Ouster of principal conductor latest in series of turnovers at MOT

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Michigan Opera Theatre Principal Conductor Stephen Lord

Stephen Lord, principal conductor at the Michigan Opera Theatre the past three years, has resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment and using his position to request sexual favors, behavior reportedly spanning decades.

The allegations against Lord, 70, were published Tuesday in the Twin Cities Arts Reader, the result of a year-long investigation into sexual abuse in the opera world by Basil Considine, its performing arts editor and classical music and drama critic. 

The account cites email and electronic messages in which it claims Lord promised career advancement in exchange for sex. "If you sleep with me," read one, "you would have so many jobs."

Michigan Opera Theatre said in a release that Lord resigned because of allegations of behavior "which do not align with the company's values and standards."

All the same, theater President and CEO Wayne S. Brown said, "Stephen has had a long and successful relationship with Michigan Opera Theatre, and we appreciate his artistic leadership, especially in his last three years as principal conductor." 

Also on Wednesday, the website of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, where Lord was music director emeritus, announced his resignation.

Lord's resignation leaves MOT without a principal conductor, and still no artistic director in a season of institutional churn. In March, John O’Dell, director of marketing and communications, left for the Cleveland Symphony, while Chief Development Officer Frankie Piccirilli will exit at month’s end. 

The allegations come eight months after the death of MOT's founder and composer David DiChiera.

Lord did not respond to messages left on his cellphone, whose voicemail recording said, "I’m going on an extended holiday for -- Oh, who knows? -- a few months. But when I get back, I’ll return whatever call you’ve made."

The current scandal is the second time in a week that MOT made a personnel change after allegations of inappropriate conduct. On June 14, the opera company's Facebook feed announced that the part of Leporello in the upcoming production of "Don Giovanni" would be recast.

The bass-baritone originally cast was Matthew Stump, whom the Arts Reader reported last year also faced charges of sexual harassment. His casting caused a social-media storm, and he was dropped from the production.

Lord, a Massachusetts native who graduated from Oberlin College in 1971, has a distinguished background, with 40 years with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and 17 years as music director and principal conductor at the Boston Lyric Opera.

Many of the messages quoted in the Arts Reader — all of which were anonymous — made clear that Lord, one of the opera world's most-accomplished and influential conductors, threatened retaliation if a singer spurned his advances. 

Lord would apparently try to pass off his alleged requests for sexual favors as off-color jokes — but then, according to the article, would continue the alleged harassment. 

 Lord has worked with a number of Young Artist Programs that train people just beginning their opera careers. 

One singer who'd worked with Lord in St. Louis said, "I learned to fear Maestro Lord — and to dread his messages." 

The Arts Reader quoted a young vocal coach-in-training saying, "I was warned to be careful around Lord – even before I met him. I was told to expect overtures, and to be careful how I acted. Redirect or ignore, but don't report him – that's career suicide." 

Another unidentified singer reported feeling utterly powerless.

"I thought he'd be an advocate in the future to help me be hired at different companies," the individual said. "When someone holds that much power in this industry, it takes so much to speak out against it, and I still feel that way. I fear blacklisting."

Another cited family as the reason for not coming forward with charges: "It only takes Stephen thinking that it was me and then I'm out of work."

In a June 19, 2017 interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Lord said he was looking forward to returning to Detroit after transitioning to music director emeritus at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis following the 2017 season.

"My very first job was in Detroit," he said -- as a vocal coach on MOT's 1975 production of "Barber of Seville." 

Of MOT, Lord added, "They’re a huge opera house, in a city that’s coming back like a phoenix from the ashes – it’s unbelievable what’s happening there." 

He went on to say that MOT asked him to come on board as artistic director, but that he didn't want the administrative responsibilities. 

"What I can do easily is conduct," Lord said. "I can pick repertoire, I can pick singers. I can do all that stuff – but the day-to-day, not interested. So I signed a contract to be principal conductor, quote unquote. But it really is artistic director."

Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant working in the classical-music and opera worlds, said, "This is just the latest instance of abusive behavior coming to light. The only positive I think you can put on this is that victims are feeling more comfortable bringing this information forward. And fortunately," he added, "boards of directors are becoming more competent at processing those allegations competently." 

Lord's resignation echoes the fate of one of the giants in the industry, the Metropolitan Opera's James Levine, who was fired in 2018 after similar allegations came to light. 

For his part, Considine, who in addition to reporting also runs a chamber opera company in Minneapolis, Really Spicy Opera, said he doesn't necessarily believe that most powerful men in the industry abuse their power. 

But, he said, "having a crowd applauding you every night is great for the ego, and I think those men let it go to their heads in the worst way." 


(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy