On Tuesday, Missoula’s local auditioned choir Dolce Canto announced a March 4 concert that it said would be the final show for artistic director Peter Park, who was stepping down from the organization he has headed since founding the group in 2001.
Three days later, Dolce Canto issued a brief follow-up, cancelling the show due to what the choir’s board termed “circumstances beyond our control.”
Dolce Canto board chairman Chris Tweeten and board member Michael Marsolek met with the Missoulian on Friday, confirming that a month ago the board investigated Park after receiving a letter detailing sexually inappropriate conduct by a former member.
That investigation didn’t end with any punishment for Park, but after being alerted that the Missoulian has spoken with half a dozen other current and former members about Park’s behavior, the board held an emergency meeting Wednesday, voting to suspend the conductor and cancel the show.
Park did not return multiple requests for comment.
In the years since its founding, Dolce Canto grew from a group of Park’s friends to a formal, auditioned choir that has recorded two CDs and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City and in Seoul, South Korea.
Tweeten and Marsolek said there is no connection between Park's departure from the group and allegations of sexual harassment. He told the group in August he was leaving at the end of the season.
The letter that started the board's internal investigation last month was written by former Dolce Canto member Caitlin Risho — who gave the Missoulian permission to identify her as the author.
In the letter, which Risho wrote “with the intention of promoting the health of Dolce Canto” she shared a text message exchange between her and Park from January, where the conductor sent her sexually charged messages including that he wanted to make her “happy physically.”
“I always like to see you pleased,” Park wrote, prompting Risho to ask what he meant by that.
“Just being naughty,” came the reply.
In the letter sent to the board, Risho said the text exchange was not the first time she has received unwelcome sexual advances from Park, and she told that board that she knew of at least five other women who had been associated with Dolce Canto who had similar experiences.
“It is my belief and experience that Peter uses his source of influence and power to prey upon women in vulnerable positions. It is time this behavior is addressed and not swept under the proverbial rug,” Risho wrote.
On Friday, after cancelling the concert, the two board members acknowledged the existence of the letter and the internal investigation, something they previously wouldn't confirm. Tweeten said they received Risho's permission to discuss the letter. Asked if Park had told the board they could speak openly about the investigation, Tweeten said he considered the matter “out of the bag.”
“Something that’s not secret can’t be considered confidential,” he said.
After receiving the letter, the board determined the scope of an investigation into Park. There had been a prior incident involving Park that was reported to a former board member three to four years ago. While that matter — at the woman’s request — didn’t end with an investigation, a previous board member confronted Park about the allegations. While Park denied them, he promised the board member that there would be no inappropriate conduct with members going forward, Tweeten said.
The board decided to look only into any allegations they could find that took place since that time, and only ones that involved Park and a person who at the time of the incident was an active Dolce Canto member.
“We didn’t see it as our role as the current board to go back to the beginning of time to run down old rumors,” Tweeten said.
While Risho’s letter provided evidence of sexual harassing behavior, Tweeten said she reported that all inappropriate situations happened after she left Dolce Canto around three years ago.
“Conduct that Peter engages in in his private life is not Dolce’s to police,” he said.
Of the other women referenced in the letter, the board only was able to identify three, and only spoke with one, as well as one other who came to the board.
In all, Tweeten said the board found no evidence of misconduct by Park with an active member since he had been warned a few years ago.
Tweeten and Marsolek said the language in Park’s contract — he’s an independent contractor, not an employee — that would allow the group to breach it for potential wrongdoing “isn’t very strong” and that they didn’t feel that there was anything they could do with what their internal investigation uncovered.
“We don’t see any reason based on what we know that our resolution wouldn’t have been acceptable,” Tweeten said.
Dolce Canto has an active nationwide search for a new artistic director, with the application window closing on March 5.
Stronger misconduct language will be a part of the next artistic director’s contract, and the Dolce Canto board is also working on a uniform conduct code for its members as well as an improved internal grievance policy. They will also be sending a letter to all former members creating an opening for feedback about how policies can be improved.
“We are looking at what are we doing to put a culture in place to make sure this doesn’t happen going forward,” Marsolek said.
Six other women, including a current member of the group, have spoken with the Missoulian about their experiences with Park. The Missoulian — which has a policy of not naming the victims of sexual assault or harassment without permission — granted the women anonymity to speak about what they have encountered.
Four of those women, including an active member, said Park routinely uses inappropriate and vulgar language, especially when speaking with women. They said he has a history of sexually harassing female members and retaliating when his advances are denied.
A fifth woman, who was with the organization for two years a little less than a decade ago, said Park was frequently “overly sexually graphic” when he would talk to other members, in particular women.
A subset of Dolce Canto had a routine of heading to a bar together for drinks after rehearsals. During one of those meetups, the woman said Park approached her, inviting her to come back to his place so the pair could “masturbate together.”
In the weeks after she declined his advances at the bar, the woman said Park became increasingly hostile toward her during Dolce Canto rehearsals, and that it became very difficult for her to continue to attend.
“Ultimately, I feel like my denial of his advances was the reason for that,” she said.
The woman said she talked about what happened to her with several other members of the group, but at the time there either wasn’t a board of directors — records indicate Dolce Canto gained nonprofit status in 2009 — or she wasn’t aware one existed. While she wanted to take her report to a higher authority, the woman said she didn’t know anyone involved in Dolce Canto that had more power than Park.
She eventually confronted the artistic director, saying she felt he was ostracizing her. Park’s response, the woman said, was to tell her he didn’t feel she was a good fit for Dolce Canto and that she wasn’t welcome back in the group.
Another woman, who left Dolce Canto before the board was formed, also said she had wanted to report Park’s behavior with her, but that there was no oversight group to turn to.
She said she originally joined Dolce Canto because she felt the group was perfect for people like her; singers who took what they did seriously and were willing to work at their craft. But during her two years with the group, Park would regularly engage in what she called “come on” behavior, even after being told his behavior was unwanted and not appreciated.
“He’s just sort of lecherous, that’s the word that comes into my mind,” she said.
Among what she termed Park’s “unwanted sexual advances” was a time when he tried to kiss her, and a short tour of western Montana cities where Park was in the same vehicle with her and would continually reach out to touch her side and her legs, squeezing her or trying to hold her hand.
“There wasn’t a board at the time I don’t think. I think I would have known, I think I would have done something,” she said. “I did end up leaving the group because of Peter.”
The woman said Park’s behaviors were well known at least among the female singers in the group at the time.
“There was a joke that ‘Oh, don’t get caught in the practice room with Peter.’ And it wasn’t really a joke, it was a, you know,” she said. “This is going to come as a shock to no one.”