Tag Archives: Peter Gelb

The Met’s Onegin and Gergiev’s Cultural Politics

                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?

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The Met Relents

Reaction was obviously swift, furious and focused, and now the Metropolitan Opera has sent word that Opera News will indeed continue to review new Met productions. An emailed statement came from Lee Abrahamian:

May 22, 2012

Opera News Will Continue to Review Metropolitan Opera Productions

In view of the outpouring of reaction from opera fans about the recent decision to discontinue Met performance reviews in Opera News, the Met has decided to reverse this new editorial policy. From their postings on the internet, it is abundantly clear that opera fans would miss reading reviews about the Met in Opera News. Ultimately, the Met is here to serve the opera-loving public and has changed its decision because of the passionate response of the fans.

The Met and the Met Opera Guild, the publisher of Opera News, have been in discussions about the role of the Guild and how its programs and activities can best fulfill its mission of supporting the Metropolitan Opera. These discussions have included the role of reviews in Opera News, and whether they served that mission.  While the Met believed it did not make sense for a house organ that is published by the Guild and financed by the Met to continue to review Met productions, it has become clear that the reviews generate tremendous excitement and interest and will continue to have a place in Opera News.

That’s good news. But something  more is needed. Peter Gelb needs to make a personal, affirmative statement that he endorses the magazine’s editorial freedom. This isn’t about demanding a groveling apology. It’s about the basic dynamics of censorship.

Censorship works through fear, and it instills fear asymmetrically. The censor doesn’t need to read every word, monitor every statement, or enforce a long list of directives. Quite the opposite. The censor merely needs to make writers, editors and publishers nervous. The more vague the censor is about what is and isn’t allowed, the more power he or she has to enforce control over expression.

I’ve spent a lot of time in countries where freedom of the press is nonexistent. Journalists in authoritarian countries speak of “red lines,” invisible, vague, but powerful gray zones that keep expression constrained. They talk about the red lines as if they’re tangible, but also admit that no one knows exactly where they lie. And that’s the point.

A threat to free speech is never a single, isolated act. It casts a pall, and the people threatened carry that sense of fear with them, self-censoring.

Opera News, over the years, has grown into a remarkably independent publication, and it deserves great credit for defining its mission not only as a voice for the Metropolitan Opera, but as a voice for opera in America and beyond. It performs a valuable service for opera lovers, many of whom will never buy a ticket or attend a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. This rather idiotic (and failed) effort to limit its editorial freedom can lead to two possible futures for the magazine. If Gelb doesn’t affirm the magazine’s freedom from in-house editorial control, Opera News will go forward under a cloud. If Gelb can be coaxed into a genuine statement in support of the magazine’s independence, it will emerge stronger, and will be well positioned to continue its admirable mission of service not just to the Met, but to opera everywhere.


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