Skip to main content

On an evening in May, 2018, members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir gathered in their usual rehearsal space at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. But on this night, there was no singing. They were there to listen. Their popular, acclaimed artistic director, Noel Edison, had resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct, days after being fired from the Elora Festival and Singers, where he was also artistic director. And choristers had questions. It was a few months into the powerful #MeToo movement. The mood was tense, with a number of opposing camps, including those loyal to Edison.

After a brief rundown of the events that could be disclosed, and an offer of counselling and assurances that the choir was in a “remarkably stable” position, the board led a Q&A. Someone asked whether Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC) staff had heard any concerns about Edison’s behaviour prior to February, 2018.

“The short answer is no,” the board’s vice-chair, Cathy Conforzi, replied.

The question was asked again – this time specifying whether any concerns had been previously raised to TMC’s executive director, Cynthia Hawkins.

Hawkins took the microphone. "No, there has not been,” she said.

It was one of the few questions that received a solid answer, according to Val Koziol, a volunteer chorister, donor and former board member, who was at the town hall. The board cited confidentiality as a reason for their reticence. “[Almost] no questions were answered. ‘We can’t say, we can’t say, we can’t say.’” Koziol says. “People walked away with more questions than answers.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Noel Edison resigned from the Mendelssohn Choir after allegations of sexual misconduct, days after being fired from the Elora Festival and Singers. (File Photo).Chris Donovan

But some found this particular answer – that the TMC was unaware of complaints about Edison – hard to swallow.

Among them: Charles Davidson and Emma Culpeper, former choristers and singers’ representatives with the Elora Festival Singers (EFS) and the professional core of TMC. Neither were at that meeting, as they were no longer with the organizations, but they heard about what happened from others. And they were surprised and unhappy. They say they had direct communications with both organizations about concerns around Edison’s behaviour years earlier – both sexual impropriety and toxic behaviour.

Today, Davidson is irked by the narrative that these allegations were surprising to TMC. “They just completely ignored it,” he says.

Caron Daley, a former TMC associate conductor, also says she raised concerns to TMC administration about how Edison was treating her; he could be very temperamental with her, she says. She calls the organizational tolerance of Edison’s behaviour a “great adherence to the culture of Noel.”

The tale of the TMC cuts to the heart of an oft-heard refrain at many arts organizations, many of which are not unionized, and are small enough that artists and employees may feel uncomfortable voicing a complaint.

It has been nearly a year since the #MeToo movement exploded out of Hollywood. Behind every headline about a public arts figure is a less salacious issue that cries out for examination: To what extent are management and boards – in particular at publicly funded organizations – accountable for the actions of their front men, their stars? What constitutes enabling? And if there were allowances made for bad behaviour, what should happen at the board and management level?

The face of the organizations

In the summer of 1979, a group of four classical music enthusiasts gathered at Edison’s Elora apartment and dreamed up a new summer music festival. It was the beginning of what would become the Elora Festival.

When Edison joined the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in 1997 as interim conductor, he brought in the Elora Festival Singers (now separately the Elora Festival and the Elora Singers) to become the professional core of the TMC. After less than two years, he was named artistic director of TMC.

Artistically, the Mendelssohn, a widely admired, world-renowned choir, thrived under Edison’s leadership.

“I think he’s 100 per cent for the artistic success of the Mendelssohn choir,” says Lawrie McEwan, who started singing with Elora in 1987 and is now marking his 22nd year with TMC.

Donors enjoyed his parties, critics lauded his performances and recordings. TMC earned two Grammy and two Juno nominations.

In addition to being celebrated as the genius behind the excellent sound, Edison was the face of both organizations, inextricably linked with the brands.

Davidson suspects that made it difficult for the organizations to deal with the alleged behaviour.

Over the years, Edison took on a number of other gigs as well, developing a reputation as someone who worked very hard – but also partied hard.

The allegations that led to Edison’s removal from the two organizations stem from a party and pub visits that took place during a TMC conductors’ symposium in Toronto in January, 2018, although former choristers say that they had brought complaints to management as far back as at least 2014.

In February, 2018, Edison was placed on leave from both the TMC and Elora and an investigation was launched into allegations of sexual misconduct. In April, Edison was fired from the Elora Festival and Singers.

A few days later, the TMC issued a brief statement: The board had accepted his resignation. “The TMC thanks Noel for 21 years of artistic excellence with the TMC.”

