Fabiola Santiago

No, Florida Grand Opera, sexual assault isn’t a thing of the past. Ask Bill Cosby.

Former Florida Grand Opera Director Bernard Uzan has been accused by four women of sexual assault in a Washington Post exposé.
Former Florida Grand Opera Director Bernard Uzan has been accused by four women of sexual assault in a Washington Post exposé. International Arts

Despite the Bill Cosby guilty verdict, despite the assault charges disgraced movie director Harvey Weinstein faces, we haven’t learned a thing about sexual abuse and harassment in this town.

Or we wouldn’t be treating the accusations against one of our own — Florida Grand Opera Director Bernard Uzan — so dismissively with the excuse: Oh, it happened a decade ago.

Sexual assault isn’t a thing of the past you can sweep under the rug. It’s vile, leaves a trail of victims and should have consequences.

Back in February, at the height of #MeToo sex-abuse scandals, an arts writer asked Uzan if he saw a correlation between his take on the 1905 Strauss opera “Salome” and the movement claiming the careers of powerful men in this country.

Uzan said he didn’t — and went on to complain that he didn’t know how to treat women anymore because something he might say might be construed as harassment.

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Kirsten Chambers rehearses the title role of the Florida Grand Opera production of ‘Salome,’ directed by Bernard Uzan. LUCIA ESCOTT Photo provided to the Miami Herald

But how could the 73-year-old director make any connection with a straight face between #MeToo and an abused, sexualized girl turned into John the Baptist’s executioner in a biblical story when he had his own nasty secrets to keep?

According to a Washington Post exposé of sexual abuse and harassment in the classical music industry, four women, all of them singers, accuse Uzan of acts of sexual assault and harassment damaging to their careers. He denied the charges and explained them away as “flirting.”

These aren’t anonymous women just hurling accusations. All of the cases were meticulously reported, backed up by other sources, and scrutinized by editorial and legal processes at the Post.

And what was the Florida Grand Opera’s response?

Issuing a statement that dismisses the gravity of the accusations.

“In regards to the recent allegations about Bernard Uzan,” said Susan T. Danis, the company’s general director and CEO, “Florida Grand Opera holds itself to the highest standard against sexual harassment. It is our obligation to ensure that every one of our employees feels safe, valued and protected. The alleged allegations are over a decade ago and Mr. Uzan remains to be a valued member to the company.”

A lame and dismissive statement. And this is the company’s “highest standard”?

You can read in full the women’s stories in The Post, but here’s a recap of what the “valued” Uzan considers “flirting.”

Woman No. 1, Diane Alexander: Embracing and pressing an erection in a hotel elevator against the soprano in a young-artists program isn’t flirting. Propositioning her again, years later, and when turned down, becoming critical of her performance isn’t flirting.

Woman No. 2, Erin Elizabeth Smith: Taking the mezzo-soprano for drinks to discuss her career then pushing the table away to show his erection and saying,“This is what you do to me,” then sticking his finger in her mouth and asking her to suck it is not flirting. Nor is it then taking her off his roster when she turns him down.

Woman No. 3, Xixi Shepard: Asking the mezzo-soprano to dinner after she joins his roster of artists and, after a lot of wine, boasting at length about his prowess with oral sex and asking her to experience it isn’t flirting.

Woman No. 4, Carla Dirlikov: Cornering the mezzo-soprano at an audition and telling her “I want to sleep with you,” and when she turns him down trashing her with other potential employers is not flirting. Neither is putting his hand on her breast at a crowded rehearsal and, when she tells him “What the hell are you doing?” then boasting, “I felt like it.”

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What message was FGO sending its staff, performers and patrons with their dismissal of these hurtful acts?

Faced with the backlash, two days after FGO stood by him, Uzan and his wife, Diana Soviero, resigned from positions they described in a statement as “non-contracted, Co-Artistic Directors of the FGO, Studio Artist Program.”

“It is with great sadness that we submit our resignations,” they said Sunday in a joint statement.

But Uzan is still listed as director of the company’s April-May 2019 production of “Werther,” billed as “a portrait of a lonely-hearted dreamer obsessed with a love he can never have,” a spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

“None of these allegations happened at Florida Grand Opera,” spokesman Kal Gajraj said to me. “They happened decades ago.”

How does FGO know that other women who have worked with Uzan in Miami won’t come forward now?

Gajraj had no answer, but told me via email later: “At this time the board of directors are assembling to discuss the matter.”

In contrast, the Cleveland Orchestra suspended “until further notice” violinist William Preucil, its concertmaster of 23 years, and opened an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against him after The Post report. “We take this matter very seriously and will promptly conduct an independent investigation,” the orchestra’s executive director said.

And the Grand Teton Music Festival has uninvited Preucil, saying: “This sort of behavior has no place in our organization.”

That’s how you handle sexual assault and harassment.

No, FGO hasn’t learned a thing. They remain as clueless about the gravity of sexual abuse claims — no matter how long ago they happened — as they were since the story broke.

The company owes an apology to the classical music world and this community for failing to understand, not once but several times, that the sexual assault and harassment claims against Uzan should be taken seriously and acted on.

Sexual assault isn’t a thing of the past you can sweep under the rug. The courageous victims who’ve put it all on the line to raise awareness deserve better. And so do the girls growing up in today’s world, still unsafe and full of predators. Our #MeToo movement is their #WeWillTell lesson. For far too long, the classical music world has remained silent and hidden from scrutiny behind the apparent curtain of civility of art.

But, thanks to the women speaking up, no more.

Follow me on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago
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