As more accusers come forward, Opera Tampa reveals why it cut ties with conductor Daniel Lipton

Sara Villa posed for a portrait on January 18, 2018 at Lettuce Lake Park, in Tampa, Fla. Villa said she was harrassed by Daniel Lipton, former artistic director of Opera Tampa, in 2015 while she was still a student. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Sara Villa posed for a portrait on January 18, 2018 at Lettuce Lake Park, in Tampa, Fla. Villa said she was harrassed by Daniel Lipton, former artistic director of Opera Tampa, in 2015 while she was still a student. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published March 4, 2018

TAMPA — When Daniel Lipton resigned as artistic director of Opera Tampa in July, it caught many by surprise. Lipton was an accomplished conductor with deep international ties. His contract was not set to expire until 2018.

The maestro's official reason for leaving was that he wanted to pursue other projects.

But in January, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Lipton was being sought by Canadian police in a connection with a sexual assault. Since then, two other women have stepped forward, telling the Times stories of uncomfortable or disturbing contact they say they had with Lipton.

And the CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, which employed Lipton, has acknowledged for the first time having heard things about his behavior that ultimately led them to part ways.

It paints a broader picture of opera, an artistic universe that those inside say can be fraught with unprofessional flirtations, uncomfortable interactions and even sexual misconduct.

Judith Lisi, Opera Tampa's co-founder and CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, has maintained that she did not know about the Canadian arrest warrant, which was issued in February 2017, until told by a Times reporter.

PREVIOUS REPORTING: Canadian cops hunt former Opera Tampa maestro Daniel Lipton in connection with sexual assault

But she has now acknowledged that Opera Tampa bought out the final eight months on Lipton's contract. The reason, she said, was her concern over what she had heard about his behavior toward women.

"I just heard things, but nothing was brought formally," Lisi said. "It was just a little bit here, a little bit there... When you hear enough, your gut tells you where there's smoke, there must be something. That's why I bought out the contract.

"I did it just in case," Lisi said. "In case there was anything there that I didn't know about. I just wanted to make sure we had a safe work environment. So I bought out the contract."

When the Straz initially announced Lipton's departure in July, Lisi was quoted as saying, "We enjoyed a very nice five years with him. He's a fine conductor and we wish him well."

In January, she described the decisions as "mutual." "There were a number of things. He was doing more work at a number of places."

Now, she reflected, her position at that time had been a difficult one.

"When is it overreaching when you can't really prove anything?" she said. "That was what was so concerning and disturbing about the whole thing. But I've certainly learned a lot through the process."

Reached for this story, Lipton, 77, told the Times he was on a long-distance call and couldn't talk. Neither Lipton nor Scott Lilly, the Tampa lawyer he said was representing him, returned multiple messages requesting comment.

• • •

Soprano Rebecca Flaherty of Savannah, Ga., wanted to sing opera full-time. She had taken time out for motherhood, then gone back to school and earned a master's degree. With children ages 7 and 9 and the support of her husband and friends, she thought she could manage three major shows a year.

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So in June 2012, she attended an Opera America conference in Philadelphia. Thought leaders would speak, Grammy winners would sing, and 500 conventioneers would go home charged up. On the first day, a friend introduced Flaherty to Daniel Lipton, the new artistic director at Opera Tampa.

"My impression initially was that he was very warm, soft-spoken," said Flaherty, now 42. "He had kind of a gentleness in his eyes that I haven't seen in a lot of other conductors I've worked with."

She tried to make a good impression, giving the conductor a ready smile and her best handshake, making sure to listen to every word he said. This was just "career mode," as she put it.

"Conductors are a certain breed," Flaherty said, "and they like to know that you're paying attention to them. So I just did my best to be charming."

A couple of hours later, she and Lipton decided to attend a dinner for artists at a nearby restaurant. They arrived first and sat at the head of a long table. Soon singers and opera executives joined them the table was filled with lively conversation.

As she tried to follow the different threads around her, Lipton, sitting beside Flaherty, wanted to know more about her. He asked if she was married and whether she had children,she said.

"I'm thinking, okay, he's asking me those things because he wants to know how committed I am as a singer, or because there's this idea that if you have children or you're married, maybe you're not as dedicated."

In the midst of conversation, she said, Lipton reached under the table and grabbed her hand.

"He sort of folds his finger under our hands in a really sexually suggestive way," she said. "I don't know how to describe this. It was kind of like a car accident. I was driving along down one road, and all of a sudden I realized I wasn't really on the road I thought I was."

Flaherty said Lipton wrapped his middle finger under the palm of her hand, and was making "a thrusting motion with his finger." For a few moments, Flaherty said, she was frozen.

