Marina Harris Raising Dissonance: a Soprano Who Cannot be Silenced

As Elena in Boito’s Mefistofele at the San Francisco Opera, with tenor Ramon Vargas.
Photo credit: Scott Wall.

TRIGGER WARNING: The article you are about to read contains disturbing content and may trigger an anxiety response, especially in those who have a history of trauma.

Imagine having a negative bank account while still having to pay tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for the music school you recently graduated from. Then, you quit your part-time job because you received the call to sing in a leading role for a top opera production. Your childhood dreams are coming true. Flash forward to opening night in the dressing room and you get unwanted advances from a colleague. Or a famous singer. Or the conductor. You’re shocked and decide to not say anything. We’ve all trained ourselves to believe, 'the show must go on'! You don’t want to be the one responsible for halting the production. You’ve worked your whole life to land this role and your understudy is eagerly waiting to replace you. After the show, you confide in friends and they encourage you to say something. When you do, the predator denies it, the opera company blames you and you get harassed on social media. Your contracts get cancelled and you can’t even audition for roles you would have normally had the opportunity to try out for. The colleagues you had do not want to risk their jobs so they stop associating themselves with you. You are blacklisted, isolated and want to die. And sadly, that is the case with many singers who pursue a career in opera.

“Opera is at a crossroads, and we have to decide what kind of art form we want to be. Do we want to be the antiquated pastime of the elite few, or do we want to survive? Because that’s ultimately what it comes down to.”

Marina Harris is not your typical opera singer. She didn’t go to a conservatory, she has tattoos, and she is unapologetically honest about the state of the opera business. “To a fault, maybe!” she laughs. “I probably shouldn’t have been an opera singer. But I have always been quite loud.”

Marina isn’t kidding. She is known for her performances of Wagner, Richard Strauss, and in 2013 she rose to national attention as a last-minute replacement for Patricia Racette in the role of Elena (Helen of Troy) in San Francisco Opera’s season-opening production of Boito’s Mefistofele. Marina has also joined the roster of the Los Angeles Opera to cover the verismo roles of Nedda in Pagliacci and the title role in Madama Butterfly. She has made leading role debuts with Opera Idaho (Tatiana in Eugene Onegin), Pacific Opera Project (title role in Ariadne auf Naxos) and the Southern Illinois Music Festival (Mathilde in Guillaume Tell). Ms. Harris’ international credits include the Festival der jugend Stimmen in Switzerland singing the role of Elisabeth in Tannhaüser, and had been a guest performer and lecturer with the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in Chengdu, China. In 2015, Ms. Harris was awarded the Dorothea-Glatt-Förderpreis in the triennial International Wagnerstimmen Competition, securing her place as one of the top singers of Wagnerian repertoire worldwide. Marina has won numerous other awards for her performances of German repertoire, including the 2015 George London Vienna Prize and the George London-Leonie Rysanek Award in 2014, and grants from the Gerda Lissner Foundation’s Vocal Competition in both 2015 and 2017. She has received additional grants and awards from the Wagner Society of Northern California, the Merola Opera Program, the Palm Springs Opera Guild, and the Loren L. Zachary International Vocal Competition. Next year sees two role debuts for Harris, in the title role of Puccini’s Tosca with Glow Lyric Theater and Dorella in Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot with the Cambridge Chamber Ensemble, a recital series in Germany, as well as a recording project of lost music from Holocaust composers.

But it hasn’t always been constant success for Harris. “I’ve teetered on the edge of bankruptcy a few times, I’m not going to lie! In 2011 and 2014, my total income was below the poverty line. The truth is, this business is massively expensive, and if it weren’t for the organizations that supported me, I wouldn’t still be singing. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I’ve just been extremely lucky. I always say that if it weren’t for Marilyn Horne and Sheri Greenawald, I’d be singing nowhere for no one.”

Marina as the Mother in The Monkey's Pay by Brooke deRosa with baritone Phil Meyer.
World Premiere with Pacific Opera Project, 2017.
Photo credit: Kelsey Namara Shaw.

Over the last few years, Harris has worked steadily around the country singing major roles in small houses. When she isn’t singing, she’s usually working one of her many other side jobs. “I think I’ve done just about every side job that exists at this point,” she says, chuckling. “I’ve been a receptionist, a nanny, a dog walker, catering gigs, customer service, retail, and even a couple of gigs as a plus size model. Honestly, if you had told me in college that I would be paid to model, I would have laughed in your face.” 

Marina’s real world experiences are a big part of her advocacy in the opera world. “One thing I absolutely know for sure is that however hard it’s been for me, it has been much harder for singers who aren’t white.”

Harris continues, “We face an embarrassing lack of diversity in the business of opera, both in company leadership and in casting.” Instagram accounts like @protestra_, @_fortheculture and @operaisracist provide an incredible amount of evidence and testimony regarding systemic and outright racism in the opera world. It was estimated by Middle Class Artist (currently the most accurate and well researched opera news source) that only 3% of Metropolitan Opera regulars (singers hired back season after season) are Black. Only 21 Black singers in the history of the company have become regular performers on the Met stage[1]. In the 2019/20 season at the Metropolitan Opera, only 12% of sopranos and mezzos hired were Black, even with Porgy and Bess as the company’s season opener, which is cast entirely with Black singers at the composer’s request. That production of Porgy and Bess helped net millions of dollars for the company’s executives, but its board of 45 has only three Black managing directors. Of the 10 people on its music staff, one is Black; of the 90-member orchestra, two. The Met has presented 306 operas in its 137-year history, none of them by a Black composer[2]

“For me, the most infuriating part about racism in the business is that there is no accountability,” Harris says. Opera’s most favorite soprano, Anna Netrebko, regularly defends the use of blackface and racially appropriative content on her social media, and is one of the highest paid women in the opera business. 

“If the board of an A house (opera houses in the US are organized by letter grade according to budget, A being the highest and D the lowest) doesn’t care that the vast majority of singers they hire are white, there is no one in the room to object. The people with the money make the important decisions with zero foresight on how that will affect their business or the industry. That is the first thing that needs to change. We need more diversity in the boardroom before we can start seeing changes on stage. Fort Worth Opera, Long Beach Opera, and Portland Opera are leading the industry in this area, and I think companies would be very wise, both fiscally and ethically, to follow their example.” 

Marina is adamant, however, that her opinions on racial issues in the business should never come first. 
“I feel very strongly that my opinions on racially biased casting should always come second to those that it actually affects--my opinions on this issue are far less important than those of Black, Latinx, and Asian singers. The Black Opera Alliance just released a step-by-step plan of action for companies to address these issues, and I highly recommend anyone in a leadership position adopt those policies. We should be listening to what they have to say about this issue, but oftentimes they are ignored, or too afraid to say anything for fear of losing their jobs. If I can use my white privilege to speak for the unheard, I feel it is my moral obligation to do so.” 

While there exists a double-edged sword of both the fear and use of cultural appropriation, that concern can be defunct if any capable singer can obtain any role regardless of race. “I think the ultimate issue with opera and race is that we wouldn’t have to hire only Black sopranos to sing Aida or Japanese sopranos to sing Cio-cio San if we were actually casting Black and Japanese singers in other roles. Having sung Cio-cio San myself, I can tell you that the role requires an incredible amount of stamina and range that is borderline Wagnerian. And not all sopranos are built for that. Too often, BIPOC, Latinx or Asian singers get pigeonholed into three or four roles that are cast only based on their race, which is a tragedy, because a lot of the time those are smaller, niche roles-- for example, in Turandot, the roles of Ping, Pang and Pong, who sing some truly beautiful music, but are often cast with voices that should be singing Calaf and Timur (much larger roles, usually sung by white men). Similar issues arise with Porgy and Bess; I know a lot of my Black colleagues who love the piece and make a substantial living off of it. I also know Black colleagues who get stuck doing only roles in Porgy and Bess and nothing else. In the words of my colleague Morris Robinson, “If we hear sopranos for Aida, I don’t care what color they are. If the soprano who sings it the best is orange, then we’re going to have an orange Aida. It’s as simple as that.” But--that only works if we are regularly casting Black singers in all types of roles, which statistically happens much more rarely. Casting directors often make excuses for this, such as, “well, the singer needs to be believable in this role”. But truly, what exactly is believable about opera? A magic flute that saves the princess from the evil queen, and all is well? Flying horses and giants? A governess haunted by murderous ghosts? It’s not exactly a strong argument for believability.”

