Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Did you read about the furor at the Metropolitan Opera's opening night on Monday? The auditorium was jammed for a black-tie gala presentation of "Eugene Onegin," with Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in the lead and Valery Gergiev (artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg) conducting.
Before anyone could sing, a man shouted "Putin, end your war on Russian gays!” He went on to address the two artists, both of whom campaigned for Putin's re-election last year, and shouted, "Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” The New York Times reported that four protesters in the Met's Family Circle seats were asked to leave and did.
This prompts a flood of thoughts. First, the protest was pointless. Operagoers no doubt wrote it off as the work of kooks. If Netrebko and Gergiev were going to re-think their support of Russia's virtual dictator, this wasn't going to make them do it.
Second, protesters outside were already chanting in front of a 50-foot rainbow banner that read "Support Russian gays." That might have encouraged people going in to think harder about their stance on Russia in general and Putin's anti-gay laws in particular. (In June, he signed a bill banning "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships." Naturally, any public mention of LGBT behavior might be construed as "propaganda.")
Third, it's tough to judge what "support" for an authoritarian means in a place like modern Russia. If a rumor reached Gergiev that the Mariinsky's budget would be slashed unless he put in a good word for Vlad the Impaler, he might well have said kind things to keep himself and other artists on the payroll.
Fourth, we'd have few performances of operas or anything else if we insisted they be cast with people whose political, religious and social ideas were in accord with our own. Scholars still debate the extent to which artists who remained in Nazi Germany aided Hitler. The honorary Oscar given to director Elia Kazan in 1999 provoked a storm of anger from people who felt his testimony to government witch-hunting committees cost innocent people their careers. Trying to draw lines in the moral sand is a tricky business.
Fifth, although Putin is dead wrong on this issue and many others, he and his nation must be in an astonishing state of denial. Their most famous composer -- the one whose opera was being performed at the Met on the night of the protest -- is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who was homosexual himself and may have committed suicide in 1893 at the behest of a court of honor that learned of his affairs. (This debate, too, rages on.)
Does Putin simply deny Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation? Does he wish Russia still functioned as it did in the late 19th century, with himself as virtual tsar? Either way, we can be sure that, if Tchaikovsky behaved now as he did then, he'd be likelier to be in jail than in a conservatory.
Photo: An anti-Putin protestor demonstrates in front of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Monday, Sept. 23, 2013, in New York. AP PHOTO/JAMES WAGNER
Posted by Lawrence Toppman at 11:33 AM