Sitting at a round glass table inside his new La Scala office, Meyer considers the transition to the new role, from a public repertory theater with 50 opera productions a year, to one of the world’s leading opera and ballet theaters in Milan, presenting some 15 opera titles a year.
Both theaters “have both deep roots and traditions and I think that you have to consider every theater like a person, its story and its personality," Meyer said. “I just want La Scala to be the first house in the world for Italian opera. A reference,’’ he said.
While the opera world in the United States has been roiled by sexual harassment allegations against opera legend Placido Domingo, made public in two reports by The Associated Press last August and September, European theaters have stood behind Domingo, maintaining all his scheduled dates.
That included recent appearances at Meyer’s current home, the Vienna State Opera, where the opera star received long applause, and an upcoming 50th anniversary concert at La Scala on Dec. 15, which also marks the last day on the job of Meyer’s predecessor.
Meyer, 64, is the first opera house director on either side of the Atlantic to speak on the record about the differences in the U.S. and European reactions. He defended the decision by nearly a dozen European opera houses to maintain Domingo’s hefty performance schedule, even while most U.S. opera houses canceled theirs.
"I do not admire really what is happening in America. When one takes decisions under pressure of the press ... part of the press, under pressure of the social media," he told the AP in an interview. In Europe on the other hand, he said, “I have the impression that we are living in countries where there are laws, rules, police, judges, processes."
At the Vienna State Opera, he said, procedures for dealing with sexual harassment cases are clear, involving a legal department, a psychologist and procedures for filing complaints. There is also a figure in charge of equal treatment, nondiscrimination and compliance questions.
Meyer said he recently fired a Vienna State Opera employee, who was not a singer, for sexual harassment, but declined to discuss details. At La Scala, he said he was still getting up to speed on what procedures are in place, even if his own processes are clear.
“First, if we have a clear case, we have to make decisions. I, personally, do not want bad things to happen in the opera houses that I have to run. This is a clear statement.’’ Meyer said. “On the other hand, for us, it is often very difficult because we are not judges. We are not policemen. And many times you don't have too clear situations."
He said theater managers should resist pressure to maintain scheduled performances from fans who “want to revive the emotions they had with certain singers.” But he said they equally should not cave in to pressure to cancel dates based on media reports.
Particularly when accusations are made abroad or in another theater, there must be some legal paper trail to justify breaking a contract, he said. “If I make a decision to fire an artist because (something) maybe happened in another place, I have a ... signed contract. He can go to a judge and say, ‘Why did Mr. Meyer cancel my contract?’ He will win."
The Los Angeles Opera house, where Domingo had been general director since 2003, is conducting an inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment against the star. Three of the nine women who accused the singer of harassment and abuse of power in AP’s initial report in August said the encounters took place at the LA organization. Though he has disputed the allegations, Domingo resigned from LA Opera on Oct. 2.
“I have no possibility to know myself what happened in another venue,’’ Meyer said. “If there is a complaint in my house, the first thing is to stop everything and work with my legal department just to know. This is a different situation. If I have no complaint in my theater, I need to wait until a judge says what happened."
Meyer joins many in the opera world who have defended Domingo, including most recently singer Andrea Bocelli, saying that in some 20 years of working with him he never received a complaint about inappropriate behavior.
Domingo “behaves very correctly, more than correctly,” Meyer said. “You will not find any people I think at the Vienna State Opera to criticize his behavior.” During the interview, Meyer said the opera world needs to take the issue of sexual harassment seriously, insinuating that some “make as if there wouldn’t be anything.” But at the same time, the manager who has worked 30 years in some of Europe’s most important opera houses declined to address how big an issue it truly is behind the scenes of the world’s biggest venues.
“I cannot imagine that you have only correct people in any area of the world. Why should opera be different?” he said. “But ... I do not believe it is worse.”