Despite stepping down, Edison vehemently disputes the allegations. His reputation has been destroyed, his lawyer, W. Gerald Punnett, says – following an investigation Punnett calls “unfair” and complaints which he characterizes as being taken out of context.

In an interview with The Globe, Edison said the loss of his positions because of these allegations has been "very tough. It’s very wounding and no one wins.”

But for Davidson, the consequences did not go far enough.

Following Edison’s departure and dismissal, Davidson wrote to government funding bodies at the municipal, provincial and national levels, alleging “a continued cover-up” on behalf of the boards and staff, particularly at TMC. The letter, which Davidson has shared with The Globe, alleges that staff had previous knowledge of inappropriate behaviour, and it calls for those responsible to be dismissed.

“The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Elora Festival should remove staff who were aware of abuse and turned a blind eye, allowing for the cycle to continue … institutional rot should be fully exposed and addressed, as we would expect from any institution largely operating on the public dollar,” Davidson wrote.

Culpeper believes what happened at TMC and Elora points to systemic dysfunction – and serves as a lesson for arts organizations in general.

“If … your artists are trying to start a dialogue with you, hear them out,” she says. “Pay close attention, because they might be trying to tell you something important.”

The Globe has spoken with more than a dozen people who were or are connected to the organizations, some of whom have asked not to be identified. Four spoke glowingly about Edison. But six of them – including a former volunteer TMC chorister who says she was then a teenager – recounted being groped, kissed and/or on the receiving end of inappropriate sexual comments and inquiries about their personal lives. They say these incidents often occurred at social functions related to the choirs. Four people spoke about workplace bullying.

Five people say they told management about their concerns. Six said they never witnessed any harassment – but two of them specified that they didn’t attend Edison’s parties.

Many of the people who spoke to The Globe felt that Edison’s behaviour was an open secret that was tolerated by those in charge, who turned a blind eye to both the sexual impropriety and the erratic professional behaviour.

“Sadly, ever since I joined EFS in 2012, it was a topic of conversation. Everyone had a story about this party or that party,” Culpeper says.

Davidson joined the Elora Singers in the summer of 2009, when he was 27, and began singing in the professional core of the Mendelssohn that fall. Davidson’s allegations include receiving unwanted advances and attention from Edison. “He called me an emotional distraction; [said] that I was making it hard for him to do his job,” Davidson says. He says Edison invited him to dinner, even to vacation together.

“It was done in the open, blatant,” Davidson says.

Davidson says he also witnessed inappropriate sexual conduct toward other people. It was “definitely not a safe environment,” he says.

Daley, the former associate conductor, joined TMC in 2013 for a two-year contract. She says she knew of Edison’s reputation but took it in stride and was looking forward to the learning experience.

She was surprised, though, at the way she says he was allowed to behave. She says there were times he would berate the choir – and other times when he would joke with the singers – but it was accepted because he was seen as an artistic giant.

“The whole thing revolved around him as an icon and that’s unhealthy,” she says.

Daley says in the second year of her contract, things hit a low point between Edison and her, and she let the administration know she was unhappy with his behaviour. But the message she says she received went something like “well, that’s just Noel.”

For Davidson and Culpeper, things came to a head in the spring of 2014 – nearly four years before the allegations that would lead to Edison’s ouster.

For a performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, some singers entered late into the choir stalls onstage at Roy Thomson Hall. Although all of the singers were in place before the concert began, it led to some awkward onstage shuffling.

Edison says Hawkins, the executive director of the TMC, told him he should speak to the singers about the incident.

He did. At a subsequent rehearsal, EFS members of the Mendelssohn core reported being “berated” by Edison, who perceived their tardy arrival as a protest over their wages. He then added something like: “And someone tell this to Charlie; he is the worst of you.” (Davidson was away on holiday.)

This was a breaking point for Davidson and Culpeper. According to them, the two singers' reps scheduled a meeting with Hawkins at TMC to discuss what had happened at that rehearsal. Hawkins met with them, but passed the issue on to Esther Farrell, who managed the singers for Elora, explaining that EFS handles contracts for the work and thus handles conflict issues. This led to an awkward confrontation between Davidson and Edison, with no management present. (Culpeper was there to support Davidson.)

Edison eventually apologized to the professional core members of TMC.

Less than a year later, Davidson says he sat down with Hawkins once more to address concerns about Edison’s behaviour in general. Davidson says he told Hawkins that many singers did not consider TMC a safe rehearsal environment. Again, he says he was told it was an issue for EFS to deal with. He says he told Hawkins he didn’t think that made sense, since many of the incidents happened on TMC turf.

