Vienna State Opera’s ballet academy hit by abuse scandal

The Vienna State Opera has launched an investigation and promised far-reaching reforms after allegations that students at its prestigious ballet academy were subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse by two teachers.

“Things have happened that are unacceptable,” the State Opera’s director, Dominique Meyer, said on Wednesday after the Austrian magazine Falter published a detailed exposé of the alleged abuse based on interviews with students and staff.

The article said pupils at the academy were hit, kicked, scratched until they bled, pulled by their hair and subjected to a stream of humiliating comments about their bodies. They received no psychological or nutritional support and some developed bulimia or anorexia, Falter claimed.

Meyer, who is in his final season in Vienna and a candidate to take over as director of the Paris Opera, told Austria’s ORF broadcaster that the teacher accused of most of the abuse had been warned about her behaviour two years ago and was eventually dismissed in January.

Meyer said he had ordered a “full explanation of everything that has gone wrong”, adding that child protection officials were also investigating the allegations and that it was “clear that a teacher has behaved very badly here”.

A second teacher at the academy – which was granted a royal charter by the Empress Theresa in 1771 and at present has 110 pupils aged from 10 to 18 – was accused by one student of sexual assault and suspended pending the outcome of an investigation by Vienna public prosecutors.

Jolantha Seyfried, a former director of the school, told the magazine of a “slave mentality” inside the renowned institution, which attracts applications from around the world. Pupils were seen as “just a commodity, to play in the opera”, she said.

A former prima ballerina, Gabriele Haslinger, said the sacked teacher, who was of Russian origin, had imported “Soviet-style drills” to the school, whose alumni dance for some of the world’s best-known dance companies including the Royal Ballet in London, St Petersburg’s Mariinsky and the American Ballet Theatre in New York.

“Parents believe that they are leaving their children in the safest hands possible at the academy, but it’s just not true,” Haslinger said. Another former teacher, Sharon Booth, said the teacher’s educational methods were “those of the 19th century”.

The Vienna State Opera, whose website says it “takes particular care of the physical and emotional wellbeing” of students, said in a statement that its own investigation had “uncovered very unpleasant incidents, which are completely intolerable and which we greatly regret”.

The students affected “have our deepest sympathy”, it said. The academy aimed to build a “positive, trusting, respectful and healthy working environment” and was already implementing “significant reforms in several areas”, it added.

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