By Zach Finkelstein
In the wake of Middleclass Artist’s recent investigation of fat-shaming in the opera industry, dozens of artists have come forward with their own stories of bullying and abuse. The lion’s share of the online singing community on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, particularly among the younger generation of conservatory graduates, have rallied around their peers, amplifying artist stories, publicly questioning the normalization of fat-shaming and abuse in opera culture, and calling loudly for systemic change. Fat activist and singer Tracy Cox summed up the social media zeitgeist in a recent op-ed: “the era of silently enduring fatphobic abuse in the workplace and at university has come to an end.”
Yet among elite gatekeepers, those in positions of power at conservatories, opera companies, orchestras, and agencies representing professional artists, the silence on this issue is deafening. Not a single leading company released a statement condemning anti-fat bias in our industry or admitted any responsibility for the trauma endured by contracted artists. On the contrary, at least one opera administrator pushed back hard on social media at calls to end the bullying of fat singers:
“There are many fabulous artists I know who battled adversity and rose to the top, proving their doubters wrong. That is the sweetest “revenge.” I can think of no great art made by those wallowing in self-pity and victimhood. Despite what you think, you are doing nobody any favors by destroying inequitable excellence to leave only equitable mediocrity.”
The following story is for those teachers, coaches, and other industry professionals who have remained silent. It is for those who say, “this is just the way it works.” It is for those who fought tooth-and-nail for a seat at the table and continued the cycle of abuse. And it is for those who feel that by traumatizing young singers, by mentally preparing them for “an industry that hates fat people,” they are somehow contributing to the art form by filtering for “inequitable excellence.”
For those people, Middleclass Artist will tell the story of Melanie Spector and her parents Susan and Garry, and ask one question:
What if it was your eight-year-old daughter?
Growing up at the Met (1997-2013)
After playing 15 national orchestra auditions, Susan Spector won a position in the Met Orchestra as Second Oboist and moved to New York in the fall of 1992.
Susan met her husband Garry through a Met Opera power couple: soprano Judith Blegen, who sang over 200 performances at the Met, and former Met concertmaster Raymond Gniewek. Susan and Garry married in 1995 and Melanie was born two years later.
Both Garry and Susan shared their love of opera with young Melanie. While Susan played nightly at the Met, Melanie and her father Garry would listen to opera together.
One summer, listening to a live broadcast from Bayreuth, Melanie walked into the room during Siegried’s forging song. She asked, “what’s happening, Daddy?” He explained, “well, this character Siegfried is putting a piece of metal in the fire, and he’s pounding it to make a sword.”
“And why would he do that?” Melanie asked.
One question led to another and another. To satisfy Melanie’s curiosity, Garry started Wagner’s Ring Cycle from the beginning with a recording of Das Rheingold, followed by tickets to live performances of the Ring Cycle at the Met with Susan playing in the pit. Melanie loved it. She was six years old.
Melanie wanted to sing on-stage with the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. Mrs. Spector says she asked around at the Met, among her colleagues who had children in the chorus, and learned that her daughter needed to sing an informal audition, a quick round of ‘Happy Birthday’, for Ms. Elena Doria.
A 2016 New York Times obituary described Ms. Doria as “beloved” but “strict as hell,” a “den mother, wrangler, and benevolent despot.”
The obituary ends on a darkly comedic beat:
Ms. Pierson recalled, perhaps no one but Ms. Doria could have stood in the wings of the Metropolitan Opera House and — out of earshot of the audience but audible to her young charges — called out to them, with yeasty, resonant warmth, what she did on at least one occasion:
“Sing,” Ms. Doria cried. “Sing, you sons of bitches, sing!”
Another New York Times article in 2009 covering Ms. Doria’s 23-year tenure at the children’s chorus said she was “a stickler for punctuation and good manners,” “no-nonsense,” and “plain-speaking”- “a strong hand tempered by warmth.”
And an effusive 60 Minutes interview in 2004 called her a “tough-minded, tenderhearted coach” for “pint-size Pavarottis.”
Susan Spector at the time thought of Ms. Doria as a “small, but fierce woman” who “suffered fools poorly.”
At age seven, Melanie and her mother bumped into Ms. Doria on a Met backstage tour. Melanie says Ms. Doria asked her to audition and brought them into the studio. According to Melanie, Ms. Doria invited her to join the chorus, but at the time, Melanie was too nervous and scared of the teacher to participate.
Susan says she was frightened of Ms. Doria, too, and asked her Met colleagues about the chorus master. Susan heard things like, “her bark is worse than her bite,” and “she yells at those kids, but you know, I wouldn’t want to be in her position.”
A year later, Melanie “worked up the courage” to sing for Ms. Doria again, and says the teacher brought Melanie immediately into rehearsal as a member.
After attending “so many operas” like Otello and Tosca in the previous few seasons, Melanie says, “I couldn’t wait to be cast in my first opera, to be given my own costume and wear it on stage at the Met.”