Then, comes the problem of sexual harassment. 

“The overall culture of opera is one of secrecy and fear. When you can lose your entire career just for reporting harassment of any kind, how can anyone possibly feel safe in the workplace? When predators in our business are still actively working all over the world, how can I possibly tell young singers that they should go into opera? How can I advocate for an art form that doesn’t care about its own singers?” 

As Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with tenor Zachary Devin, Southern Illinois Music Festival
Photo credit: Josh Shaw

There have been approximately 20 opera industry professionals who have been accused of sexual harassment or assault in the space of only 3 years, thanks largely in part to the Me Too movement. Most of those predators have multiple, independently corroborated, consistent reports from more than four victims. Five of them have been arrested and indicted for their actions. Yet, there has been very little action on the part of the business to correct the problem. The American Guild of Musical Artists, the union opera singers must join upon accepting their first major contract, as well as the companies who hired those individuals, have yet to take any concrete action to correct the problem.

“It should be noted that an incredibly large number of these victims are men, who are often more reluctant to come forward due to the incredible stigma that comes with being a male victim,” Harris says. Such was the case with famed countertenor David Daniels, currently awaiting trial on two counts of rape, as well as former Artistic Advisor of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis, Damon Bristo, who was arrested for soliciting sexual acts from a minor earlier this summer[3]. This is the second time that OTSL has dismissed a member of its leadership for sexual misconduct in only one year, having let go conductor Stephen Lord in 2019[4].

“During one of my first big contracts, I remember another singer pulling me aside on the first day of rehearsal. They said, ‘Don’t get caught alone with Maestro.’” Harris pauses for effect. “At first I thought it was a joke, and then I could see the seriousness on their face. I just remember feeling shock at first, thinking, “what year are we in?” But then later, such anger and disappointment. I also knew very early on that sopranos were “disposable”--meaning that I could be replaced in the blink of an eye for any reason at all. That’s how the culture is created. I don’t think people realize that you can be fired mid-production for any reason, and management has no obligation to tell you why. I’ve seen colleagues fired in the rehearsal room, with no reason given. I’ve known colleagues fired for being Black, for reporting a sexual assault, for not sleeping with the conductor, for sleeping with the conductor, for gaining weight[5], for becoming pregnant[6], for refusing to do something physically onstage that is either unsafe or compromises the ability to sing-- really anything. When the opera business began treating singers like products and not like human beings, it hurt opera profoundly.”

“Opera has a very clear pattern of response to reports of sexual harassment. First, they publicly blame the victim, usually while disparaging the singer’s vocal abilities or career. Then, the company hires an “impartial third party firm” to investigate- aka cover up-- what happened. Usually, that firm is under instruction to bury the story, as was the case with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera[7].  If the victim chooses to report to AGMA, they are referred to an attorney, who asks them how much money they want to make it all go away. And the cycle of abuse continues. So far, the only reason any justice has been served for these victims is after massive public outcry, as with the NPR whistleblower story regarding Placido Domingo making a back room deal with the union to donate $500k to AGMA for “sexual harassment training”[8]. And most importantly, you can see what happens to victims who come forward; they are harassed on social media[9], dropped from future contracts, disparaged by their own colleagues and fans, and very few people step in to speak up for them.”

“What perplexes me the most about the response to accusations is that the burden of proof that it happened is always on the victim. Not only are you harassed or assaulted, you then have to prove it happened with hard evidence--police reports, emails to management, etc. But the second you do that, your career is over, because your harasser finds out. And the real kicker is that Daniel Lipton was wanted for rape by Canadian police[10]. You can look up the court records of victims’ testimony against James Levine that spans decades[11]. I know at least a dozen singers who reported their harassment or assault officially to AGMA and the company they worked for. And everyone still says they’re just a bunch of ‘failed artists’ looking for ‘revenge’--as was stated by Zubin Mehta recently[12]. But where is the revenge? Where is the justice? The people who go public are mocked and ridiculed by the most powerful conductor in the world, and then the predator goes back to work. Placido Domingo has dozens of accusations against him, and he receives a standing ovation in Salzburg[13]. James Levine is a known pedophile, and he gets hired to conduct in Florence[14]. How exactly are these singers who come forward getting ‘revenge’?”

