SAN FRANCISCO >> Three opera singers and a classical musician say that world-renowned conductor Charles Dutoit sexually assaulted them — physically restraining them, forcing his body against theirs, sometimes thrusting his tongue into their mouths, and in one case, sticking one of their hands down his pants.
In separate interviews with The Associated Press, the accusers provided detailed accounts of incidents they say occurred between 1985 and 2010 in a moving car, the two-time Grammy winner’s hotel suite, his dressing room, an elevator and the darkness of backstage.
The women accuse the 81-year-old artistic director and principal conductor of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of sexual misconduct on the sidelines of rehearsals and performances in five cities — Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Saratoga Springs, New York.
“He threw me against the wall, shoved my hand down his pants and shoved his tongue down my throat,” retired mezzo-soprano Paula Rasmussen recounted of an incident she said occurred in his dressing room at the LA Opera in September 1991. She refused to ever be alone with the Swiss-born conductor again, she said.
Soprano Sylvia McNair, herself a two-time Grammy winner, said Dutoit “tried to have his way” with her at a hotel after a rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1985.
“As soon as it was just the two of us in the elevator, Charles Dutoit pushed me back against the elevator wall and pressed his knee way up between my legs and pressed himself all over me,” she said.
The other two accusers did not want to be identified, saying they feared speaking up because the power the famous maestro wields could lead to them being blacklisted from the industry.
Dutoit, who holds the titles of conductor laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor emeritus of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him through the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and his office in Montreal. The Royal Philharmonic said Dutoit was currently on vacation, but that it had forwarded the AP’s emailed requests for comment directly to him. The AP also reached out to Dutoit’s office with several phone calls and emails.
In a long, distinguished career, he also has led highly regarded orchestras in Paris and Montreal, and traveled the globe as a guest conductor. He is scheduled to conduct the New York Philharmonic next month in a four-day program honoring Ravel.
All four accusers’ stories are similar, and the AP spoke with their colleagues and friends, who confirmed that each of the women shared details of their experiences at the time.
One of the women who asked not to be identified said Dutoit attacked her three times in 2006 and once in 2010, grabbing her breasts, pinning her wrists against his dressing room wall and telling her that they would make better music if she willingly kissed him.
All four women said Dutoit either lured them to a private place to discuss or practice music, or simply seized a moment alone to make his move. The women all said they resisted him and escaped. They said they never filed formal complaints because they were young and Dutoit was the maestro.
In interviews with the AP, more than a dozen singers, musicians and stage staff spoke of a culture of sexual misconduct in the classical music world that they said has long been implicitly tolerated by people in positions of authority.
Dutoit’s accusers said they felt inspired by all the women speaking out about sexual misconduct by powerful men in Hollywood, politics, the media and other industries, and ultimately felt empowered to break their silence after the Metropolitan Opera suspended conductor James Levine earlier this month when misconduct accusations surfaced.
CORNERED IN AN ELEVATOR
“I never went to the police. I never went to company management. Like everyone else, I looked the other way,” said Sylvia McNair, now 61. “But it is time now to speak out.”
McNair was 28 in March 1985 when she worked with Dutoit at the Minnesota Orchestra where he was conducting and she was singing the Bach B Minor Mass.
After a rehearsal, McNair said she returned to her hotel with Dutoit and other performers and that the elevator gradually emptied until only she and the conductor remained. Dutoit immediately jumped her, she said, forcefully restraining her against the elevator wall and pushing his body into hers.
“I managed to shove him off and right at that moment, the elevator door opened. I remember saying, ‘Stop it!’ And I made a dash for it,” she said.
When she got to her room, she said she almost immediately called another singer who had been in the elevator with them.
The AP spoke to the colleague, who confirmed receiving the call, saying “she was frantic because Dutoit had pressed her against the side of the elevator, pressing into her with his whole body.” He said he asked McNair the next day if Dutoit had apologized and she said he had not, and instead acted as if nothing had happened. The colleague asked not to be identified because he feared speaking out could harm his career.
McNair, who went on to perform with many of the world’s major orchestras and opera companies, said she does not feel traumatized by Dutoit’s behavior 32 years ago. “But what he did was wrong,” she said.
SUMMONED TO HIS DRESSING ROOM
In September 1991, when she was 26 and trying to build her career, Paula Rasmussen landed a principal role with the LA Opera in “Les Troyens.” Dutoit showed special interest in her at rehearsals, she said, prompting a veteran soprano, now deceased, to warn her to watch out for him.
Rasmussen had dealt with inappropriate behavior before, she said, but her inner alarm bells did not sound when Dutoit summoned her. She assumed the maestro wanted to talk business.
“He called me into his dressing room right before a dress rehearsal. Over the loudspeaker: ‘Ms. Rasmussen to Mr. Dutoit’s dressing room’,” she said.
Rasmussen, 52, now an attorney in the San Francisco area, said she recalls feeling momentarily paralyzed after Dutoit grabbed her hand and stuck it down his pants and forced his tongue into her mouth. Then came a knock on the door. The conductor opened it, she said, “and I went past him, and ran up to my dressing room.”
It was the only time she ever went to Dutoit’s dressing room unaccompanied, she said.
“He called me back repeatedly that night, and up until we opened,” Rasmussen said. “Every time he wanted to give me notes on the performance after that, somebody would go with me.”
Baritone John Atkins, who was part of the production, said he remembers Rasmussen being reticent upon getting called to Dutoit’s dressing room after the incident. “I volunteered myself to stand at the dressing room door, as a witness, for lack of a better term, to be there while she went to get notes,” he said.
Atkins said he still remembers the cold stare from Dutoit. “He looked at me like, ‘Why are you standing here?’ And I looked at him like, ‘You know why.’”
The AP also spoke with a member of the production’s staging staff who said it was known backstage that Dutoit had approached Rasmussen “in an unwanted manner” and that the singer had been visibly upset that night. The staffer asked not to be identified for fear of losing work in the industry.
On a subsequent occasion, Rasmussen said the conductor passed her in a hallway and whispered, “You kissed me back,” which she assumed meant to suggest that she had invited his behavior.
Rasmussen said she is breaking her years of silence “because people are listening — and nobody would listen before.”
‘GRABBED’ IN A CAR AND BACKSTAGE
A third singer told the AP that Dutoit assaulted her on four different occasions when she was in her 30s during performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra — first in 2006 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York and then in 2010 in Philadelphia.
She didn’t see it coming the first time, the soprano said, considering it “the chance of a lifetime” to work with the famed conductor as a featured soloist. When Dutoit offered her a ride to their hotel in Saratoga Springs after the first rehearsal, she happily accepted, she said.
“We get in his car, he starts driving down the road and he literally starts grabbing for whatever he can get,” including her breasts, she said. “For a minute, in my mind I thought, ‘Is he having a stroke?’”
She said she batted his hand away and put her bag between them until he dropped her off at the hotel.
After the next rehearsal, she said Dutoit called a meeting in his dressing room but that she felt safe because other people were there. At one point, when she looked up from the score, she realized they were alone, however.
As she walked toward the door, she said, Dutoit pressed her against the wall, restrained her wrists and pushed himself against her, telling her she would relax if she kissed him. He suggested they become friends, she said, and told her she should come to his hotel room.
The AP spoke with the woman’s voice teacher, who recalled an occasion where the conductor told the soprano he wanted to speak to her. “I physically see her start to shake,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity to protect the soprano’s identity. “She grabbed my hand and said, ‘Don’t leave me alone.’”
A final act of aggression that season came on opening night, the soprano said.
Just before the performance, the soprano said she was standing on the side of the stage in her evening gown when Dutoit approached in his tuxedo. “Toi, toi, toi, maestro,” she said, meaning “good luck.” In response, she said, “He turns around, he inspects me, reaches out, grabs both my breasts and keeps walking” onto the stage.
The woman said she worked with Dutoit again four years later at the orchestra’s home base in Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall.
When she was instructed to deliver a message to the conductor in his dressing room, she said, “it was almost worse, because I knew what I was walking into.” In a repeat of the 2006 incident, she said he pushed her against the wall, forcing his mouth on hers.
“I was so angry that I had let it happen again,” she said. “I felt like I was in hell.”
Of Dutoit, she said, “There is nothing wrong with him as a musician, but he has been allowed to operate as a predator off the stage.”
‘LUNCH’ IN HIS HOTEL SUITE
The fourth accuser was a 24-year-old musician with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago when Dutoit came to town in spring 2006 to guest-conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
After a few rehearsals, the musician — who now works with a different orchestra — said Dutoit offered her a seat in his box for a concert. She assumed others were joining them, since a box typically seats a half-dozen people. But they were alone, she said.
As the music played, she said, Dutoit reached for her hand, then tried to grab it repeatedly as she pushed him away. “All the while I kept thinking, ‘How do I handle this? I can’t make him mad. I’ll try to laugh it away.’”
After a few more rehearsals, she said, he suggested they meet for lunch at a restaurant but then changed the venue to his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. “At the time, I thought I could handle myself,” she said.
But once she arrived at the suite, Dutoit forced himself on her, she recalled. “He was just pushing himself against me, trying to kiss me, grabbing hold of my body, pushing his body on me,” she said. “I absolutely said no, pushed him away, went to the other side of the room.”
He didn’t chase her, she said, but tried to coax her to stay and even invited her to visit his apartment in Paris.
A former member of the orchestra said the woman spoke to him at the time about Dutoit, recalling she felt “utter disgust” at his advances. The man asked not to be identified to protect the musician’s identity.
After he attacked her, the musician said, Dutoit emailed her about a dozen times. She would not show the AP the emails, saying she did not want them published, but read excerpts over the phone.
In one, she said, Dutoit wrote that he was unaware “that an affectionate hug and kiss could have such a negative effect,” adding, “Of course, I forgot you are still a child.”
“You could tell this was business as usual,” the musician told the AP. “Like he knew what he was doing, and didn’t seem put off by the fact that I was saying no.”
Associated Press writer Janie Har also contributed to this report.