Russia’s new anti-gay laws have spurred a slew of boycotts and other expressions of disapproval, most notably with the upcoming Winter Olympics; now, fine arts are taking their turn in the struggle against prejudice.
According to the New York Times, a Change.org petition is urging the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate the opening-night gala performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” to the support of LGBT people.
The production, which opens on September 23, features opera singer Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev—both renowned Russian artists. But the petition is not an attempt to stick it to the Russians by using one of their most notorious composers. In fact, Tchaikovsky struggled with his own homosexuality.
While Netrebko and Gergiev supported Putin in his 2012 campaign, on August 9 Netrebko wrote on her Facebook page, “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.”
Sean Michael Gross, a representative of Netrebko, defended her support in Putin’s 2012 campaign. “I think it’s preposterous to presume that anyone who endorses a candidate for public office agrees—or disagrees—with their public policy positions 100 percent once they’re in office,” said Gross.
Gergieve—who was named Hero of Labor by President Vladimir Putin in May of 2013—made no comment.
Andrew Rudin, the classical composer who started the petition, says he isn’t trying to pit the Met against the Russians. “I’m not asking them to be against anybody,” said Rudin. “I’m asking them to be for somebody.”
The petition has over 6,500 signatures, including that of Bartlett Sher, director of numerous productions for the Met, two of which starred Netrebko.
“I saw it [the petition]as a chance for everyone who loves opera, and all of us who work in it, to stand up to a pig and a dictator, against a terrible position and a terrible man,” said Sher.
Peter Gelb, manager of the Met, says while the Met disapproves of injustice against any person, it is not in the Met’s mission to endorse a political matter.
“As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad,” Gelb wrote in a statement. “But since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause.”
Gidon Kremer, Latvian-born violinist and founder of the Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra, takes issue with artists becoming spokespersons for politicians.
“I myself am not denying the obvious high artistic qualities of Anna Netrebko or Valery Gergiev,” said Kremer. “But I do feel a certain discomfort observing them offstage. The identification with one’s own country is more than honorable and understandable. Never would I criticize a real patriot nor deny that patriotism is a very natural attitude. We all should be able to love our native country.
“What makes me feel odd is the way these feelings are presented,” he said, “the way artists become spokesmen for politicians and those who are in power.”
In fact, the petition has sparked much debate about the eligibility of artists to use their art or fame for political purpose. Many seem to have the “shut up and sing” mentality the Dixie Chicks faced in 2003 when Natalie Maines spoke out against former President Bush. (A documentary has been made about the controversy.)
One harsh commenter on a New York Times article wrote, “Artists who use their fame for political purpose sacrifice their art for a lower calling.”
Gelb says it’s not fair that the supporters of the petition use the Met as a vehicle for their displeasure.
“What seems to be unfair about this petition is not its support of LGBT rights in Russia, but that they would choose the Met as a vehicle or target of their displeasure,” Gelb said in an interview. “The Met has been a champion of LGBT art, and it seems like they’re barking up the wrong tree.”