COC parts ways with conductor over harassment allegations

After a public outcry, the Canadian Opera Company (COC) is no longer working with American conductor Stephen Lord on a forthcoming production of La Traviata.

Lord, who resigned as principal conductor at the Michigan Opera Theatre last year in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, was slated to conduct the Verdi opera in spring 2021.

On March 5, COC general director Alexander Neef said he asked Lord to withdraw from the production after receiving “a lot of concern expressed for our team, as well as visiting cast and crew members.

“I also heard a desire for us, as a leading Canadian performing arts organization, to re-examine how we consider all aspects of such consequential matters,” the statement continued. “While no new information surrounding the allegations has come to light, I understand that having a safe workplace extends far beyond physical well-being. A supportive environment is crucial to fostering confidence and creativity and I am committed to providing that for all staff and visiting artists.”

The company is now searching for a replacement guest conductor.

“We are also taking steps to ensure that the conversation around harassment in the workplace does not end here,” Neef added. “The COC has a number of resources already in place to help identify and talk about misconduct and abuse – but we can always do better. We will be using what we have learned over the past few weeks to help develop new strategies for keeping the lines of communication open and empowering our team to speak up with confidence.”

Last June, more than two dozen people accused Lord of sending sexually explicit text messages and offering career opportunities in exchange for sexual favours. All of Lord’s accusers were anonymous and shared their stories with Twin Cities Arts Reader.

Lord, who has denied the allegations, resigned from the Michigan Opera Theatre and as music director emeritus at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He was also let go by Portland’s Opera Maine. 

The Canadian opera world was shocked, then, when the COC announced that Lord would lead La Traviata in 2021.

Lord has conducted for the COC several times before, including 2018’s Rigoletto, 2014’s A Masked Ball, 2013’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Norma in both 1998 and 2016.

At the time of the spring season’s announcement, the COC stood behind the decision, noting in a statement to Opera Canada published on February 10 that the company had conducted a “detailed review” of Lord’s past engagements dating back to 1986 and “no complaints or records of misconduct were found in our files.”

“The COC also reached out to external organizations, partner unions, and individuals who worked closely with Mr. Lord in order to learn if complaints of any kind, named or anonymous, had been formally lodged or otherwise brought forward,” the statement continued.

“Our inquiries and follow-up yielded no results. Having completed a fair and due process – one that included much careful and thorough review of the information available to us – Mr. Lord will conduct La Traviata in spring of 2021.”

In the weeks since, criticism from the opera community and fans mounted.

Lord is not the first major figure in the opera world to have been hit with assault allegations since the #MeToo movement began in 2017.

Earlier this month, Spanish opera singer and conductor Plácido Domingo withdrew from upcoming performances at London’s Royal Opera House after the American Guild of Musical Artists released the results of an internal investigation that found the star had engaged in “inappropriate activity” with women in and outside of the workplace.

The report found that 27 people had accused the 79-year-old of sexual misconduct. Domingo also resigned from his position as general director of the Los Angeles Opera. 

When approached for comment, Lord’s management disclosed that the conductor is not providing statements at this time.

Update: This story was edited on March 10, 2020 to reflect Lord’s response.


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