When Art is Noble and Beliefs May Not Be

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 - 01:00 PM

Facebook login screen. Facebook login screen. (Spencer Holtaway/flickr)

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?


More in:

Comments [12]

Young Soprano

Such a complicated topic! I would agree with a commenter above who said the issue might be an eternal one, and I find her example citing Ruskin and Whistler enlightening.

I had to deal with this issue myself, albeit in a slightly different context. I had a teacher a couple of years back before I entered university, and I didn't add her on Facebook until after I had entered school and stopped being her student. Her Facebook profile is full of political posts from her favorite organizations, and only a few posts on her timeline actually deal with music at all. Sadly, I have to say that most of what she posts demonstrates an extreme level of hate for anyone who does not share her political beliefs. This makes me truly sad, as I feel there is so much more to who she is as a person. Beyond that, I never can decide if I want to keep in contact with her...I can't help but wonder if her political hate reaches so far that she doesn't want the best for me, since my beliefs don't align with hers. And furthermore, I'm wondering if anyone else in her life came up against the same issue.

Mar. 14 2013 02:14 AM
JoeVee from Monmouth Co. NJ

re: Voton's comment - really??
re: subject at hand - I doubt that I could knowingly segregate the performer's views. If I just did not agree with them there'd probably be no issue. If I truly found their expressed personal views repugnant that would indeed color my assessment.

Jun. 21 2012 02:52 PM
Neil Schnall

There is a certain ilk of artist or celebrity that retains careful control of information exposed to the public at large and of privacy regarding personal matters. This was more true in previous times when it was easier to retain that control. Yet, there are those today who can manage to keep the public at bay regarding their private lives.

It has become more the vogue to attempt to appear to the public as "just regular folks" ("Celebrities - they're just like us!"). The fact that many artists use Facebook (just like us) makes it all too easy for their quotidian interactions to become public knowledge if regulation of their privacy settings is as elusive to them as to the rest of us.

I personally find more interesting those artists about whom I have been spared the gory details of their personal lives. It is far more fascinating to wonder what someone is really like than to have the answers in plain view.

Jun. 21 2012 01:37 PM
Neil Schnall

If true art opens a window into the artist's soul, perhaps the nature of Wagner's soul is reflective more of the beauty of his music than his anti-semitic rants.

Jun. 21 2012 12:41 PM
A French Lieutenant from Manhattan

If you're thinking about someone's politics after a performance, then it wasn't a very good performance.

If you're thinking about someone's politics when considering whether to invite them to join the performance, then it's not going to be a very good performance.

Art is the hieroglyph, politics the demotic.

Jun. 20 2012 10:26 PM

I have no quarrel with anyone expressing themselves in fields other than the one of their expertise, but opera singers should stick to what they're being paid to do, sing. Some of the views on politics are laughable, I have the misfortune to read them daily since half of my Facebook list is made of opera singers.

I shouldn't say misfortune, the entertainment value sometimes is worth it. Clueless, ill-informed, egocentric and down right malevolent some of them. It's me, me, me, 24/7. I have a cold, I have to cancel, I'm 10 pounds overweight, etc. They seem to forget the function of the artist is to share and communicate. "I was blessed with this wonderful talent, people, I make money, screw the rest of you commoners" seems to be the attitude of some. And because they made it they hate to see their tax money going to schools, libraries and social programs, they'd rather see it go to wars, bank bailouts and more tax cuts for the rich. Those are the conservative ones and they're not afraid to tell the world. The "liberal" ones are just as ignorant. They think Obama is the opposite of Bush and the solution, when we know he's part of the problem and a Bush clone. Oh boy

But we have to be patient with them though, folks, they give us a lot of pleasure on stage so it's all good :)

Jun. 20 2012 03:26 PM
Zvi Stone from Jerusalem, Israel

Firstly, I think one must distinguish between those views that are within the limits of legitimate differences of opinion and those are outside those limits. Obviously, that distinction is highly subjective. Secondly, I believe that true art opens a window into the artist's soul. It follows that an evil person's art would appear ugly to a good person who understands the art form. Unfortunately, I am not an "art maven", and I am not perceptive enough to see or hear the evil. To those that advocate performing Wagner's works I say: It seems that you also don't understand his music.

Jun. 20 2012 08:02 AM
Cara De Silva from New York, NY

Provocative post. Complicated. And, perhaps, the issue is eternal. This and the thread following remind me very much of the 19th century battle between critic John Ruskin and painter James McNeil Whistler and the forces for which each stood. Ruskin, along with many other Victorian critics, argued that the value of a work was impossible to separate from the morality of the artist. A bad person could not create good art. The Aesthetic Movement, newly formed, and including Whistler, felt morality was irrelevant. For its members, it was all about art for art's sake. Does make one think.

Jun. 20 2012 12:38 AM

Maybe there is a simple example to be found in Nelson Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation and in opera's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO for taking a higher road.

I do believe however, in all of our difference, we can usually find a common thread. While I won't support a message that is abhorrent, my aim is to appreciate beauty and art, wherever it may be, and to look for the best in each person.-Thanks Fred, and WQXR, for always encouraging and providing a place for open thought and discussion.

Jun. 19 2012 10:18 PM

Mr. Plotkin,

You wrote: "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."

You shouldn't apologize for this. To begin with, that is inevitable, & it would be disingenuous of you to deny it. More importantly, your thoughts about her as a person SHOULD be colored by whatever you know about her. To think otherwise is just a form of denial, which is foolish, because it will eventually come back to bite you.

Frankly, I'm appalled by the simplistic concept of "tolerance" that some of the commenters express here. Tolerance is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Some differences should be tolerated -- to varying degrees -- & others should not. What is morality or the rule of law or any kind of social order, if not tolerance of some things & intolerance of some others? People who claim to favor "tolerance" of EVERYTHING are out of touch with reality. Universal "tolerance" is a solipsistic fantasy.

Jun. 19 2012 09:30 PM
Brunnhilde from UWS

Votan, I'm guessing you're a conservative. They are usually the first ones to start using terms like "liberal" as an insult, and then expressing a false sense of persecution in online comments threads.

The point of Fred's post is whether we can separate today's shrill political discourse from the artists who express such views - not whether someone is liberal, conservative or whatever other label one prefers.

Jun. 19 2012 05:33 PM

I'm guessing you're a liberal, Fred. Conservatives are never shocked to learn that some of their friends, and other people that they admire, think differently than they do about some things. Yet, ironically, you're supposed to be the tolerant, civil ones, aren't you?

Jun. 19 2012 04:46 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.


About Operavore

Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore