One week from tomorrow, New York's Metropolitan Opera -- the premiere opera company in the United States -- will kick off its 2013-2014 season with a gala performance of Eugene Onegin.
Onegin is a Russian opera written by that nation's most well-known composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose other famous works include the 1812 Overture, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky is widely known to have been gay, which reportedly caused him much suffering during his life due to the homophobia of nineteenth-century society. (Of course, if Tchaikovsky were alive today his situation wouldn't be that much better, given Vladimir Putin's draconian crackdown on LGBT rights and the anti-gay animus prevalent among the Russian people.)
The Met production will feature two prominent Putin supporters: leading soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev. Both campaigned for Putin during his 2012 bid for the Russian presidency, and Gergiev is a die-hard Putinite -- he has appeared in a campaign video, compared Putin to Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and spoken out in favor of the decision to imprison the feminist anti-Putin rock band Pussy Riot. The love is mutual: when Putin decided to rebrand and resurrect the Soviet-era Hero of Labor prize this year, Gergiev was one of the five inaugural winners.
This has led to an outcry among pro-equality and LGBT-identified opera fans. (Opera has a very large and incredibly devoted gay fan base.) Composer Andrew Rudin put together a Change.org petition calling on the Met to dedicate next week's gala performance to the support of LGBT people and the Russian LGBT community.
As of this writing, more than 8,700 people have signed Rudin's petition, enough to fill the opera house twice over, with people left to spare. It's attracted the attention of the New York Times, the BBC, and celebrities like Dan Savage, and earned the signature of Bartlett Sher, an acclaimed Met Opera director.
Sher told the New York Times that Rudin's petition isn't anti-Met, but anti-homophobia. "I saw it 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," he said.
Netrebko (left) responded to the controversy on August 9 with a generic non-statement 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."
Gergiev, who also happens to be Russia's richest musician, has kept entirely silent.
On the matter of dedicating its opening night to the Russian LGBT community, the Met has thus far refused to budge. Its general manager, Peter Gelb, issued the following statement on the controversy:
"The Met is proud of its history as a creative base for LGBT singers, conductors, directors, designers, and choreographers. We also stand behind all of our artists, regardless of whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions. As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad. 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."
But as the BBC notes, this "some-of-my-best-friends-are-gay-but-opera-is-for-art-not-politics" defense is an incredibly hollow one, as arts organizations have a long and proud history of political involvement:
Nobody thought it was inappropriate when museums worldwide agitated for the freedom of Ai Weiwei, the imprisoned Chinese artist, in 2011; Tate Modern in London even wrote 'RELEASE AI WEIWEI' in giant letters on its façade. The Schaubühne in Berlin, perhaps the most important theatre in Europe today, produces plays alongside an intelligent and aggressive public lecture series called Streitraum, or 'conflict room', in which artists and scholars regularly condemn the Merkel government's economic and political policies. Several opera companies, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, publish magazines that engage with political events; when the Munich house mounted a production of Boris Godunov this spring, it used the occasion to speak out in support of Pussy Riot.
There is clear precedent for the type of action that Rudin and his petition signers are asking for, so this is not a situation where the Metropolitan Opera's hands are tied. Instead, General Manager Gelb and his company are choosing not to speak out on opening night, acting with cowardice rather than courage. They're deciding to stay silent, uncritically giving the stage to supporters of an anti-gay political leader while tens of thousands of LGBT Russians are being persecuted and living every day in fear.
Shame on them for their complicity in these human rights violations. Shame on the Metropolitan Opera for its silence in the face of such profound injustice.