In March, 2015, the Elora board implemented a code of conduct which covered bullying, harassment and sexual harassment, and an anonymous reporting system was put in place. The TMC implemented a code of conduct as well.

Neither Culpeper nor Davidson returned to the organizations after that season. (Davidson missed his initial audition and then says he was “roadblocked” from auditioning later. He heard nothing from the organization and, when he inquired, was told that spots were filled by new singers.)

When asked by The Globe whether this may have coloured Davidson’s attitude toward Edison, causing him to seek revenge, Davidson laughed. “It’s totally the farthest thing from the truth" he said, pointing out that when he submitted the original complaints, he was still singing with the choir. “It’s always been about holding [the organizations] accountable,” he continued.

The symposium

Since 2011, the TMC has held an annual choral conductors' symposium, which brought a group of emerging conductors to Toronto to study with Edison for a week of workshops, master classes and a concert.

“Conducting is a lonely profession,” Edison said at the final performance that week. “No one really likes you. Especially when you swear at them and stuff, they really don’t like you,” he said, to laughter.

The complaints against Edison investigated this year followed a party and pub visit that happened during this year’s symposium. The Globe has not spoken with any of these complainants.

In February, 2018, Edison was placed on paid leave and an independent investigator was hired to look into complaints of sexual impropriety.

When asked about the nature of the complaints, Erin Finlay, who became the TMC’s board chair in June, 2018, responded, “The only thing I can really say is they warranted an investigation.”

The Globe has learned about the allegations that led to Edison’s downfall through two people who were interviewed as witnesses and who both support Edison: Bourne, the TMC’s longtime pianist, who as accompanist was present for rehearsals, performances and auditions, as well as social functions; and Hugh Brewster, an author who has collaborated with Edison on a number of performances. (Edison and his lawyer, W. Gerald Punnett, told The Globe they are not able to reveal the allegations or respond to them.)

There were three complainants initially, although Punnett says he understands one of the complainants later retracted.

The allegations arose from a party Edison threw the week of the symposium at his Toronto condominium, as well as visits to a pub. Edison was accused of commenting on and touching someone’s buttocks, and kissing a different person on the neck. The latter alleged Edison had offered some sort of employment, including accommodations. On a different occasion, Edison was accused of pointing his tongue near or in a third person’s ear.

But context is everything, Edison’s supporters say. Bourne, who visited the pub and was at the party in question, says there was no predatory, “gross” behaviour. He calls it “cocktail conversations being taken out of context.”

The person Edison is accused of kissing on the neck was distraught after a difficult telephone conversation. The hug was meant to comfort the person, and that’s when the kiss happened. The offer of a job and housing was a joke, Edison’s supporters say.

“Noel was very sympathetic; he’s a very caring person,” Bourne says.

The buttocks comment and physical tap followed a jokey “best butt” contest a group of singers had initiated at the party.

The tongue-in-ear event happened during a gag photo session at a pub, according to Brewster.

“He’s not a sexual predator,” Brewster says. “He’s not irresponsible or dangerous.”

In these situations – and in general, it seems, alcohol was a factor.

“Quite frankly, when Noel drinks after concerts and things, he gets a little careless,” Brewster says.

“At after-parties, euphoria and relief combined with a cocktail or three tend to make Noel very expansive and huggy-kissy.”

Bourne and Brewster have the same question: Is this the kind of thing that should ruin a career?

In a letter of support for Edison sent to the TMC and Elora boards, Koziol wrote, “I have never witnessed Noel behaving illegally. However, I have seen Noel behave in a sloppy manner, his behavior made worse from too much alcohol.” She later writes, “Did Board members knowingly throw gasoline on the fire by allowing Noel to host alcohol-[fuelled] parties?”

In a separate letter sent to the boards of the two organizations ahead of the decision, Brewster urged them to find a course of disciplinary action – suspension, apologies to the complainants, counselling – but not outright dismissal.

“Noel’s sins are minor and he does not deserve to have his working life end in disgrace," he wrote.

The investigation

Edison was employed and paid by the TMC and Elora separately, but the two organizations are linked. Elora provides TMC with the singers that make up its professional core – selecting, scheduling and dismissing them.

On March 1, Palmer, Hawkins and John Spearn, then Elora Singers board chair, issued a “letter to the TMC community” after a media report that referenced allegations of sexual misconduct against Edison. The note explained that Edison had been placed on a personal leave of absence following the receipt of letters of complaint about his conduct. “News of these allegations may have elicited in you, as it has in us, feelings of shock and sadness,” they wrote.

Edison also stepped back from his role as music director at the choir of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Elora. Then, this summer, he was dismissed from the position.

Wilfrid Laurier University, where Edison had been an instructor before 2002, issued a statement in March extending support to any past or present students, staff or faculty who might have experienced difficulties following news coverage about the investigation. No complaints or requests for support resulted.

And in Toronto, a complaint of harassment was received against Edison, also in early 2018, at St. James Cathedral, where he had been engaged as a special guest conductor. The Cathedral says the complaint was investigated promptly under the Anglican Diocese of Toronto’s Sexual Misconduct policy. “At the complainant’s request, the matter was dealt with confidentially and resulted in a resolution that was satisfactory to the complainant.”

The investigator hired by the EFS and TMC conducted interviews with complainants, witnesses and Edison; a confidential 32-page report was delivered in mid-April.

On April 20, members of the Elora Singers were informed of Edison’s termination from their organization in an e-mail from general manager Christopher Sharpe. “This action underscores our mandate to provide a safe workplace environment,” the memo said.

On April 23, the TMC issued a statement about Edison’s resignation and said it had begun a review of the TMC’s anti-harassment policies and announced the TMC’s Creating a Safe Creative Space initiative.

On April 30, after Edison’s departure from both organizations, Farrell, then the Elora Festival Singers’ manager, sent an e-mail to singers, saying it had been an annus horribilis for the organization. “And if I may be bold as to speak on Noel’s behalf – he misses you dreadfully and very much appreciates the supportive texts, emails, cards and phone messages he has received from you over the past couple of months,” she wrote. “Please continue to keep him in your thoughts and prayers.”

Town halls were held at both organizations.

Davidson disputes the statements made at the TMC town hall suggesting concerns about Edison’s conduct were a surprise.

“I e-mailed [ Hawkins]; I sat down with her. And now she’s saying point blank [she] didn’t know about anything prior to this year,” Davidson says. Culpeper also says she e-mailed and spoke with Hawkins about this issue.

The Globe has seen e-mail correspondence from 2014 between Davidson and Hawkins where she writes that she is “truly sorry for Noel’s comments” at that rehearsal where choristers were admonished and Davidson was singled out. She states in the e-mail exchange that the issue needed to be dealt with by Elora. “I am not shirking my duties, but I have been reminded that the TMC subcontracts the singers from the EFS organization,” she writes.

Davidson was “in a rage” when the allegations surfaced in 2018.

“My motivation now that [Edison] was terminated and also resigned,” he says, “is that the staff members who passed the buck back and forth are held accountable.”

But Finlay, the new board chair, says the organization was surprised by the allegations.

“The board was not aware,” said Finlay, who joined the board in November, 2016. “I wasn’t aware of anything of this nature. And it was surprising and disappointing to receive the complaints.”

Finlay is also a former chorister who sang under Edison and she says she never witnessed any concerning behaviour.

This is echoed by Bourne, the TMC’s long-time accompanist. “This came out of nowhere,” he says. Further, he says, Edison was a generous host who threw parties at his own homes and on his own dime – not drunken free-for-alls, as some talk has suggested, but refined events with donors, artists and professionals in attendance.

“I like my wine, I do," Edison told The Globe. “Am I drunk? Never.”

Edison characterizes what happened at his parties and other social occasions differently than the complainants suggest. “Sure yes, absolutely, we hug each other. We kiss each other occasionally. We’re very informal that way. We’re artists,” he says. “Sometimes maybe a little too frivolous, sure, I will admit that. But overtly drunken sexual? Never. Never.”

Edison responds

Edison denies most of the allegations in this story. He has never asked about a singer’s personal life at an audition, he says. He did not issue personal invitations to Davidson.

One thing Edison does acknowledge is that he may have touched people inappropriately.

“I think I probably did. But not with any [sexual] intention. … I am an affectionate sort of hugger, so I probably did; I’m not going to lie about that,” he says.

When asked to be specific about the kind of touching, he responded: “Hugs, I’ve probably kissed them on the head, I put my arm around them. I might have patted a bottom, which I’ve been known to do occasionally but it wouldn’t be a big grab or anything; just that’s me being friendly. But it was reciprocal, it was loving, it was like thank you. It wasn’t in a negative form, it wasn’t in a forced form, it was never in an awkward or sexual form; nothing like that, no.”