In March 2006, Melanie’s second week in the chorus, she says Ms. Doria pulled her aside in rehearsal and took her into the hallway. According to Melanie, Ms. Doria said she was “concerned” that Melanie was too heavy. And that if Melanie didn’t “lose the weight,” she wouldn’t be cast in any operas because Melanie wouldn’t fit into any of the Met costumes.
The eight-year-old singer felt “crushed,” “ashamed,” and “uncomfortable with herself.” Melanie says she could feel tears welling up in her eyes and said to Ms. Doria, “I’m sorry. I’ll try to work on it and talk to my parents and eat healthier.”
That evening, she spoke to her parents about what happened. They were horrified but understood it in context of Ms. Doria’s reputation as a “brusque” teacher. Susan validated Melanie’s experience and comforted her, and they adopted a “wait-and-see” approach.
Within a few weeks, Susan says she followed up with the Met costume department to ask about the fitting issue. “My daughter is being told that her weight is a problem for costume fitting. Is there any truth to this?” Susan says the costuming department didn’t rule it out as a potential issue but that the response was, “it’s never been a problem before.”
(Middleclass Artist also reached out to two professional costume designers.
Genevieve Beller, a costume designer with over 20 years of live and filmed experience and founder of Costume Professionals for Wage Equity, said that “while there may be some truth to costume rental packages only coming in a particular size range, that a performer (especially a child) would be told that their size is detrimental to casting is frankly abhorrent. It is the clothing’s job to fit the performer. To say that nothing can be done to costume performers of size is at best unimaginative.” She added, “the workers at the Met are extremely skilled and produce garments of the highest level regardless of size.”)
At rehearsal, Melanie started to feel worse and worse from what she and Susan both refer to as “verbal abuse.” For instance, Melanie recalls that if Ms. Doria heard a rehearsal mistake, she would go down the line and make each child sing one by one. Ms. Doria, Melanie says, would “go off on them and yell and scream if something went wrong.” The young singer remembers shaking as it came down the line to her turn.
The stress also physically affected Melanie. Susan and Melanie recall a place on the Westside highway where Melanie’s stomach would “always start hurting” as they drove to rehearsal.
Over the next two and a half years, Susan says Ms. Doria kept reminding her and Garry about Melanie’s weight and appearance. Susan called Ms. Doria, “obsessed” with Melanie’s weight.
According to Susan and Garry, Ms. Doria “accosted” Susan in their workplace at least four times for “check-ins”: “Melanie really needs to work on her weight.” “Have you been helping her?” “Have you talked to her?” “What a beautiful voice she has, but she’s going to have to lose the weight.”
Ms. Doria, Susan remembers, also provided tips on how Melanie could lose it: “You know there are things you can do. I get a box of chocolates at Christmas and take a bite out of it. And then I’ll just spit it out. You know, she can do that.”
Even though Garry did not work at the Met, because Melanie sang “dozens of Act 2 performances of La bohème”, and Susan needed to play until the end of the show, Garry would re-arrange his work schedule around the Children’s Chorus and the Met Orchestra to take care of Melanie after she finished. The two of them would hang out and eat together at the Met cafeteria. But when Ms. Doria walked in, Melanie says she was “petrified”: “I handed my plate to my dad under the table so she wouldn’t see that I was eating.”
Garry also says Ms. Doria “harassed” him several times backstage at the Met about Melanie’s weight: “this wasn’t anything like a one-and-done thing.” At the time, Garry didn’t tell Melanie what happened to protect her.
According to both Garry and Susan, Ms. Doria also called their house to talk about Melanie’s weight. It made Susan angry and “enraged” Garry.
At this point, Melanie’s parents sat her down in her bedroom, and together, they wrote out a list of pros and cons for staying in the chorus. For Melanie, the pros would be “getting to sing on stage at the Met, learning music, singing with other kids with similar interests, and making new friends.” She understood it as an opportunity of a lifetime: “there are thousands of kids who wanted to be in that position, and I was there.”
Melanie’s list of cons included “being verbally abused, knowing that weight was an issue for Ms. Doria, and that she was going to have her eye on me. Feeling self-conscious and feeling uncomfortable around her and feeling like I was subpar because of my appearance.”
Susan wanted to pull Melanie from the chorus and report it to HR, but Melanie said no. “I wanted to be cast in operas,” Melanie said, “and I knew if they went to HR or to talk to her, Ms. Doria would have blacklisted me.”
Susan felt deeply conflicted about whether to report the behavior: “It was one of the hardest challenges I’ve faced as a mother not to blow the whistle and march into HR.” Susan said to her daughter, “Melanie, I feel like I’m being an abusive mother by letting you stay here. It’s not how music-making should be.” Melanie responded, “I want to be in it. And if I’m going to be in it, I have to deal with her.”
At the end of the day, Susan “respected her daughter’s wishes” to continue in the chorus. But she worried about Melanie developing an eating disorder, and warned her, “the minute we see food becoming an issue, I won’t ask. I’ll pull you. Remember that your mental and physical health are far more important than whether or not you sing in this chorus.”
