This whole horrifying, history-repeating-itself Putin debacle continues to roil and rankle, and well it should. Today's lead article in the NY Times Art's section pushes the debate along with its coverage of reaction to composer Andrew Rudin's recent brave and appropriate online petition calling on the sacrosanct Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its upcoming Russian-themed opening night gala to the support of LGBT rights. At issue are the evening's megastars: diva soprano Anna Netrebko, and conductor Valery Gergiev, artistic director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater. Both were outspoken supporters during the rabidly anti-gay Mr. Putin's rise to power, with Gergiev even being crowned "Hero of Labor" by Putin this spring. To top it off, the evening features (gay, gay, gay, gay) Tchaikovky's opera "Eugene Onegin." The ironies stupefy, even by Manhattan standards.
"I'm not asking them to be against anybody. I'm asking them to be for somebody" said Mr. Rudin, which to me is a brilliant, succinct call to artistic arms. This last month I've already been aghast at the varied and creative apologia rhetoric, ranging from the ignorantly offensive to the downright self-serving, of star athletes and Olympic officials the world over as they selfishly guard their chance to grab glory, dollars and endorsement contracts in Sochi-at the trifling expense of basic human rights. But now that this thing has landed right in my lap as an artist, I find the time to speak out is now. At very least, SIGN THIS PETITION! I did it this morning, and now I'm writing this.
Like elite athletes, performing artists are certainly not immune to opportunistic, head-in-the-sand thinking. After showing no qualms at all about stumping for Putin, Netrebko and Gergiev have gone mum. Ms. Netrebko on Facebook: "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." Oh, and by the way some of her best friends are gay!...including about 99.9999% of her fans, patrons and CD buyers. It's just a little too much trouble to speak up for them, though her superstar status in the classical music world guarantees her enormous power on the world stage. Not to mention that the very core of true artistic expression, and the subject of nearly every song and opera she has ever warbled, speaks to our shared human experience of man's cruelty to man, injustice, greed, loss and betrayal. But at least she has made a statement, as pale as it is. Mr. Gergiev, who is slated to be a grand marshal at Sochi, has yet to make comment. But perhaps the most enraging is the marshmallow corporate-speak response from the office of Met manager Peter Gelb, saying "we stand behind all of our artists, regardless of whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions." They should say "hide behind." Others have stepped forward: Bartlett Sher, recent star director at the Met, and violinist Gidon Kremer have made admittedly cautious but honest statements to the press condemning Putin, seemingly urging the Met to take an action, any action.
There is a prevailing belief that it is inappropriate for artists to speak out in the world of politics. We would rather our great singers, conductors and instrumentalists don their costumes and trot onstage to re-enact the great operas of Bellini, Barber, Corigliano, Donizetti, Handel, Menotti, Ravel, Poulenc, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky and a thousand other LGBT artists before and since, while we safely watch from the insulation of our $475 box seats as a world leader brazenly, methodically strips away the rights of already vulnerable citizens. The Met claims its "mission is artistic" and is therefore excused from taking a stand. But what is our role as artists, if not to raise our voices, hands, pens and brushes against tyrants such as Putin who, given the chance, would extinguish all those who differ from his Russian ideal? It seems that world governments and their athletes have already found their convenient justifications for not boycotting the winter games in Sochi. Maybe it is not too late to encourage a mere 3,800 opening night gala attendees to forgo their tuxedos and fur coats and throw their offensively overpriced tickets into the Lincoln Center fountain on September 23rd? Or perhaps, the Met might wake up and begin the process of setting asides decades of veiled homophobia at last. If they are afraid of losing artists such as Netrebko and Gergiev along the way, I venture to say there will be a hundred others of equal talent and stronger principle lined up to take their place. Warning! A few of them might be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.