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Famed Swedish opera singer blames #MeToo for her husband’s suicide: ‘You can break a person’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/30/2018 Isaac Stanley-Becker
Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter performs a Franz Schubert selection at Carnegie Hall in New York on February 17, 2004. © AP/Chad Rachman/ Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter performs a Franz Schubert selection at Carnegie Hall in New York on February 17, 2004.

She was scheduled to perform a Schubert selection, singing German poems that told of the Erlking’s trickery and the leaping of the Trout, with the accompaniment of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

But Anne Sofie von Otter, the world-renowned Swedish opera singer, canceled just days before the three March concerts, after the unexpected death of her husband, Benny Fredriksson, who was by her side on an international tour.

“New Zealand, so beautiful,” she had written on Facebook earlier that month, posting photos of rolling green hills and bright pink lilies. Then the mezzo-soprano fell silent.

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Now, von Otter, 63, is speaking out against the #MeToo movement, which she says expelled her husband from his job, cast him into the “deepest depression” and, ultimately, drove him to take his own life.

“You can break a person,” she said in an expansive interview with Die Zeit, a weekly newspaper published in Hamburg.

She laid blame on tabloid journalism for trading in what she described as fallacious claims. But she also offered a broader critique of the human rush to judgment — one cause, she said, of widespread social misery. “What are we doing with our beautiful world?” she asked.

She said a herd mentality had taken hold, threatening “independent, critical thinking.”

Von Otter’s statements position her as one of the most prominent skeptics of the campaign against sexual harassment and assault that has swept the globe since allegations surfaced against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Perhaps no industry has been roiled as profoundly as arts and entertainment, which has also been a site of some of the most vehement pushback. The Grammy-winning vocalist joins film star Catherine Deneuve — among 100 French women who signed an open letter in January denouncing the social movement — in finding fault with the treatment of some of the men accused of improper behavior.

A Post investigation this month found more than 50 classical musicians, from local instructors to global superstars, who said they were victims of sexual harassment. A violinist, Zeneba Bowers, said William Preucil, the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra, had forced himself on her in his hotel room in 1998. Preucil was suspended on Friday.

The debate over sexual misconduct is incendiary in part because it is so personal; few speak from a neutral position, and individual testimony has been central, and searing.

Von Otter’s account adds a different perspective to the conversation. The Irish Times labeled her “the world’s most prominent #metoo widow.”

For 16 years, her husband led Stockholm’s Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, the capital’s premier arts and culture center. He discovered his love for theater at the age of 13 or 14, von Otter recounted to Die Zeit, and began working in the city theater at 16. The playhouse was an escape from Fredriksson’s hard-knock childhood, circumscribed by the one-room apartment where his family lived. His mother was an alcoholic, his wife said.

Last December, accusations emerged in the Swedish press that Fredriksson, 58, had behaved like a “capricious dictator,” tolerating sexual abuse and harassing his own employees.

Aftonbladet, a tabloid, cited the anonymous accounts of dozens of people in describing an alleged culture of fear and harassment under Fredriksson’s leadership. According to the newspaper, the theater director had required an actor to rehearse naked, had told an employee to choose between having an abortion and giving up a role and had protected male employees accused of sexual abuse. “Human dignity is zero,” one woman said. Expressen — another tabloid, whose symbol is a wasp and whose motto is “it stings” — followed with an account in which an actor called Fredriksson “a little Hitler.”

An internal city investigation did not substantiate the claims leveled in the tabloids. Sweden’s press ombudsman, Ola Sigvardsson, declined in an interview Monday to confirm the existence of an independent review. Editors at Aftonbladet and Expressen did not return requests for comment.

In her interview with Die Zeit, von Otter said she was in London with the couple’s younger son when the explosive allegations appeared. She said her husband was “at a loss” in responding to the “character assassination.” He quickly resolved to step back from his job, she said.

At first, he was relieved, she said. But depression soon set in. No one would defend him publicly, she said, for fear of being “dragged into the muck by the media.”

She said her husband suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that became acute about three months after the initial shock. She offered to cut her tour short and return to Sweden, she recounted, but he insisted on staying abroad with her in the spring.

“You are my everything, he often said,” von Otter recalled.

The opera singer fiercely backed her husband’s innocence, saying he was a difficult boss — “he could yell sometimes,” she said — but that he was blameless of sexual misconduct.

“Benny was no skirt chaser, he didn’t look at women’s breasts or behinds,” she protested. She judged that it was unwise for her husband to have stepped down so quickly, a view that he came to share, she said.

“The atmosphere was extremely charged,” she said.

An agent for von Otter said the singer had no further comment. She lives in Stockholm with her two sons.

Von Otter was born in Stockholm and studied in the Swedish capital and in London. Her father, Göran Fredrik von Otter, was a Swedish diplomat in Berlin during World War II. He was involved in efforts to convey information about the Holocaust to Sweden, which maintained a policy of neutrality during the war.

She made her professional debut in 1983 at the Theater Basel in Switzerland. Her 2001 album with Elvis Costello, “For the Stars,” won an Edison Award, and an album of French songs, “Douce France,” netted her the Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo in 2015.

The opera singer told Die Zeit she has never been subject to sexual harassment. She said she “read with interest all about Harvey Weinstein, what he did in Hollywood in the hotel rooms with his bathrobe.” When Swedish actresses banded together and complained of abuse, von Otter said, she found much of what they described “bad and unacceptable.”

But she also accused the media of exaggerating the charges of lewd conduct, saying “pornographic undertones” became a strategy to attract readers. She said she hoped the case would be a “rude awakening” for newspapers that she said tarred her husband.

“We all have good and bad sides, but we no longer live in the Middle Ages,” she said. “We do not publicly pillory anyone and spit on or stone him or her.”

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