"There's this feeling of shock and disbelief," she said. "And when you start to admit to yourself what is happening to you, and yet you're not able really to stop it, that feeling is the worst part of all. That, to me, made me feel like I was not a human being... I felt lower than a piece of gum that might have been stuck to his shoe. It just reduces you to nothing."

Flaherty said she pulled her hand away, whereupon Lipton rested his hand on her leg. She frantically texted a friend and asked if she could join their group at another restaurant. Then she made a hurried excuse and said goodbye.

It was around dusk on the Philadelphia street as she tried to find her friend's hotel. She cast a glance over her shoulder and said she saw Lipton, following her and waving.

She entered the hotel and walked to the rear of the lobby, past the restaurant she was looking for. She got to a bank of elevators when she said she realized Lipton was right behind her.

"He caught up to me and he kissed me and tried to force his tongue in my mouth," Flaherty said.

She pulled herself away, she said, found the hotel restaurant and sat down with her friend and others. Lipton, she said, followed behind, sitting across from her at the table and staring at her.

"He's clearly not gotten the message at this point that I don't want to be around him," she said.

The next morning, she said, Lipton approached her at breakfast and said he had pursued her because he thought she was interested.

• • •

While the #MeToo movement has led to criminal charges against some public figures and pushed politicians and popular entertainers into retreating, the opera world had largely avoided the microscope.

That changed with recent allegations against longtime Metropolitan Opera artistic director James Levine, who was suspended in December after three men reported sexual abuse by him decades earlier.

"I think it's distressingly common," said international opera singer Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet, who teaches voice at Montclair State University in New Jersey. "Every woman I talk to has had some experience like this."

Over a 30-year international career, Charbonnet said, she has been subject to unwelcome physical touch many times, including being forced up against a wall by a conductor, a voice teacher grabbing her breast as part of telling her how to breathe, and having a tenor push his tongue down her throat in front of 15,000 people. She said Luciano Pavarotti once chased her around a piano.

Competition for limited opportunities increases the pressure. That chorus role could lead to a part, a part to getting noticed elsewhere. Even singers are freelancers, often living from gig to gig.

"In this field, where it's one person trying to get a job in front of a lot of other people, we feel — and men, too, in this business — so much pressure to get that job because we know we could be replaced easily," Charbonnet said.

• • •

Sara Villa was a senior at the University of Central Florida in December 2015. She met Lipton while auditioning at Opera Tampa, her first audition with a professional opera company.

According to Villa, now 24, Lipton called attention to her last name and asked where she was from.

"I said I was from Medellin," said Villa, who was born in Colombia. "So he started speaking to me in Spanish."

Lipton, who speaks several languages, told Villa he had started an opera company in Bogota.

"I was like, 'Oh, cool, I've got a connection with the director,' " Villa said.

After she sang an aria from the upcoming show, Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, she claimsLipton shook her hand and held onto it, massaging it with his thumbs as he looked into her eyes.

"He kept staring into my eyes for, like, a really long time, for probably like 10 seconds or something," Villa said, and asked, in Spanish, if she had a boyfriend.

"He kept switching between English and Spanish, and he would only say the incriminating things in Spanish," Villa said.

She told him she did not have a boyfriend.

"And then he was like, 'How could someone so beautiful not have a boyfriend?'" Villa said.

On the spot, according to Villa,Lipton told pianist and managing director Robin Stamper he wanted Villa in the chorus of Cosi Fan Tutte. Then, in Spanish, he said he would consider her for an understudy role in Romeo and Juliet, which was a year away. Stamper said he does not remember the incident and does not speak Spanish.

Lipton gave Villa his cell number and offered to give her a vocal coaching lesson, she said, and later left a text message about the lesson. Villa presented copies of the text messages to theTampa Bay Times.

"Can we meet at my house or would you be uncomfortable?" Lipton wrote. "It is quiet and conducive to concentrating. Please let me know."

Charbonnet, who had taught Villa and worked with Lipton, offered Villa advice before the coaching session.

"I said, 'Please don't be alone with him,' " Charbonnet, 54, told the Times. "Like, 'You are too young and too beautiful and I would be careful.' "

Villa texted back the next day, telling Lipton she would be more comfortable meeting in a rehearsal hall at the Straz Center.

Lipton proposed an 11 a.m. meeting time on the last day before he had to leave the country over the Christmas holidays. Because she only saw the message the night before and would have had to drive from Orlando, she declined, suggesting instead they meet in January.

"It was difficult getting a free room," Lipton replied. "I thought you wanted to learn."

The coaching session never happened. Villa turned down the chorus role. Despite reservations, she returned that season to sing in the chorus of Tosca. She made that decision after Opera Tampa singers told her chorus members work mostly with Stamper, and that Lipton wouldn't enter into the picture until the last few rehearsals.

