was out of the group. Where was the boundary I hadn’t seen? Who had crossed it?
I don’t know those answers, I thought. I can’t figure it out.
My first job, right out of my first apprenticeship, was in an opera house. It was the life of my university taken to the nth power. The Great Works of the canon I’d learned were pared down even further to a slim, revered repertoire, the execution of which was ruled by an oral tradition handed down by expert practitioners. This collection of charismatic, brilliant, inspiring musicians was overseen by equally charismatic artistic and musical directors. Apprentices worked with and learned from these great artists, and eager assistants seconded their famous and powerful colleagues. The clear hierarchy was reflected in our rehearsal rooms, with conductors and directors in charge. Famous leading singers were much more able to demand and maneuver than their younger colleagues. Contact with the people at the top of the hierarchy was absolutely essential for advancement.
Compared to my university, it seemed that women were everywhere, which was very exciting. Singers, colleagues, board members—women had clout and agency. They could also be flamboyant and outspoken, more so than in any other milieu I’d experienced. I felt empowered in their company.
But when the famous conductor, objecting that a young woman had been assigned to conduct the four offstage horns during his performances, insisted I come to his dressing room every night to conduct in front of him, my boss supported his request and explained that it had to happen because the man after all was a legend who had conducted a whole raft of legends. His stature warranted the small concession of my dignity, waving a silent pattern to prove my competence as he stared at my chest and wondered aloud whether the backstage horn players would know where to look.
When my female colleague and I arrived for the piano dress rehearsal she was scheduled to play, and the conductor told us with five minutes notice that I’d be playing instead because, in his words, she “wasn’t experienced enough to comprehend” the opera (despite her playing weeks of successful rehearsals with that conductor, despite my not having played it in months, despite us being equal in experience and competence and, of course, youth), we understood that it was up to us to roll with it, turn a blind eye to the sabotage, get the job done without complaining or showing any nerves or anger.
And when my superior said, “what were you thinking, being alone with him?” after I was assaulted in an elevator one night by a colleague, I felt stupid for my ignorance and never spoke about it again through the next three weeks of rehearsals and performances.
I confided some things to my sister, who worked in a large corporation. Don’t you have an HR department? she asked. How can those things be acceptable in your workplace?
She had to explain to me what HR stood for. But I objected to the characterization of my magical, turbulent theater as some mundane workplace.
Boundaries are different for us, I said. But I’ll figure it out.
I’m writing this piece many years after the stories above; my elevator attacker has died, as have both of the conductors. I’ve passed decades with the big classical music and opera community, in rehearsal rooms, on stages, in studios, at coffee shops, in airports, on FaceTime. I did figure it out, to an extent, in a fairly typical way. I worked hard and was sometimes chosen for big opportunities on the merit of that work—but sometimes, for other reasons more personal, random, or circumstantial. I was denied things too, for a similar array of reasons. Stories like the ones above ran in a constant thread through it all, though more and more in the background as I gained status and savvy.
More than once I wondered aloud with friends about what would happen if we all told our stories. At the same time, I was ignorant of the supportive structures that pioneers like Tarana Burke and Karen Kelsky were building in preparation of that very possibility. And now it’s underway. Already, in these early stages, the effects are seismic. Recently, I’ve watched colleagues and mentors step away from their positions in disgrace or in secrecy, and have seen others face an almost unspeakable onslaught when they spoke out about their experiences. More numerous and shocking to me are the many, many stories that people have shared with me, with no plans to make them public.
There is so much damage in our community that exists regardless of whether we hear about it.
The significant things that attract us to music and theater are real. Inspiration is real, and so are excellence and expertise. Charisma is real. Skill and technique are real. We pass these things on through mentorship, which is deeply personal, terribly intimate, and inherently risky. When that process occurs within an unquestioned hierarchy, one that heavily values and protects (and compensates) a small group of stars and gatekeepers while systematically minimizing or even silencing the concerns of numerous strivers, an atmosphere develops in which everyone is focused on the journey up the food chain, in which unequal treatment is rampant, and in which abuse can take root and fester.
In the academies and companies where I came of age, this was the situation. I find it extraordinarily painful now, as people begin to come forward, to hear the many voices within our own profession debasing and doubting those stories. We collectively traded those stories freely as gossip when the goal was to drop a famous name and show our proximity to power. But now, when people less starry wish to center their experiences, the crowd backs away.
Theater and music have also sometimes been able to provide certain expressive platforms for people who couldn’t find similar traction in other social and political arenas. Focusing on this, we’ve collectively chosen to ignore our field’s many inequitable and discriminatory mechanisms. As we scramble to adopt the language (much less the practice) of equity and inclusion, there is still deep division on these topics within the profession, even as our contemporary culture lopes ever farther past us.
There have always been incredible examples of those among us using their powers for good. Just the other day, reading online tributes in response to a beloved colleague’s passing, a friend recounted how he had once intervened in a rehearsal when she was being bullied by a director. I can’t count the number of assists I received in situations both critical and trivial, or the number of colleagues who inspired entire rooms with good humor, kind actions, and generous hearts.
But right alongside the beauty and comradeship of this profession, which has at times been greater than I ever dreamed possible or can adequately describe, stand countless examples of abuse, discrimination, and injustice. An insignificant number of those were mine to bear. I turned my eyes from so many more, or made sure I wasn’t around to see them.
And very often, when I did see, I tried to offer comfort and support in the shadows while making no moves to challenge the status quo, and I thought that was good enough for a very long time.
That, right there, is one of the biggest challenges we face: a deep examination of our shared responsibilities within this system we’ve constructed. I hope we can look at our belief in cultural and social hierarchy, so that we can open our ears and eyes to other practices, sounds, looks, and artistic impulses. I hope we’ll try to unpack the romance we’ve built around the idea of genius in order to interrogate the fairness of our workplaces. I hope we’ll confront our fears about money so that we can gain confidence in our dealings with those who possess it. I hope we can talk about why we don’t trust each other, so that we can find a way to bear the sheer weight of the silences we have required.
So many are already doing this work. If we can all join in, it’s possible to create an environment in which honest communication can begin to take root. How do we start? I think we can turn to our practice for guidance, playing both sides of the same boundaries that fascinated me as a young musician. We can be both rigorous and daring: rigorous in clearing up murkiness of boundaries and communication, and daring in putting ourselves on the line, especially when we possess greater agency and traction in a workspace (an awful lot of the risk is currently borne by people who have less power and fewer protections). We can combine solitary practice and teamwork, examining our own assumptions and blind spots while helping to create an atmosphere in which people can trust each other. And by accepting both disappointment and faith, we can make space for our current lack of skill and inevitable error while remaining confident of progress.
Our profession has taught me this: if we listen, we truly can learn from each other, inspire each other, and make each other better. Together, we are capable of so much more than we realize.
We can figure this out.
Kathleen Kelly is well-respected in the opera world as a coach, conductor, pianist, teacher, and writer. Kathleen was the first woman and first American named as Director of Musical Studies at the Vienna State Opera. She was head of music at Houston Grand Opera, and music director of the Berkshire Opera before moving to Vienna. Since returning to the USA in 2015, Kathleen has conducted at the Glimmerglass Festival, Wolf Trap Opera, Arizona Opera, the Merola Program, and has been a visiting coach for the prestigious young artist programs of Chicago Lyric Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company. Kathleen is an Associate Professor of Opera Coaching at Cincinnati Conservatory.