Resources to Fight Sexual Misconduct and Racial Discrimination in Opera

Marina Harris As Tamar in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene with baritone Nathan Gunn, San Francisco Opera, 2013.
Photo credit: Scott Wall.

“Now, I definitely have to talk about some positive things!” Harris laughs heartily. “We do have a lot of problems in opera, but there are an equal number of exciting things on the horizon.”

During 2020, grassroots organizations of young opera singers have skyrocketed and are currently working hard to end predatory fees, address racism in the business, give young artists protection from sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and pushing for anonymous third party reporting systems for sexual harassment and misconduct. Some focus on providing mental health resources for young singers, and several are focusing on helping singers through the financial losses due to COVID-19. “In the last two years, singers have come together to do more for each other than our union has ever done.” Operatic soloists have a difficult path to navigate; they do not have access to health insurance through their union, but they still pay thousands of dollars in fees to AGMA. The organization refuses to address any issues they face in the workplace, as was reported on NPR last month, when they attempted to make a secret 9 million dollar real estate deal to buy condos in Manhattan[18]. “Younger singers are unafraid to challenge the status quo, largely because they know that opera’s survival depends on it, but also because we know that the system in place is broken and needs to be fixed, and that no one else is going to do it.”

COVID-19 has created a lot of challenges and great financial losses for the world of classical music. However, Marina feels this may actually benefit opera in the long term. “We are starting to see new, innovative ways to move opera into the digital age. Live streamed performances are available from nearly every organization, and more and more people are getting creative in how we translate an art form that is best live and in person to something that is accessible to all.” Asked if digital opera streams can ever truly replace the thrill and big sound of live opera, Harris smirks, and replies, “No. But I am so excited about the creativity behind many initiatives to keep opera available to the people who love it, and to keep our donors, musicians, and staff safe from illness.” 

While larger US opera companies struggle, there are an abundant number of smaller, independent opera companies that are thriving and breathing life into opera in new ways. “I am extremely proud of my work with companies like the Southern Illinois Music Festival, Opera Bend, the Bronx Opera, and many other regional houses. I have done some of my best singing in places like Boise, Idaho. And I am incredibly proud of that. I actually sort of resent the implication that opera needs to be expensive and high budget. You can make incredible productions with a very small budget, and I know because I’ve been a frequent part of it. Opera just needs to get more creative.”

Marina Harris at home in Los Angeles, 2020.
Photo credit: The Sabrina Photo.

I would love to see opera do away with application fees and predatory audition panels that can sometimes cost upwards of $500. Registration fees for many of the biggest vocal competitions in the world are anywhere between $25-$180. Most opera companies in the US charge singers a fee just to audition, and then you’re typically also required to pay for a pianist, travel and lodging, and any lessons or coaching you might need to prepare for the audition. In the course of my career, I have spent over $60k of my own money solely on auditions and competitions. I have also received an additional $40k from various competitions, donors, and other charitable organizations over the years, 90% of which goes back into auditioning. 

Opera in the US is the only example in the world of companies actually charging singers to audition[19].  Broadway doesn’t do it, ballet doesn’t do it, and European opera companies do not charge for auditions. Only in America do companies force young artists to foot the bill, which points to financial constraints within companies themselves. However, I do not feel it is justified for singers to cover those costs. 

Another massive problem with charging young artists for auditions is that it makes it nearly impossible for anyone to pursue a career in opera unless they are white and rich. Certain conservatories and programs will pay for their students’ participation and travel fees for competitions and auditions, but those conservatories often charge upwards of 100k a year for tuition, so even if someone manages to be successful on the competition circuit, they will still be in massive debt at the end of their program. 

“Personally, I have been extremely fortunate to have had such incredible support systems in place to help finance my career. But the sheer expense of continuing a career in opera means that more often than not, singers who have access to wealth are the ones who thrive in this business. “Because of the pandemic, the industry is beginning to shift towards virtual auditions, but that poses accessibility problems as well, and a lot of companies are still charging as much as $125 for a ten minute virtual audition. In my opinion, that’s unacceptable. 

