To Mark Swed re: Plácido Domingo
Is it okay if I call you Mark? I’ve heard you’ve made appearances at my alma mater, CalArts, and everyone there is on a first-name basis, so I’m going to call you Mark. I read your article this morning about Plácido Domingo stepping down from the LA Opera, and even though I’ve got plenty to do today, I couldn’t help but write you about it first. As I mentioned, I’m a CalArts alum; my artistic practice has been molded and refined by that school and the experiences I had there that changed my life.
Your writing reminds me of the dark spots in my education.
I’m not going to link to your article here—even if they’re hate clicks, I don’t want to give you more exposure—but let me take you through and align some things you’ve written with things already enshrined into my memory as a twenty-three-year-old with a newly-minted MFA. See, Mark, I’ve been very fortunate to have learned from many teachers I hold in high regard, but I’ve also already been disadvantaged not only by my gender but the things my male peers are expected to get away with doing to me.
Take the first year of my masters, for example: the Levine news had just broken. (I heard you spent column space making excuses for him, too. Thanks for that.) The musical community was in uproar nationally. One of my teachers—I won’t name names—took advantage of a particularly chill class to address the issue. This being CalArts, I expected a bit of analysis coupled with a general feeling of you should not have to sacrifice your wellbeing to have a career. That’s not what we got. Instead, this teacher waxed poetic about the experiences he’d had at the Metropolitan Opera and how there was now a looming possibility that the Met would close its doors. He transitioned away from this to talking about Levine specifically, and I had a moment of relief—until I realized he wasn’t going to spend time addressing the allegations. No, we had a brief conversational jaunt over to another major music institution in New York whose sexual harassment problems haven’t made the news yet, and then we got the kicker: a moment that essentially came down to “if you’re someone these allegations could be levied against, watch your back, and if you have skeletons in your closet, make sure they stay there.”
My partner and I had just started dating, and I remember talking about it afterward. He was as unsettled as I was. “That’s not the message you should be sending to students,” I remember one of us saying.
Or, Mark, we could go even further back, to my undergrad. I spent a significant amount of time in the jazz community during that time in my education; I’m now enmeshed back into that same group of folks, working to actively change the community’s treatment of gender-marginalized people. For the two years I spent around that crowd as an undergraduate, though, I was frequently casually dismissed by teachers and peers, in class and at jam sessions and just hanging out. Those same people, though, would tokenize me and fetishize me and parade me around in performance—look, there’s a lady in that band, and what do you know, she’s well-spoken, too—and I began to resent who I am because I was never allowed to just be a musician. Not a good one, not a bad one. My worth was always decided by how useful my gender was to them at the time.
Want the classical side of the house? Let me point you at my junior year. Spring semester marked my third conducting class; all the performance majors were required to take it, but I, a composer, opted in as an elective. The professor’s first words to me were “you know you don’t have to be here, right?” That said something in itself, but I could brush it off. His first critique of me, though, I’ll never forget: it was the first day of assessments, and I was the first person on the podium. He turned the camera on, I brought my baton up; he hesitated, then turned the camera off. I put my baton down. He walked back up to the front of the room and proceeded to slut-shame me for a solid few minutes for wearing a shirt that showed my shoulders. Mark, it was a ninety-seven-degree day in Tempe, Arizona, and I was not about to make my conducting debut with the Phoenix Symphony. Of course I was wearing a tank top. By the time he was done, I was incensed, and the women in the room who had yet to take the podium were equally upset. Thankfully, I’m the kind of person who will excel at something purely out of spite. The end-of-semester email I got in which that professor begrudgingly admitted I was among the best in the class was like candy on my tongue, but it’s among the few victories I’ve won in such arenas.
