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Great artists do not have a God-given right to womanise

Placido Domingo with the New York Rockettes, in in 1984
Placido Domingo with the New York Rockettes, in in 1984

In the age of MeToo, it’s time to stop being seduced by cultural Lotharios and consider the women in their lives, says Serena Davies

Yesterday’s news alleging Placido Domingo – charming, handsome and long admired for his ability to slay the ladies – committed sexual harassment is nothing if not depressing. Did the romance of this passionate Alfredo, this stirring Don Carlo have a shadier side? Did this touching Don José, the pawn in Carmen’s game, make others feel vulnerable?

Although past his prime, there’s no doubt that Domingo is the world’s greatest living opera star. That accolade is unassailable, but the story does suggest Domingo’s celebrity and the power of his charisma meant it was possible he behaved – and was condoned in behaving – in a way that may now be deemed inappropriate. And in the recalibrated sexual discourse of the MeToo era, the women who were the object of his desire and are now complaining, feel they too can have a voice. 

It is invidious to speculate further on the opera star, but it feels like now is perhaps a moment to call time on the habit of thinking of the artist as having a God-given right to womanise, however attractive and engaging they are. And especially to stop thinking of their womanising as part of the packaging: a burnish to their glamour. 

The lovers of Picasso, for instance, are lauded as his muses, while their personal tragedies are shunted to the sideboard of history. Take Marie-Thérèse Walter, nearly 30 years Picasso’s junior and abandoned by him for Dora Maar, who went on to commit suicide having never got over him. But that was OK, it seems, because Walter inspired some of his best (and most erotic) paintings. 

Pablo Picasso with Françoise Gilot, in 1950

The Spanish artist has gone down in lore as a genius whose faithlessness was justified as part of a constant quest for inspiration; not as a serial and fickle womaniser who damaged the lives of his lovers. As has Percy Bysshe Shelley; as has Leonard Cohen – yet both have a serious claim to the latter definition. We might even have forgiven the handsome Ted Hughes his way with women if Sylvia Plath, one of two women whom he inspired to put their heads in a gas oven, had not made such a clarion call to artistic genius herself. Her voice meets his in the record of their woeful history. 

The pride of the cultural male celebrity in promiscuity, the admiration it has apparently engendered, is of course time-honoured. Georg Solti was a self-anointed Lothario (married of course) who was happy to declare that everyone at Covent Garden knew that’s what he was. It’s been observed that sex is basically considered a perk of the job when you’re a classical conductor – the power of the podium extends, seamlessly it seems, to the bedroom.

Rock and film stars go one further and actively boast of the thousands of women they have slept with. (I think Kiss’s Gene Simmons holds the supposed record here, at 4,000.) But it’s when the romantic aura of great art obscures the mess underneath that the issue is perhaps most problematic – when we too are seduced by the artist, via the art. Both Cohen and Shelley offer morally troubling examples of this. 

Marianne Ihlen with her son Axel, sat beside Leonard Cohen in Hydra, Greece, October 1960 Credit: getty

As documentary-maker Nick Broomfield’s recent film testifies, although Leonard Cohen wrote So Long Marianne, one of the most poignant love songs of all time, about Marianne Christine Stang Ihlen, he jilted her, and her subsequent life, freighted with unrequited yearning for him, was chaotic. Her son, neglected when she was with Cohen, became an acid casualty. 

We love the romantic story of Percy Bysshe Shelley – a Romantic poet with a capital R – running off with a 16-year-old Mary Godwin (three years off writing Frankenstein), with her, “sweet voice, like a bird”. But forget that he left a pregnant wife who later drowned herself and her unborn child. Harriet Westbrook was not a writer, so posterity has taken little interest in her suffering. 

So perhaps a further way we can move on from the iniquitous mores of the past is that we should no longer consider any great lovers from the cultural world without some consideration of the other side of the story – what it was like for those loved by them, and did it even feel like love?