After performing as a (non-singing) supernumerary, Melanie finally got her wish: she debuted in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in March 2007, followed by performances in Carmen, La Gioconda, La damnation de Faust, La Bohème, Boris Godunov, Attila, and Hansel and Gretel.
In November 2008, Melanie was celebrating backstage after a chorus performance in the final scene of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. She was excited that she would be on the big screen, dressed as an angel in HD. One of her friends was having a birthday, and so his parents brought boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the children. Melanie got out of her costume and finished one donut. Then she reached for another. Melanie says Ms. Doria saw her take the donut and asked, “Didn’t you already have one?” Melanie said she was “stunned” and replied, “Yeah.” Ms. Doria, according to Melanie, said, “well, you don’t need another one.” Then, Melanie says Ms. Doria grabbed her arm, dragged Melanie over to the trash can outside the rehearsal room, took her wrist, and shook it until the donut fell in the trash.
Melanie felt embarrassed and humiliated in front of her friends and started crying.
Susan knew something was wrong when she saw her daughter’s face at the stage door. Melanie told Susan what happened on the car ride home. Susan felt “absolutely mortified”: “I couldn’t believe it, this child that eats, breathes, and sleeps opera, and this person is focusing on her appearance.” Susan said, “this is gross, this is it, I’m sorry.” Her husband felt the same. They weren’t sure whether they would confront Ms. Doria or go to HR, but they both said, “this cannot go on.” Melanie agreed.
Before Garry and Susan settled on how to breach the issue, Ms. Doria disappeared from the Met. She didn’t show up for a La bohème in December. Melanie remembers, “we didn’t get to say goodbye to her.” Garry and Susan never reported it.
A New York Times article entitled, “Met’s Kids Sing on Without Mother Hen” covered Ms. Doria’s “abrupt departure” and replacement by Anthony Piccolo:
Exactly why Ms. Doria left has been something of a mystery. A Met spokesman recently said she had retired, though it was midseason, and she was immersed in rehearsals, planning and auditions… But numerous parents of chorus members said they suspected it might have had to do with her exacting, even imperious, style. Several said Ms. Doria was the subject of a complaint by parents for an incident with their children…
Marian Wade, a parent of a former chorister, said Ms. Doria had confirmed to her that an incident had occurred. She told Ms. Wade that she had put her hands on the shoulders of a girl and walked her back two steps at a class last December, but that the girl had never lost her balance.
Mr. Piccolo came over from New York City Opera, and Melanie says he brought some of his children’s chorus over to join them. “We all ended up getting along,” Melanie said.
(Middleclass Artist reached out to Emma Batman, Acting Director of HR at the Met Opera, to ask about the details of the alleged HR complaint. Batman responded, “Thank you for your email. At this point, the Met has no additional comment.”
Middleclass Artist also reached out to Anthony Piccolo, the current director of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus to ask about his transition from the New York City Opera to the Met, and if he had any impressions he wanted to share of his time with Melanie. Mr. Piccolo responded, "Thank you for your email. At this point, the Met has no additional comment.”)
Garry calls Mr. Piccolo, “someone who didn’t play favorites and was very professional.” Susan added, “he’s soft-spoken and he commands the respect of the kids. Because he’s so good at what he does, not because he instills fear.” Garry and Susan said Mr. Piccolo (“Tony”) years later still attends Melanie’s recitals.
Melanie spoke warmly about Mr. Piccolo: “he was sweet, understanding, very organized, good with children.” Her mind was more at ease in rehearsals, and Melanie felt the children’s chorus was a better environment. It felt safe.
Melanie stayed in the chorus for another four seasons, leaving in March 2013 at 15. She continued into the world of professional opera and now pursues a Master of Music from the Manhattan School of Music. Melanie made it clear that her experience with Ms. Doria in the Children’s Chorus was not an isolated incident: “As I’ve continued on in my studies in music, I’ve had other coaches and teachers and costumers since then make comments to me in relation to my weight, and those same feelings I had with Elena have come back.”
Melanie and her family both feel thankful she did not develop an eating disorder during her time in the chorus. She credits the support of her parents and guidance from her pediatrician who all told her “she was a completely healthy pre-teen.” But, Melanie admits, “I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t affected how I look at food today. It’s felt like I’ve been on a diet my entire life. I still struggle to love my body for the way it is.”
Melanie’s glad she stayed on in the Met Opera Children’s Chorus: “despite the trauma I experienced, just getting to sing on the stage of the Met, we didn’t realize how lucky we were. To get that view of looking out at 3,800 seats and seeing the Met Orchestra right there, getting to sing on stage with people like Jonas Kaufmann and all these famous artists. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. It was definitely worth it.
It’s unfortunate that it came at such a cost.”
Zach Finkelstein is a professional classical tenor soloist, a Senior Consultant at a public opinion research and strategy firm, and the editor and founder of The Middleclass Artist.