Or, if you like, we could take it back all the way to the beginning of my freshman year of college. I can distinctly remember the week before my first large ensemble concert and the concert dress conversation that came up in rehearsals. My director’s word choice remains seared into my brain to this day: “Tasteful black, ladies. Tasteful black.” I’m not even going to get into the slut-shamey undertones inherent to that statement. Do you know how difficult it is to find something “tasteful” when you have no idea how your definition of the word differs from your conductor’s, a man who wears short-sleeve button-ups and khakis to most rehearsals? I wanted so badly to wear a dress that night, but I had no reasonable frame of reference as to what would be acceptable—below the knee? just above the knee? mid-thigh?—that I’m pretty sure I wore pants instead. For all the concerts that year.
Or, Mark, we could move beyond academia and into the professional world. I was home for the holidays, and I was asked if I could fill in on piano for the caroling-around-the-piano at the church I attended as a child. Pay was dismal—tips only—but I was there to do a job. (At that point in my life, I wasn’t really a church person. Hell, I was barely an organized-religion person.) I arrived, prepared to sit through the service, play my hour of Christmas tunes, and go home. The pastor of the church—the man who had been a religious authority to me and my family for years—had other ideas, singling me out in the congregation at the beginning of the service and berating me for not appearing smiling and beatific on command. “You’re not even going to smile for us?” Do you know, Mark, what it’s like to be catcalled by a man at least three decades your senior while knowing you’re going to have to sit there and take whatever’s thrown at you so you can play your gig and go home? I do.
Thanks in large part to that mistreatment, I have not performed on piano since.
The sum of all these experiences—and others I can’t mention here, because some would prompt super fun Title IX problems and some more would just ensure we were here all day—means I have actual, lived experience drawing the short straw. I understand what it’s like to be staring down a threatening man you have to put up with because he is in the way of your career. My body knows how it feels to want to run away but have to stay put. I’ve written at length about Schrödinger’s rapist and the constant vigilance required of women who would like very much not to be assaulted. Sexual assault and rape culture have embedded themselves into my music and therefore my career. I’d say I shouldn’t be doing any of these things at twenty-three years old, but when you take into account that approximately one in five American women are victims of sexual assault before they graduate college, it doesn’t seem so strange.
The point is, Mark, that thanks to the ways these subjects manifest in my art, I spend a lot of time—a lot—considering how I can tell stories that are often tragic and grotesque without inflicting lasting harm on my audience and my performers. Performance ethics is my preferred specialty. Often, this process involves extra conversations, a little more time for rehearsals, and more effort on my part as the person in power running the show. I’ve tackled assault and victim-blaming and domestic abuse and murder and suicide, but I have not yet found a situation that was so unworkable that my performers or audiences felt they had no choice but to be subjected to something that would inflict lasting harm. And though I risk sounding like the trumpet player I am, I’ll say it: the art I put out as a result of these projects is great. Maybe in ten years (or maybe in five) you’ll be pulling my work apart in your column when your beloved opera mounts a production of mine. (Given your current hot take, you’ll probably hate it. But that’s cool.)
Honestly, though, reading your column today made my stomach turn. You wrote, “. . . we may very well have to conclude that he’s human, and that maybe he couldn’t have done all the great things he did without also having done what he shouldn’t have, and hurting people along the way.” Let me give you confirmation, from someone currently in the trenches: greatness is not contingent upon harm inflicted on others. And greatness does not justify those harmed as acceptable losses. We are not pursuing music careers to be footnotes and casualties of somebody else’s story. We understand that we have ethical responsibilities to our peers, our audiences, and our superiors that must be fulfilled. We know there’s still work to do. And we know people who have become and are becoming giants of their fields without forcing others out of the arena—sexually or otherwise. And if you’re more concerned with telling us predators who should have retired years ago really aren’t that bad, that’s your prerogative. But I hope you’re ready to “self-reflect” on the predators your words are enabling to continue their abuse.
Maybe the next piece I write will be about people like you. Until then, the video below should give you a general idea.
[Eris] DeJarnett ♦
(if you like what you read, tune in for weekly posts on Saturdays at 8pm MST. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.)