The reaction to British conductor Robert King's trial for sex offenses has been weirdly muffled on this side of the Atlantic--it was only days after his conviction that I learned he'd even been arrested, and there has beeen surprisingly little outcry from our music critics in the aftermath of his sentencing. In case you hadn't heard, King, a brilliant baroque specialist, has been accused of plying boys as young as twelve with alcohol in order to initiate sexual contact. Now, the way American justice deals with sex offenses--especially those involving minors--is a little warped. (Anyone who doubts that only needs to watch an episode of that creepy pædo-tainment series To Catch a Predator.) And so I read up on this case expecting to be horrified by the usual sex-trial theatrics, and while there was some obvious witch-hunt nonsense--
Most of the accusations allege that King got the young men drunk, with one claiming that the conductor had given him 15 bottles of beer in one hour. (To this, according to BBC News, King told the court, "I don't think I have ever seen anyone drink 15 bottles of beer in an hour.") [PlaybillArts]
--British justice seems, in this case, to have erred on the side of leniency.
Make no mistake: I am not happy that King's personal and professional reputation will be ruined. I am not happy to see him go to prison. This situation is a disaster not only for the boys and their families but for King and his, and for classical music lovers everywhere. I was horrified to hear it even suggested that Hyperion Records might withdraw King's recordings from the market (they won't, says Playbill). But when King finishes his four-year sentence, he will not, astonishingly, be barred from supervising young boys. At the risk of sounding like a patriot (perish the thought!), I cannot imagine an American court making such a judgment.
James Fenton, commenting on the story in today's Guardian, argues on King's behalf:
For the ordinary, anonymous private citizen convicted in such cases, there is the sentence itself, and there is what you might call the multiplier: you lose your job, very likely your home, you are submitted to persecution by fellow prisoners, and so forth. There are many aspects to this multiplier, which continue well after your release. Anyone who has watched the multiplier in action will be bound to feel horror at its effects. For the artist, there are all these aspects of the multiplier, and then some more. The case of Robert King has unique ramifications. The judge recognised some of these when not ruling against any future work with children. King, as a married man with a young child, was deemed to have entered a new phase in his life. And this decision is crucial to anyone who works with early vocal music. To be debarred for life from working with the male treble voice would have been a harsh fate.
It's true that the fallout for a sex offender goes far beyond a prison sentence. (See here for one extreme.) But while I find King's Ted Haggard-like sexual reëducation nothing short of miraculous, I'm not sure that it's entirely unheard of for a married man to commit sexual abuse against boys. In fact, as a gay man, I'm frankly insulted by everyone's readiness to accept the notion that a person's sexual preferences could be so easily discarded. And finally, as a lover of early vocal music, let me assure Mr. Fenton that it is entirely possible to perform Vivaldi without employing children.
I am a romantic at heart. I agree that artists are a very special people, and that Robert King is special even among artists. But to think that the debt we owe him for his music in any way mitigates the terrible debt he has incurred with these crimes goes far beyond romantic. It is dangerous and, frankly, a little grotesque.