‘It’s hard to believe that it’s all come to an end like this’

It has been a difficult year for the Elora Festival. In addition to the problems around Edison, in January, charitable status was revoked by the Canada Revenue Agency for failure to file their annual financial statements since 2015. In a statement, board chair Charlotte Logan called it “an unfortunate error in process, rather than substance.” In July, the organization was told their charitable designation had been reinstated and backdated to the original date of revocation.

On June 23, Mark Vuorinen was announced as the new artistic director of the Elora Festival and the Elora Singers.

Last Saturday morning, there was a knock at Farrell’s door. It was a courier delivering a letter informing her that after 11 years with the administration of the Elora Singers, her company’s contract was not being renewed, according to McEwan.

“I feel so bad for her. ... She was extremely dedicated.”

Farrell declined the Globe’s interview requests.

Logan says the decision not to renew the contract “was driven by a reevaluation of our needs and business processes as we look to the future.” She said it was “not in any way related to, nor was it influenced by the Edison dismissal.

Sharpe remains general manager. Logan is now chair, replacing John Spearn. Sharpe told The Globe that all media inquiries had to go through Logan. But neither Logan nor Spearn were able to comment for this story.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has appointed an interim artistic director, David Fallis, while the organization conducts a search for a new permanent head.

In September, it posted its Safe Space policy online, promising “zero tolerance for harassment, sexual harassment and violence.”

The conductors’ program is now on hiatus, with no symposium planned this season.

Hawkins remains the TMC’s executive director, and Conforzi is still the board’s vice-chair. Hawkins declined The Globe’s interview requests, but sent The Globe a statement: “Prior to February 2018, I never received a concern about Noel that rose to the level of harassment. Any time a concern was brought to my attention, I looked into it and addressed it with the people involved and it was my understanding that the issue was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Other than Edison, nobody at the TMC has been disciplined or has left as a result of these events. Singer attrition has been lower than in recent years, according to Finlay.

“We are confident that the history and reputation of the organization will serve us extremely well as we move forward,” she told The Globe.

Donors and funding agencies have made inquiries, but remain supportive, she says.

In July, the show went on at the Elora Festival, with more than two weeks of performances. But McEwan feels the revered institution has lost its way. “After all these years, it’s very sad to see an organization [like this] go to pot because of the board and these decisions that they’re making.”

He says if he can find other work, he may leave. He feels a few singers have been poisoning the group. “I just can’t sit across the room and look at these people anymore,” he says.

The Mendelssohn had its first performances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last week. “The performances went well, but off-stage, it is still a little awkward,” Koziol says. “But we’re all there because we love the music.”

Another person associated with the TMC said there is a feeling of “guarded relief” that this chapter is over. The organizations are keen to move on.

But Edison feels he is prevented from doing so.

The destruction goes beyond his career. “It’s not very pleasant when your whole life is ripped away from you in a very unnecessary way and you’re put under a cloud,” says Edison, who says he has been turned into a pariah and a prisoner in his own home.

Davidson hoped his letters to government and arts councils would spark action; he says management should be accountable to boards and boards to their supporters – including funding agencies.

The responses, provided to The Globe by Davidson, have been fairly boilerplate, although some have indicated follow-up communications with the organizations.

In July, on the day Mélanie Joly was shuffled out of Canadian Heritage, Davidson received a reply from the ministry on her behalf that advised of government initiatives related to harassment, discrimination and abuse. “Minister Joly commends your commitment to ensuring safe and productive work conditions,” the letter stated.

Bourne perceives it differently: that a vaunted career has been ended and a venerable institution and beloved festival disrupted over grievances that were overblown and taken out of context.

“I think Noel is the victim,” says Bourne, who stresses that he supports action against “genuine predators” and people who create toxic work environments. Bourne says the other singers, staff – and audiences – have also suffered. “It’s hard to believe that it’s all come to an end like this.”

Now unemployed, Edison says he has had no offers of work.

In the interview, Edison said he remains numb and shocked, but heartened by “hundreds” of letters and e-mails of support he has received.

“Everyone’s saying well, #MeToo; you’re caught in the times,” he said. “Well, screw the times. This is not fair. The pendulum’s out of whack, and we’ve got to fight to get the truth of my story out.”

When asked if he had anything to add, he said he was missing his colleagues terribly. “And maybe the last chapter of my artistic life has not actually been written yet.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe