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#MeToo and Don Giovanni

The recent sexual-harassment allegations against renowned opera singer Plácido Domingo have rekindled the debate as to whether today's ethical standards should apply across time and space. Differences of opinion on such matters often are both generational and geographical.

LONDON – In September, New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced that Plácido Domingo had withdrawn from all future engagements there, following allegations of sexual harassment made by several women, including a soprano who said he grabbed her bare breast. Domingo’s burnished tenor and acting ability have thrilled generations of opera lovers. At the age of 78, and after 51 consecutive years of performing at the Met, it was probably time for him to hang up his boots anyway. But what are we to make of his compulsory retirement?

Following the Met’s announcement, I received messages from two friends (a man and a woman) who share my love of opera. The man wrote that, “the primary dilemma is between a deontological understanding of ethics, the standards of which are valid across time and space, and a more context-bounded one.” Even if we stop short of embracing radical ethical relativism, he argued, we should not ignore completely the context in which the alleged behavior took place. Moreover, we should acknowledge that ethical consciousness – what people consider to be ethical standards – changes over time, even if some core principles do not. And, he concluded, even if we have a non-contextual understanding of ethics, “I wonder whether the accused persons have no rights at all. Anonymous accusations can destroy lives.”

My female friend, meanwhile, pointed out that Domingo has several problems. For starters, there are a lot of complainants, and he was in a position of real power in a business notorious for power abuses. Worst of all, she said, “the present atmosphere, especially in the United States, is not far off a lynch mob.”

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