Acclaimed conductor Alessandro Siciliani at center of sexual misconduct complaints

Andy Downing

In the weeks leading up to the Opera Project Columbus (OPC) production of “Rigoletto” in June, Music Director Alessandro Siciliani’s behavior became increasingly unpredictable.

Five sources said there were occasional temperamental outbursts, including one that caused longtime Chorus Master Christopher Dent to file a formal complaint with the OPC board. “This was based on an anger issue,” Dent said of the complaint. “And because of that there was a level of fear among the cast members, and in this instance I was looking out for them.”

A female cast member also lodged a second, independent complaint, alleging that following a May 28 rehearsal for “Rigoletto,” Siciliani lifted the skirt of her dress and made a remark that the garment needed to be shorter to better suit the character she was portraying. The woman filed a Title IX complaint with Ohio State University on May 29, a copy of which was obtained from school officials by Alive. (Though OPC has no official connection to the university, the rehearsal took place in OSU’s Hughes Hall Auditorium, leading to the Title IX filing, which is meant to address sexual harassment or any gender-based discrimination that might deny someone access to education opportunities.)

“I got offstage, and was sitting down and taking my notes. Somebody was doing something to my right, and so I looked over, and that’s when I felt [Siciliani] grab my skirt and try to lift it up,” said the woman, who spoke with Alive on the condition of anonymity, owing to a fear of professional repercussions (the woman’s account was independently confirmed by a cast member who witnessed the incident). “[Siciliani] had tried to interact with me and grabbed my hand before that, and I had moved away because I wasn’t comfortable. … When it happened, I was shocked. I slapped his hand and stared at him, but I didn’t say anything, and I should have said something.”

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Siciliani, best known for the 12 years he served as music director for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra beginning in 1992, confirmed the receipt of an email containing a detailed list of questions from Alive, but did not provide answers prior to publication. He also did not reply to multiple phone messages seeking comment.

The woman reported the post-rehearsal incident the evening it happened to “Rigoletto” Director A. Scott Parry. At the close of the production, the woman sent an email to Opera Project Columbus, notifying its leadership team about what had transpired, she said, including then-Executive Director Zeke Rettman, then-Artistic Administrator Adam Cioffari and Board President and Orchestra Manager Karen Barnick Pfeifer.

Opera Project Columbus also had the woman file a formal complaint, she said, using a form provided by the company. “I went through the whole thing and filled it out thoroughly and told them I had witnesses,” she said. “I explained everything and I told them, I said, ‘There are a lot of students and younger people who want to be in operas … but I’m not going to be encouraging people to come work with you while he’s there.’”

Siciliani has conducted programming for Opera Project Columbus since its 2011 inception, when the standalone nonprofit arts organization was founded with the aim of providing singers and musicians still in the formative stages of their careers an opportunity to perform onstage. (Opera Project Columbus has no affiliation with Opera Columbus.)

According to three sources, the OPC board, headed by Pfeifer, has spearheaded an internal investigation. While Pfeifer replied to emails from Alive, she did not make herself available for an interview, eventually writing that “the board in collaboration with legal counsel has authorized an investigation into the concerns raised.”

Siciliani, who remains a fundraising draw from his years with CSO, is critical to Opera Project Columbus’ finances. In a phone call, primary OPC funder George Skestos, founder of the Columbus-based building firm Homewood Corp. and former chair of OSU’s Board of Trustees, said his annual donations to OPC are entirely predicated on Siciliani being a part of the group.

In addition to the incident that led to the Title IX complaint, OPC is also in possession of an email from a second woman that includes claims of “inappropriate and abusive behavior” against Siciliani. In the email, a copy of which was obtained by Alive, the woman alleges that the music director commented on her body, including the size of her breasts, and on several occasions made a show of looking up her skirt from the orchestra pit while she was onstage. (Alive confirmed the validity of the email with the woman who wrote it, but she did not wish to speak on or off record.)

Rettman and Cioffari also declined multiple requests for an interview. Both have since resigned from their positions at OPC, along with Dent, who turned in his letter of resignation in the weeks following “Rigoletto.” Parry also said he would no longer be involved with the company as long as Siciliani remained at its helm.

Siciliani, who remains in his position with OPC, most recently directed the company’s September Gran Gala at the Lincoln Theatre. Billed as “A Marathon of Maestro’s Favorites,” the show caused at least one attendee to file a complaint with the opera company.

“It was the most unprofessional concert I’ve ever seen,” said Jonas Laughlin, who studied music at OSU and taught in the school’s voice department while working on his doctorate, estimating that he’s attended or been a part of more than 1,000 performances.

According to Laughlin, Siciliani berated musicians from the stage, calling one an “idiot” for standing in the wrong location. Siciliani also denigrated the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Laughlin said, hinting that the company had been in steady decline since his departure.

“I got the sense that the theater was full of a lot of people who had come to see him, and who found his antics amusing,” continued Laughlin, who nearly walked out and later lodged his complaints in an email to OPC. “Everyone was just kind of laughing, like they were there for the theatrics of the whole thing, which was disconcerting to me.”

“There’s a temperamental quality, absolutely, to how he approaches his working environment,” said Parry, director of Ohio State’s Opera & Lyric Theatre, who worked alongside Siciliani for a pair of OPC productions, including “Rigoletto” in June. “And with ‘Rigoletto’ it built to probably the worst experience I’ve had in the theater, which was our final dress rehearsal, and it was the most inappropriate I’ve ever seen a professional behave in an operatic environment. … With what I witnessed, [OPC] is not a company I feel comfortable asking people to be a part of, or one that I feel I can be a part of.”

Among women in the cast, according to three sources interviewed, these concerns were heightened, owing to Siciliani’s alleged habit of making inappropriate comments.

Dent, who works in the OSU School of Music, said that “Rigoletto” was the first time he heard more direct complaints from women in his four-plus years with OPC. “During the rehearsal process, through casual conversations, there were comments that at least some of the female cast members were not as comfortable around him,” he said.

As a result, Dent and a second member of the production team maintained a heightened awareness of Siciliani’s movements within the venue both during the production, which took place June 7 and 9 at the Southern Theatre, as well as in the final rehearsals leading up to it.

“I had [one person involved in the production] calling me, like, ‘Where do you want your dressing room to be? We all have to watch out for each other.’ [Siciliani] had someone watching him and following him at all times,” said the woman who filed the Title IX complaint, adding that she also kept a friend by her side for the rest of her time on the production.

In a resignation letter Rettman submitted to OPC on June 20, a copy of which was obtained by Alive, the former executive director cited incidents of Siciliani’s alleged misconduct as the primary cause for his departure, writing, “the treatment of and more specifically, the vulnerable feelings amongst the young women this company has worked with is truly it for me” (Rettman confirmed the validity of the resignation letter in an email to Alive.)

In the letter, Rettman went on to describe the harsh budgetary realities of a post-Siciliani OPC, which, he writes, “would not be nearly as financially healthy without him as its primary large donor fundraiser.”

Chief among these funders is Skestos, who donated $55,000 to OPC in 2015, increasing the amount to $110,000 in 2017. Both donations were made via Skestos’ nonprofit IHS Foundation, according to tax records obtained by Alive.

Rettman’s resignation letter spells out the general understanding under which OPC operates, wherein Siciliani receives $30,000 of every $55,000 donated by Skestos, an arrangement confirmed in a phone call with Skestos.

Skestos has long served as a patron for Siciliani, whom he described as a “great conductor.” “Without him,” Skestos said, “we wouldn’t have a person doing that work with young, up-and-coming musicians, which I think is very important.”

When the Columbus Symphony Orchestra opted not to renew Siciliani’s contract prior to parting with the conductor in May 2004, Skestos made a pitch for the orchestra to keep Siciliani. Skestos pledged $200,000 to cover the first year of a new contract for the conductor, who would have been reinstated as music director for at least two years, according to a July 2004 Dispatch report. The pledge was part of a larger $1.5 million proposal rejected by the CSO board chairman that also included a $500,000 bequest to the orchestra at the time of Skestos’ death.

At the time, the push to reinstate Siciliani at CSO had wide support among the community, owing to Siciliani’s artistic reputation and his critical and financial successes with the orchestra. In May 2004, The Other Paper reported that “attendances soared” under Siciliani, helping the orchestra’s budget grow almost 40 percent between 1998 and 2004 to $11 million.

“There are a lot of people who would like to see Alessandro stay,” Mike McMennamin, then chairman of the symphony board told the Dispatch in May 2004. “He will always be very popular here.”

But another report from The Other Paper, also from May 2004, captured a gnawing sense of skepticism among musicians within CSO, some of whom had tired of Siciliani’s approach. Gene Standley, principal horn player who died in 2017, told the now-defunct alternative weekly that Siciliani had lost the confidence of too many players to be an effective leader. “The tension would be intolerable,” Standley said.

Skestos said he was unaware of the Title IX complaint or any affiliated claims prior to receiving the phone call from Alive, but said he was glad that Opera Project Columbus was conducting an internal investigation.

“As you know, [these kinds of allegations are] springing up all over today, some of it true and some of it not true,” said Skestos, who has donated to OPC since its 2011 inception due to Siciliani’s involvement. “You get notoriety, to get back at someone who maybe hasn’t promoted you, who knows what the reason is. Everything should be investigated. These things shouldn’t be allowed. But they can also end up injuring the person who is accused, especially if they’re not guilty.”

If, following the investigation, the OPC board did opt to part ways with Siciliani, whom Skestos described as “one of my best friends,” the developer said it would be the end of his donations to the company.

“And I think it’ll be nearly the end of the project,” he continued. “Not because of me, but because Alessandro is [Opera Project Columbus].”

Correction: Language stating that the woman reported the May 28 incident "at the urging" of "Rigoletto" director A. Scott Parry was removed. While she said that he advised her as a professor to report, the overall messaging was more conflicted.