The on-going revelations of sexual harassment in the arts world don’t surprise mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta.
The Ottawa native said in a recent interview that she has been sexually assaulted and harassed in her opera career.
“I have been sexually assaulted four times in the workplace by prominent people. Two times during two different productions I was assaulted by other singers. One is now dead but the other is a prominent and successful performer,” she said.
Giunta explained that, in these incidents, there was flirtatious behaviour in the story lines of each production and the men “used it as an opportunity to take advantage of that,” she said.
“It involved inappropriate, physical touching. It was an unwanted, unsolicited and unwelcome physical and emotional invasion of privacy. It was not fun. I was a young artist and I felt I had no way to defend myself especially since these guys were both major stars.”
One incident happened during a rehearsal and the other during a performance. Afterward her other colleagues would help protect her by getting in between during scenes.
The second set of incidents happened this past year, she said. One involved verbal harassment by a conductor.
“He never did touch me but it was intense sexual intimidation in which he used his position to try and coerce me into doing things with him that I didn’t want to do.
“I said ‘No,’ and I reported it to the company and they defended me. They took action and he’s no longer working there.
“That was fantastic. It was the first time I’ve heard of or been a part of that there has been support for an artist who was being intimidated into doing something that they didn’t want to do.”
The second instance happened just a month ago. It was, she says, “a standard run of the mill groping. It’s nothing that I am damaged from and it is not going to change my life in any way. It’s just: ‘Are you serious? Do you actually think you are going to get away with that now, after Harvey Weinstein?'”
Giunta believes the man just assumed that as a conductor he could get away with it.
“So I reported him as well. The company promised me they would speak to him and and make sure he understands that this behaviour is never acceptable. I fully trust that they’ve done so.”
She also says she is more encouraged as a result of the actions of the companies in these latter two incidents.
“I’m happy to say this is a sign of hope in our industry. This sort of thing does happen all the time, people taking advantage of people, but now there is some hope. I have been part of two instances when companies stood up for the artist and took action necessary to defend interests of the victim. I wasn’t expecting that to happen.
“So there is hope things are changing. People are starting to come forward and it’s being heard and dealt with. It’s begun. It’s starting.
“There are many men who would never do anything like that. There is a difference between not doing it yourself and allowing it to happen, knowing about it and not doing something.
“I feel that those men who would never cross the line are waking up to fact that by doing nothing they aren’t helping. It’s exciting now to hear from colleagues, male friends, saying they had been a silent witness in the past and never thought they could do anything about it. They are saying they won’t stand by any more.”
Giunta says the incidents affecting her happened in the U.S. and in Europe. She says, that at this point, she has no intention to name names.
She says she has never had a problem in Canada.
“I feel equal here. I feel respected as an individual and I feel my gender doesn’t matter. I’ve not been in a situation in Canada where someone has crossed the line. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, it just hasn’t happened to me.”
Not so in the U.S. At the Met, when she was there, she would walk into the building every day and be cat-called by the stagehands.
“It was like walking down the street past a construction site. I would go in the stage door and I would try to sneak past them without getting cat-called. That was my mission every day.
“I did go to speak to a human resources official and she said there was nothing to be done. … She said dress down.”
Giunta has learned how to take care of herself in these situations and she also has hope for better days.
“What I have learned from these situations is to trust my own instincts and to have a zero tolerance policy when dealing with this behaviour.” She’s not taking it any more, she says.