“What I want, more than anything, is for the next generation of singers not to experience the same things that myself and my colleagues have. I know opera will survive here in the US because of its singers. We are an incredibly diverse group of people, just like this country. My favorite part of my job is the people I get to meet from all over the world. We come from all different backgrounds, countries, and levels of education. I know opera singers who grew up in trailer parks, public housing, huge mansions, and military bases. There is no “typical” opera singer. We are far too different to be lumped together in one group. And I truly believe it is our differences that will help us come together to save opera from becoming a thing of the past. 

Starting Young with Systemic Change

Whiplash (2014), a film about a music student (Miles Teller, left) and his abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons, right) 
Photo credit: Daniel McFadden and Sony Pictures.

Speaking of the past, socially responsive practices in the opera and classical music industry are still antiquated. We know there are channels of support and resources for victims and corporate protocols for those accused. But those take place long after the damage is done. When something inappropriate happens in a rehearsal with many people, most are either too shocked to act or do not know what to do. There has to be ways in which people can learn to speak up in the moment by confronting the person who is acting inappropriately while checking in with the victim. “We can absolutely benefit from bystander training,” Marina agrees, “It’s crazy that there’s bystander training for major US corporations but not for the arts.” If a perpetrator sees that they’re in an environment that will not tolerate abuse, then (hopefully) they are less likely to act on those impulses. Therefore, the work environment is key to prevention. 

But let’s dig deeper. There must also be generations of stories passed down from the grapevine condoning and even romanticizing inappropriate behavior. Similar to parenting, what modern conductors are doing today are modeled by what they’ve observed and believed to be acceptable when they were learning to be conductors. “I’ve also seen conductors throw things, chairs, music stands, batons,” Marina shares, “the culture of fear is created early on so people have a harder time coming forward later.” Other musicians were asked about the classical music scene and can confirm inappropriate behavior exists in institutions. Joanna Glass, a violinist and occasional contributor to WMP[20] reflected, “I remember in college orchestra, one of the conductors had a tantrum, tried to break his baton in half, threw it across the room (which almost hit someone before it landed), and stormed out of rehearsal. We all sat there, shocked. He had a history of having a bad temper. I heard he took anger management and improved over the years, but it was still inappropriate and unprofessional.”

Although Marina says these patterns of behavior usually start in college and conservatories, unfortunately, it starts earlier. A Los Angeles instrumental music teacher, Ms. Laura-Ruby Diaz[21] also had some unsavory memories. “I remember seeing one music teacher being so mad, they threw a double bass and broke it,” Ms. Diaz recalls. “We know teachers are human and we have bad days,” she continues, “but people with bad tempers shouldn't be in education.  We don’t have specific standards that address systemic issues in their future as a professional musician, but we’re encouraged to emphasize safety. I outline expectations in my syllabus; what I expect from the student, their parents and what they can expect from me.” And, perhaps, that is what is needed in the opera industry; to clearly, by explicit means, establish norms of appropriate behavior before a production starts. Ever since the rise of students committing suicide in the late 2000s, the anti-bully movement has been helpful to raise awareness on school safety. When we do not teach young students to speak up and they are intimidated to stay quiet, they become indoctrinated to be complicit in future work environments that eventually fester misconduct. In the last few years, more and more companies are issuing sexual harassment and racial sensitivity training and, hopefully, the arts can catch up.

Regarding the future, Ms. Harris is hopeful. “I don’t know exactly what the future has in store for me, or opera. I think COVID-19 has made many of us re-evaluate our role in perpetuating systems based on the oppression of other people. We have seen more rapid change to address diversity and inclusion during this pandemic than ever before. That alone makes me incredibly optimistic that our generation of musicians will be the ones to finally speak truth to power in the world of classical music. We may not be there yet, but at least we are talking about it. To me, that is a huge victory.”

Marina's Tips for Opera Singers!

  1. Make sure you have a trade or skill set to fall back on. All careers in the performing arts have highs and lows, and it’s natural to go through periods of time when you won’t be able to make your living performing, and that’s okay! It doesn’t make you NOT a professional opera singer. No one can take that away from you. Learn to code, become a virtual assistant, video editor, or get your real estate license--I have a colleague who worked at Bath and Body works for years before her Met debut. Whatever side career you choose, make sure you’re able to do something you don’t hate while you wait for your performing schedule to pick back up. 

