When Art is Noble and Beliefs May Not Be

Email a Friend
Facebook login screen.

These days, on Facebook, it is often possible to discover things about your “friends” you might not wish to know. I leave it to others to decide whether every change in one’s life, mood and domestic arrangement must be transmitted to a larger audience and, given how cyberspace works, documented for all eternity. I do think, though, that people in the public eye and ear need to think before they post.

Opera singers, who chat freely amongst themselves about all sorts of medical issues that often involve words such as gunk and phlegm, sometimes are not aware that a larger public might not or should not know about funky substances residing in their lungs and sinuses. Apart from anything else, the people who give them work should not be tipped off in such a public way that a potential cancellation might be in the cards.

There is a very fine young male singer with whom I am now friendly in life (not just on Facebook) who had a habit of announcing every tickle, scratch or sniffle that was afflicting him. He would write “heading to the doctor” and later announce “might need vocal rest.” I contacted him and told him that his medical bulletins on Facebook might suggest to people who hire him that he does not take good care of his health or could have some physical weaknesses. He no longer puts such news on Facebook. There is a fine young soprano (more on her later) who posted similar information until I advised her to do otherwise. These two artists gave excellent performances this year in an opera staged by a New York company and are on the threshold of major careers.

Health issues for opera singers is one thing, but politics and values are quite another. There are many musicians, actors, writers and other people whose creative work is before the public and whose positions on political and social issues are not well-known to their audiences. And then there are others whose beliefs—left, right and center—on the great topics of our time are part of their public image. Can you think of the creative work of Charlton Heston or Vanessa Redgrave without having their politics in the back of your head?

I certainly have great admiration for artists who take public stands on the things they believe in. They are citizens too, and everyone has the right to speak out when they choose. I have true, close friends (not the Facebook kind) who reside all across the political spectrum. Many work in the arts. I enjoy a vigorous ongoing discussion with some whose views are considerably different from mine, while others have made clear that they don’t want to talk about politics and want the bases of our friendships to reside elsewhere.

But what happens when there are performers—let us stick to opera for the purposes of this article—who are very verbal in their support not only of politicians I might not vote for but for causes I see as damaging, harmful and downright immoral? There are certain singers and conductors who fit in that category whom I nonetheless consider among the very best at what they do.

In an article in which I created an admittedly subjective and incomplete list of great singers now before the public, I was aware that some of them support causes that I find personally repugnant and benighted, and yet it would never occur to me to leave them off the list. They are magnificent on the stage in portraying characters who are much more moral and humane than the views they espouse in real life.

This debate is not new. There are thousands, perhaps millions, of sophisticated music lovers who find Wagner so revolting for his beliefs that they refuse to listen to his operas. And there are millions of others who are able to separate their disdain for him and find great pleasure and meaning in his work. Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite and yet he used Jewish musicians if they were the best available. In recent times, some of the foremost conductors of Wagner—Georg Solti, James Levine, Daniel Barenboim—have Jewish roots. Solti even had direct experience with Nazis who officially lionized Wagner.

This brings me back to the above-mentioned soprano, whose name I prefer not to reveal because this article is about a phenomenon rather than targeting one individual. She has, on Facebook, “liked” causes and ideas that I believe promote discrimination and hatred. This is akin to what Wagner did in some of his writings and public pronouncements.

When I heard this soprano recently I was wowed by her singing, which outshone some of the more famous people on the stage. My impressions of her performance will never change. But I do confess, in all candor, that my thoughts about her as a person have been colored by her online advocacy of certain ideas and groups that go against my own moral conscience.

To sort out my ideas and seek input from others, I initiated a discussion on Facebook:

“Facebook Conundrum: What to do when perfectly nice people who are your Facebook friends and work colleagues in life turn out to "like" certain political and media figures whom I find absolutely loathsome? These 'likes' say things about the people I know that I really wish I had not been made aware of. But it will be hard to erase that from my mind the next time I see them or have to work with them.”

The responses this elicited were quite interesting and divergent. Some people did not make the distinction between "Facebook friends and work colleagues" as a concept and what we understand to be our “real friends.” My real friends have all kinds of political and religious beliefs that may not align with mine but they are, nonetheless, kind and loving people and excellent friends. Here is what some of my Facebook friends (among which are some real friends as well as work colleagues and former classmates) wrote:

“I'd rather discuss the views with the friend, or even refrain from such discussion, than lose the friend. If I were to shut out all who disagree with me, I would lose some extremely valued friends.”

“You recognize that real friends not only tolerate different views between each other but see them as a point of strength that only makes for a deeper, truer love and a source of intellectual stimulation...Although I will admit, FB has opened me to things worse than opposing opinions. It does give pause.”

“Some of my responses to beliefs of others if they seem to me not only vile and untenable, but also dangerous to humanity, are just too deep and implacable for me to practice what I preach (tolerance of differences)...There are some things about which one can't just shrug and move on.”

“I look forward to the day when everyone values tolerance and individual rights over all else and personal interest is forever subjugated to the best interests of mankind.”

“Stay friends with them. One of the distressing things about America now is that people increasingly live segregated along political lines. You should be able to have a good healthy political argument with someone and remain friends.”

“Kind of makes you want to wash your eyeballs!”

It is possible, on Facebook, to block someone’s posts whose views you find offensive, but this does not erase the awareness that such a person holds those views. The question I am raising here is a different one: Can we watch and listen to some of these highly gifted artists do stupendous things on the opera stage and compartmentalize or ignore what some of their views and activities are in real life? Hard as I might try, it will be difficult for me to unlearn the information I know about this soprano and it will be in my head when I hear her perform. And yet, as someone who loves opera and wants to hear the best singers in every role, I am the first to tell you that this singer has the goods and there is a lot of music I want to hear her perform.

Can you admire a great performer's music-making if you know that his or her personal beliefs are deeply repugnant to you?