Marina at home in Los Angeles.
Photo credit: The Sabrina Photo

Harris has been an advocate for sexual harassment and assault victims in the opera business for several years. “I have watched misconduct happen in the workplace in front of my eyes, towards myself and my colleagues of all genders and racial backgrounds.  I once had a stage director grab my face and kiss me on the lips during rehearsal in front of the entire cast and rehearsal staff in order to ‘demonstrate’ how he wanted the tenor to kiss me. I have spoken with people who were assaulted in their own dressing rooms. I’ve been propositioned by three different conductors in ten years, how is that even possible?” she exclaims. 

“I have stood in a rehearsal room where the conductor told the entire cast that the only reason they were hired is because people want to watch them have sex. Not only is that categorically untrue, it speaks to the kind of behavior that leadership often finds, at worst, acceptable or at best, “borderline”. There were administrators in the room when it happened, no one said a word. I cannot pretend I haven’t experienced these things.” Not only are these experiences humiliating for the victim when it happens, but there are also repercussions on the artist's self esteem off stage. “The emotional and psychological burden of this career alone can be catastrophic. Two singers I've personally known have attempted suicide, and there are many more out there. Add harassment into the mix, and it's no wonder we end up with emotionally unstable people working in this business.”

The reason it’s so important that we address sexual misconduct in the business is because when it happens so frequently, it makes the entire industry look bad. If you google “opera”, sexual harassment comes up on autocomplete. “That is not okay in a digital world. There are too many amazing companies out there running their businesses well and keeping everyone safe. There are hundreds of incredibly talented male conductors and stage directors who are the definition of professionalism in the workplace who are equally talented that deserve those opportunities. I would argue that the Me Too movement benefits men just as much as women, in any field. I think the misconception among men in the opera world is that they can’t say or do anything anymore without it being considered harassment--nothing could be further from the truth. There is a clear pattern of predatory behavior from a small demographic of abusers that needs to be exposed so that we all can work in a safe environment.”

“Even if companies don’t care about the victims, can we at least acknowledge that harboring predators in your opera company is a massive fiscal liability?” Marina states with deep seriousness. “The Met paid millions of dollars to deal with the fallout from James Levine. Are we willing to let opera die to protect these men?”

With the popularity of the #MeToo movement, there seems to be a greater awareness and a collective desire to change. We would like to think things have progressed, right? When we suggested the idea of having a manager or agent confirm an opera company or production is being socially responsive, Marina explains, “that’s definitely not the typical approach that agents and singers take because there’s so little work available. About 80% of the high earning contracts worldwide are done by the most “famous” opera singers-which is another huge problem in the industry that we won’t even have time for in this piece, because I would argue there really aren’t any famous opera singers anymore, like, if you stop a random person on the street in New York City and ask them who Jonas Kaufmann is, they’re not going to know who that is, but he’s the highest paid tenor in the world. But anyway, it ends up impacting the whole singer community by making it impossible to rise up unless you are one of the chosen very few (who are usually thin, white and went to Juilliard or Curtis) and if you are one of those few, you won’t speak out and lose your livelihood. I personally do take the approach of questioning what kind of company I want to sing at, partially because I’ve had to, but also because companies like the Met often have donors like Jeffrey Epstein[15] and Putin’s oligarchs[16]. If the Met survives, I would obviously love to sing there someday, it’s been my dream since childhood, but right now, the man who runs it helped cover up for a pedophile for decades[17]. So, I’m happy to sing elsewhere until that changes.”

When asked if she thinks speaking out will hurt her career, she pauses momentarily, and sighs. “I’ve honestly made my peace with that. My hope is that my activism will eventually be a reason why opera companies want to hire me, along with my talent and strong following on social media.  But if someone really doesn’t want to hire me because I don’t want predators in my workplace, then that’s probably not a place I want to work anyway.”

“‘Everyone knew, and no one did anything.’ That is the most common phrase I hear when another opera predator is outed in the media. I want to be the one that does something.”