  2. Your colleagues are your best resource! A lot of people in the industry will give you advice, but it’s not always accurate or current. The opera world is changing so quickly right now, and asking your friends and peers for help will guarantee you’re getting information that’s relevant. For example, many industry leaders told me I had to move to Germany to keep my career going. But I knew there were already far too many singers there with my voice type, and I managed to get more auditions here that turned into jobs, so it really helps to reach out to colleagues who already work there to get a better idea of what the marketplace is like.  

  3. Be your own strongest advocate. One of the best pieces of advice I got from Marilyn Horne was that you have to be selfish to have this career. Initially, I didn’t understand what she meant, but the more I continue down the road of professional singing, the more I understand it. You have to be your own strongest advocate, as well as your own emotional bodyguard. Setting boundaries with the people you love means that you often have to make selfish decisions, like missing that friend’s wedding, or not being able to spend that much on your dad’s birthday gift, or not hitting those adult milestones, like owning property, or having children, or not answering your best friend’s texts when you’re in 12 hours of rehearsal a day. It is extremely hard and sometimes lonely, but I’ve also found that my friendships are more deep and meaningful because the people who stick around understand those sacrifices--financial, personal, etc--and they understand that sometimes, the Met calls you for an audition 3 days before, and you have to go. Ultimately, I think it is difficult to “be selfish”, but the payoff is that you get to pursue your dream, and not everyone is able or brave enough to do that.

  4. Be the squeaky wheel. Make sure you get what you need from your teachers, programs and connections. Again, advocate for yourself. I wish I had stuck up for myself more as a young artist.

  5. Take care and safeguard your mental health. Self care is massively important for anyone pursuing a career in music. The amount of rejection, criticism, and sometimes verbal/emotional abuse that we go through is not normal. Everyone I know in this business has had an emotional breakdown at some point. What’s important is that you take the time to heal. If you need references for mental health services, please message me on any of my social media platforms.

Marina Today

Marina Harris, 2020.

“Right now, I have two role debuts scheduled for 2021 singing the title role in Tosca and Dorella in one of Wagner’s earliest operas, Das Liebesverbot. In the fall of 2021, I’ll be doing a residency in Berlin, as well as a recital series in Germany. Of course, all of this is subject to change due to COVID-19, but I’m choosing to be optimistic while making backup plans. I think the pandemic is good at highlighting why you should always have backup plans for your career. I almost always have a plan b, c and d just in case a gig falls through or a company closes. Nothing is ever promised fully in the arts. You can find many of my past performances on Youtube, Instagram and Facebook. 

“I’m also working on some of my own music for the first time in years, and hoping to release an album with my band. I’ve always been very inspired by artists like Bjork and Nina Simone, who came from classical music backgrounds. When I think about the future of the performing arts, and how I see things evolving, I don’t know if I will ever be content to work in an art form that doesn’t respect talent over aesthetics. I also don’t want to limit myself to any one discipline, there’s too much I want to do and explore, and I think there’s great reward in creating a path for yourself, rather than accepting the path you were given.” 

Get Involved with these Organizations and their Resources

Marina’s charitable organization of choice is the Artist Relief Tree, a relief fund for artists affected by cancellations due to COVID-19.

Artist Relief Tree:

For Victims of Sexual Misconduct and Assault:

For Colleagues, Friends and Families of Victims:

For Companies to Consider When Instating HR Policies

Marina has a BM in Opera Performance from Cal State Long Beach and a Graduate Certificate in Vocal Arts from the University of Southern California. She was a member of the prestigious Adler Fellowship at the San Francisco Opera, and performed multiple roles while in residency there. She has toured Switzerland as part of the Festival der jugend Stimmen, and gave master classes in Chengdu, China with the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. She won the George London Award, as well as the Dorothea-Glatt-Förderpreis at the triennial International Wagnerstimmen Competition in Karlsruhe, Germany. She has also been a finalist in the Loren L. Zachary International Vocal Competition, and have won multiple prizes in the Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition. She is also a four time Regional Finalist of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Marina's biggest mentor is Marilyn Horne, who is also from Long Beach, California, and "has been an incredible source of wisdom and strength for me since I met her back in 2008." 

Links to Marina's performances:

For more information about Marina, please visit


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