An internationally renowned conductor has pulled out of all performances until next year after allegedly punching and slapping a soloist for entering the stage incorrectly at the Berlioz festival in France.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner, 80, reportedly assaulted William Thomas, 29, an English bass singer who represented England in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, after an opera performance on Tuesday.
In a statement, Gardiner’s management said he had has taken the decision to “withdraw from all engagements until next year” to focus on “his mental health while engaging in a course of counselling”.
The statement said: “He deeply regrets his behaviour and recognises that it has had a significant impact on colleagues for whom he has the most profound admiration and respect. Eliot has striven to encourage and support generations of talented artists, and he passionately believes that all performers should feel comfortable and secure in their working environment.”
Gardiner said: “I am taking a step back in order to get the specialist help I recognise that I have needed for some time. I want to apologise to colleagues who have felt badly treated and anyone who may feel let down by my decision to take time out to address my issues.
“I am heartbroken to have caused so much distress and I am determined to learn from my mistakes.”
Sources told the Slipped Disc classical music website the assault took place backstage on Tuesday, in the wings and out of sight of the audience. It was claimed Gardiner rebuked Thomas in front of the cast for leaving the podium on the wrong side, and slapped and punched him in the face.
Gardiner was conducting a performance of The Trojans, an opera by Hector Berlioz, with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in La Côte-Saint-André, south-east France, the composer’s birthplace and home to the annual festival.
A representative for Gardiner said the conductor was suffering from extreme heat in France and suspects a recent change in his medication may have provoked behaviour he now regrets, Slipped Disc reported.
The conductor allegedly confronted Thomas after the show as the cast was celebrating in the wings. Gardiner is alleged to have approached the group while carrying a half pint of beer and reportedly said: “I feel like throwing this over your head.”
When Thomas warned him not to do so, witnesses said Gardiner slapped the singer in the face and then punched him in the mouth. There was a “brief shouting battle” before Thomas left with colleagues, the Times reported.
The management of the Monteverdi Choir, which Gardiner created in 1964 as a Cambridge undergraduate, subsequently met the performers to check on their welfare.
Gardiner was chosen by King Charles, who is a friend, to lead the first 20 minutes of music at the coronation in May. He has long had a reputation for being tempestuous and rude to performers. A 2015 Spectator article by the commentator Damian Thompson stated that for all the conductor’s undoubted talent, “one art eludes him: good manners”.