An online petition asking the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin “to support LGTB people” seeks to connect the Met’s scheduling of Russian artists in a classic Russian opera with an ugly, and terrifying Russian law passed in a political climate of xenophobia and cynicism. Three potential culprits are singled out: The Met, the conductor of the performance (Valery Gergiev) and the soprano (Anna Netrebko). Citing Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality (repressed, indulged but never openly embraced by the composer), and Russia’s law effectively criminalizing any public support of gay people, the online petition argues that the September 23rd gala evening “dishonors” Tchaikovsky’s legacy. But it’s worth noting that opera schedules are worked out years in advance, and Onegin was certainly on the books long before Putin put his pen to the homophobic law.
The Met and Netrebko have effectively answered the charge that they are participating in anything that dishonors Tchaikovsky. Peter Gelb, head of the Met, noted the company wants to stay focused on art, not politics, and that the institution is committed to treating all people equally. Critics can quibble with whether or not the Met has always been apolitical, and whether it was historically a comfortable place for openly gay people. And large cultural institutions can’t claim blanket immunity from the symbolism of cultural politics. There’s no single or simple rule that determines when an artist or an arts institution should take a stand on a moral or political issue, but there are three factors to weigh: The gravity of the moral abuse, the proximity to the question and the relative importance of the artist or arts group.
But these days, the Met isn’t anti-gay and its only engagement with Russian politics is tangential at best. It’s certainly understandable why they don’t want to start hanging banners before every performance. Netrebko, who like Gergiev supported Putin in 2012, issued a statement on Facebook earlier this month affirming her views on tolerance: “As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues — regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.” So there’s no need to bully any further the Met and its reigning star soprano.
Gergiev, however, should be heard from. He is a major player in Russian cultural politics and a towering figure in Western classical music. A New York Times blog entry says he hasn’t responded to calls for comment. Last October, at the Library of Congress, he was asked about his views on the Pussy Riot situation (a politically oriented punk group jailed for using an Orthodox Church as a setting for an anti-Putin song) and he defended the artists’ imprisonment. So Gergiev is already on record for rather illiberal views of artistic freedom, he is more than a casual supporter of Putin and beholden to the Russian government for huge amounts of support for his opera company in St. Petersburg. If nothing else, perhaps this petition will force Gergiev to be clearer about his moral views, his accommodation with dangerous political actors, and his basic commitment to an open, tolerant and free society. One might ask him: If Tchaikovsky were alive today, and open about his homosexuality, should he be arrested, fined or imprisoned?