She continues to pursue opera as a career. But the encounter left a sour aftertaste.

"It was painful and frustrating and really discouraging because I felt like no one was really going to listen to me," Villa said. "What was even more discouraging was the fact that everyone's response was like, 'Oh yeah, that's him.'"

The Times spoke to seven people who said Villa had told them at the time about her audition experience with Lipton. Among them was her father, Diego Villa, a cellist in Medellin in the early 1980s while Lipton was conducting in Bogota.

"He was obviously very respected as a musician, but he was also known as a womanizer at that time," said Diego Villa, 58, who now lives in Tampa. When he learned his daughter was to audition with Lipton, he said, "I had shared a little bit with Sara about what I knew about him. But I was hoping that nothing of that would affect her."

Later, Sara told her father about her contact with Lipton.

"My reaction was, 'Oh boy, of course something like this was bound to happen,'" Diego Villa said. "And I said, 'Okay, here he goes again.' But my feeling was, goodness, this is terrible that her first try at getting something in her own back yard is being sabotaged by this jerk. But at the same time I felt totally helpless because I know what the music world is like, I know what the opera world is like."

Vanessa Rodriguez, who performed in Cosi Fan Tutte and other Opera Tampa productions, also listened to Villa's story.

"(Lipton) was always quite respectful, but I've heard that it wasn't always the case with people I worked with," Rodriguez said. "But that's not my story to tell. They have told me their experiences and I go, 'Oh, that's not okay.' "

To some, Lipton was well-known for an amorous approach to women, a part of his persona.

"Are you kidding me? He's had that reputation forever," said Claudia McCorkle, a frequent benefactor to the St. Petersburg Opera Company. "To me, he's just a red-blooded European male with a very active libido. If he is sexually harassing singers, that's a horse of a different color, absolutely, and it's appalling and disgusting."

• • •

Neither Flaherty nor Villa reported their incidents involving Lipton to Opera Tampa. Lisi said not getting direct reports makes it harder to act.

"Had they come forward, I would have had a reason to investigate, research and do what I needed to do," she said. "And I could have done it earlier."

Villa regrets the fact that she didn't. "I should have reported it," she said.

Flaherty told her husband after the conference that Lipton wouldn't stop pursuing her.

"She was just terrified because she didn't know if she'd be able to get away from him and he was forcing himself on her," said Dan Flaherty. "And so it was very disturbing."

Flaherty wondered if she should formally report the incident.

"I considered, 'Maybe I should go to Opera Tampa,'" she said. "Maybe I should call somebody in charge there and tell them what happened. But in my mind it kind of became the accepted thing, that he was even known for this so I was kind of out of the loop that this was a kind of behavior to expect from him."

She contacted the Times after learning about Lipton's arrest warrant in Canada.

That alleged assault took place in the late 1980s, a woman the Times has not named told the Hamilton Police Service in Hamilton, Ontario. That is when, according to police, Lipton assaulted a woman at his home.

Police have not yet arrested Lipton, who the Times reached in January at his home in New Port Richey. In an interview with the Times for that story, Lipton called that woman's account "completely fabricated" and said he was considering answering the warrant in Canada.

Lipton has also recently married mezzo soprano Emily Righter, 33, according to Righter. She was last seen at Opera Tampa in February 2017, in the title role of Cinderella, or La Cenerentola.

Reached by the Times, Righter said she was focused on The Marriage of Figaro this weekend at the Straz Center, in which she sings the role of Cherubino.

"As hard as it is to hear all of these things, as a professional I have to do my job," Righter said. "It's a very, very difficult time to be focusing 100 percent on my job while all of this is going on, because I am a new bride. Whatever happened in the past, if I had my druthers this wouldn't be coming out right now at the premiere.

"It's very disrespectful to Opera Tampa while we try to prepare that I have to be thrown into this," she added. "Whatever these women are saying it's unfortunate, but it just breaks my heart that it has to be right now."

Lipton told the Times in January that decades-old stories of abuse, such as those surfacing in the #MeToo movement, are "all the rage." That statement coupled with his denial angered Flaherty and spurred her to talk about her experience with Lipton, she said.

"That kind of lit a fire under me," she said.

She believes she has come to terms with what happened. At the same time, she said, "I've just been thinking a lot about all the women between 2012, when I had my encounter with him, and now, and that maybe I could have saved them some heartache."

She still loves teaching voice, still gets asked to sing and enjoys creating shows with friends. But after her experience in Philadelphia, she no longer seeks work from anyone she doesn't know. She has also given up her dream of singing opera as a career.

"I've decided that I can't put myself through things like that anymore," she said.

Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.