The Voice Teacher Abuse Survey : So What?

This is our yearly education issue and the largest Classical Singer has ever published. Because it is mailed to all colleges and universities with vocal programs and has a unique audience beyond our normal subscribers, we wanted to make sure that this issue had a special message—a critical message.

But first let me say that I especially appreciated Denyce Graves for her interview. She’s always been an inspiration to me, but this is an especially uplifting interview. We chose her for this issue because it has been one year since the terrorist attacks in NYC and D.C. and she was the classical voice that spoke for America during that time.

Also, have you ever wondered how to get a job teaching in a university or if you would be able to juggle life as an active performer after getting that job? In this issue, we interview singers who know the ropes. If you are in school considering whether to get your advanced degrees, you will want to read these articles. The decisions you are making now will impact your ability to seek out work at a university later. John Thomas writes on scholarships, which should help you stay in school if that is what you decide.

But back to our main feature for this issue. Here we finally present the survey on voice teacher abuse. I think there are two kinds of readers for this issue: those of you nodding your heads, grateful that we are finally addressing this important topic, and those of you who just don’t understand the plight of “abused singers.” As one singer wrote me today, “…if a singer doesn’t have the guts to preserve themselves in a learning situation, how will they ever survive the opera world or a bad review from a critic?”

I hope those of you in the second camp will take the time to find out why abused singers can’t always just walk out. You have colleagues on all levels of the business who have made solid careers—who have survived the opera world—but they’ve suffered terribly. Open your eyes at rehearsals all over the world and you’ll see it is going on everywhere. Your common response has been to turn away, embarrassed, and hope it will go away; I’ve seen you do it. That response has allowed abusive stage directors and famous voice teachers to increase in power unopposed.

If you are not being abused, you can help change the culture of this very abusive world of classical singing if you’ll just become aware. How can you help? At the very least, you could offer a few words of encouragement backstage when you see it happening to a singer. But if you really want to make change, you can do it by letting friendly general directors or college administrators know, in a gentle way, what you are observing. This happened at the Met and stage director Jonathan Miller was informed that he would not be invited back. (See August issue of Classical Singer, Bulletin Board). Do you think Mr. Miller is reconsidering his treatment of singers and that the singers at his next job will reap the benefits? I hope so. We’ve really allowed this culture of screaming, ranting directors, teachers and divas to go on for far too long.

Teachers can help by uniting at a university to speak out when they observe an abusive teacher or when they observe abuse happening in masterclasses such as happened at a recent large teachers’ convention. (see pg .20). However, our goal is not to get someone fired; it is to change behavior. There are great teachers and directors out there who have simply got a real problem with communication and someone needs to be speaking out for those singers who get paralyzed by that bad behavior. Singers at a university could support an abused colleague. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a problem with this personally; it is a huge problem for many of your colleagues for reasons that you’ll read about in this issue. Become aware of what is going on. We didn’t make this stuff up. It’s going on, and it’s affecting your friends, the students who come to you. From a selfish viewpoint, think of the damage it does to the free flowing artistry of the productions you sing in. Negativity reaches right out to the audience. You think they don’t feel what is going on when a cast has to pull in to protect itself from tirades of an angry director? How about the negative culture of the schools you send or will send your children to? Isn’t it worth working for change now?

Letters and calls have been coming in on this topic for years. I was not able to use all of them because I was asked to keep some private but some were extremely upsetting and dealt with severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse on all levels of the business. Singers and teachers wrote about abuse perpetrated not just by voice teachers, but by coaches, stage directors—all kinds of people associated with the opera profession. Teachers wrote in about being abused by students. One teacher wrote an open letter to other teachers suggesting changes. Singers wrote in about the things they’ve seen teachers do to other teachers. And finally, we have the reports of abuse that singers have endured at the hands of a minority of teachers. I keep stressing ‘minority’ of teachers. The statistics bore out my beliefs out that the majority of teachers are wonderful, caring people. We all knew that.

The first comment that was made on the Classical Singer forum when this survey came out was, “I was shocked at some of the questions on the survey. Do these things really go on? Obviously they do, or no one would think to ask about them. Let me be the first to say that this is a topic that needs serious and lengthy discussion in the magazine. Obviously there are singers out there who think that this behavior is ordinary or acceptable. It’s not. This is a real opportunity for CS to help singers.”

To clarify, “Yes, these things go on.” But I think it is that small minority of abusive teachers who are socializing young impressionable singers into thinking that this behavior is normal. As an example, one singer wrote that yes, she was embarrassed when the teacher lifted up her skirt and put his hands on her underwear “to show support” but tried to think of it like a doctor’s visit. I’m sure that as it happened on subsequent lessons, she did begin to think of it as normal. My hope is that this issue will help young singers see what is normal and what is not normal.

The questions on the survey were included because of phone calls, letters or personal knowledge backed up by studies on the symptoms of abuse. In a few cases, we have discontinued accepting advertising from specific teachers because of complaints that have gone unresolved.

Classical Singer would like to call on administrators at universities and all the truly excellent teachers out there to support singers who face abusive situations. Singers should no longer be afraid to ask for help or at the very least—a change in teacher when there are serious abuses going on.

Abuse is often arbitrary. Anyone in an opera cast knows that the director usually chooses one person to scream at and belittle; it’s the same in a teacher’s studio (or an abusive family.) I’ve seen case after case where a teacher is treating one student horribly while the others are being given star treatment. Administrators need to be careful to not disbelieve one singer just because abuse is not happening to another. The abuser mentality is often such that she will create a ‘bad girl’ and then create a self-righteous group around herself of ‘good girls.’ Read “Teacher to Teacher” in this issue for a classic example of how this happened in a recent masterclass where a famous diva tried to turn 300 teachers against a young singer. And none of them said a word as this young singer stood on stage and sobbed.

But great caution is in order, because teachers’ careers are on the line, and singers can be hyper-sensitive. A less-than-honorable singer can also cry “abuse” when there is none simply to get a grade changed. Be very, very careful to not cry “wolf” when there is no wolf. Careers are on the line and so is your reputation. It has been our one fear about bringing this up. Please be incredibly careful. But teachers, even famous teachers, who are screaming, throwing things, sexually harassing and exhibiting other abusive behavior have no business working with singers until they have changed their behavior. Singers don’t have to put up with it.

Everyone especially needs to work together to help the young singers get out of these situations. They are vulnerable and need to be listened to. Classical Singer will do everything in its power to make sure their voices are heard— when they are speaking responsibly.

CJ Williamson

CJ Williamson founded Classical Singer magazine. She served as Editor-in-Chief until her death in July, 2005. For comments on this article or other articles, e-mail