PARIS — A renowned Swiss conductor returned to a major world stage Sunday for the first time since 10 women accused him of sexual assault, harassment, and in one case rape — and he earned repeated ovations from the awed Paris audience.
Charles Dutoit, 82, denies wrongdoing, and has faced no charge. The women said they feared that turning to police would have damaged their careers at the time of the alleged misconduct, between 1985 and 2010. They revealed their accusations to The Associated Press in 2017 and 2018, when many cases were too old to pursue in court.
Many concert-goers at the Philharmonie de Paris shrugged off the accusations. But Dutoit's appearance Sunday shocked Anne-Sophie Schmidt, a retired French soprano who says he pushed her against a wall, groped her and forcibly kissed her in 1995 while she was performing in Paris.
Schmidt lamented the “catastrophic message” his return sends to victims of assault, and issued a statement Sunday calling attention to the allegations against him by women in three countries. Among those sharing the statement on social media were others who have played for Dutoit.
At the Philharmonie, Dutoit led an intense, intermission-free performance of Berlioz’ “The Damnation of Faust” as a last-minute replacement for the lead conductor of the Orchestre National de France, who fell ill two weeks ago. But Dutoit's return caused divisions behind the scenes.
The orchestra allowed musicians to vote on whether to support Dutoit's return, and a majority voted “no,” according to one woman who performed Sunday. The decision ultimately fell to orchestra management, which said Dutoit was the only conductor available on short notice with the necessary expertise.
Dutoit is a Berlioz specialist and Grammy winner who has conducted some of the world's leading orchestras. But a singer who performed Sunday said other worthy candidates were passed over for Sunday's job, without explanation. Both performers spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing professional repercussions.
The lead female soloist, Kate Lindsey, said she was aware of the allegations but wasn't consulted on the choice of conductor. She told the AP “there was nothing inappropriate” in his behavior during rehearsals or performance. “It was all about the music.”
The public seemed happy to welcome him back.
Michelle Jolivet shrugged off accusations against Dutoit as probably “fake news,” then added, “I hope it's fake.” Her husband Michel said, “It's up to justice to decide. ... If he's not convicted, let him live his life.”
Their comments reflected the muted response in France to the #MeToo movement that freed up women in the U.S. and elsewhere to speak out about sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men.
Three opera singers and a classical musician told the AP in 2017 that Dutoit sexually assaulted them on the sidelines of rehearsals and performances with orchestras in five cities— Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Saratoga Springs, New York. In 2018, the AP reported six new accusations of sexual assault from female musicians in the U.S., France and Canada, including a musician who said the maestro sexually assaulted her in 1988.
Dutoit stepped down from Britain's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra following the allegations, and several major U.S. orchestras severed ties with him. He was among multiple conductors accused of sexual misconduct and using positions of power to abuse women.
Dutoit did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer, James Carr, said in a statement Saturday to the AP that no police force has “deemed it necessary to question him.” He said the Orchestre Symponique de Montreal conducted an internal investigation into claims by two women, and didn't find sufficient evidence of harassment. The Boston Symphony Orchestra said an independent investigation found an allegation there credible, and uncovered at least three other alleged instances of misconduct.
Dutoit has since found a new job in Russia: He is scheduled to start in May as the principal guest conductor for the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
Jocelyn Gecker contributed from San Francisco.