Gay Rights Petition Puts Pressure on Metropolitan Opera Stars

Tuesday, August 20, 2013 - 06:00 PM

If it wasn’t Tchaikovsky, it may never have come up. But suddenly, two famous Russians -- opera diva Anna Netrebko and renowned conductor Valery Gergiev -- now find themselves in an awkward circumstance. They are both under pressure from an online petition asking the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night gala to the gay community. The gala features the two stars performing in Eugene Onegin, by Tchaikovsky, who was gay.

Both Netrebko and Gergiev are vocal supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who signed anti-gay laws this summer.

"The grotesqueness of performing a work as the opening gala of the Met’s season, it’s almost tragic-comical that they would be making their living off of this remarkable work of Tchaikovsky," said New Jersey composer Andrew Rudin, 74, who started the petition earlier this month.

"I mean, Tchaikovsky himself, were he alive now, would not be safe living in that country where he’s supposedly a cultural icon.”  

Conductor Gergiev is the most powerful cultural figure in Russia and a frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera. Any statement he makes about gay rights would carry considerable weight – at least in the west, says Simon Morrison, a Russian music historian at Princeton University.

"If in fact this performance were to take place with him at the helm that would make quite a statement," said Morrison. "I think that in Russia it would be ignored. I don’t think that anything people do in the west is likely to resonate there. In fact it might actually support Russian political defiance."

Gergiev has not commented on the petition, which has more than 6,000 names. That number more than doubled after a New York Times story about it on Tuesday.

In a statement, the Metropolitan Opera says it's proud of its history as a creative base for gay artists but argues it's not appropriate for performances to be used for political purposes. Eugene Onegin is scheduled to open at the Met on September 23.

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Comments [33]

Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

With Gay Rights protests and issues taking siege at the Met, I think now could be the time for The Metropolitan Opera's board members to answer questions about the alleged behavior of James Levine
According to many internet blogs and articles, it is a virtual fact that shows that the alleged antisocial behavior of James Levine is something that is a loud whisper in the highest circles of The Met Board.
Even Greg Sandow, a serious writer and critic says in a recent blog that the time has come for someone to officially deny or confirm rumors of Mr. Levines alleged pedophilia.
If these rumors are correct every member of top Met management and every person on their Board who has kept the allegations under wrap may be guilty of major felonies by being complicit in hiding this behavior.
I have no idea if there is any truth to the whispers, but as they become louder and louder it would be refreshing if the Met and its General Council and Board would once and for all confirm or deny this behavior.
If they fail I am sure that one day soon an investigative journalist with the know how to pierce police records and unallocated payments to strangers would make a definitive statement on this issue.
It cost Penn State many tens of millions of dollars in settlements and legal fees for covering up the behavior of their assistant football coach, so not only is the future of one individual involved, but the financial stability of The Metropolitan Opera if the allegations are proven true.
God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 09 2013 01:13 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

All of you, please stop! With every post it sounds more and more like an orchestra trying to play four different pieces at the same time.

I can see that you are all very intelligent folks, but does social commetary have to invade every aspect of our lives? I need to hear the music, not the constant harangue of outside "rights-ists" and "equal-ifiers". Will you distract this one pure aspect of your lives with issues like this? Please leave it for politicians, activists and the religious. Leave me with the music, undistracted and untainted.

Let the music be the music.

Oct. 18 2013 03:00 PM
RZ from DC

It's probably no more possible for an artist to make public statements against Putin than it was against Stalin if they want to stay healthy and perform in Russia - or have family in Russia. And maybe the Met would have lots of financial trouble with contracts and performances if it got involved in politics - however unspeakable their behavior during the Holocaust. But the audience can damn welll stand up and wave rainbow flags. I hope someone is handing them out at the doors.

Sep. 22 2013 12:04 PM
Steven Fruh from New York, NY

One cannot bury one's head in the sand and ignore gross human rights violations - wherever in the world they occur. Have we not learned anything from the human rights atrocities committed during the 20th century - and un fortunately into the 21st?

And it would be especially appropriate for the Met to take a stronger stand given that Tchaikovsky was indeed a gay man, mentally tortured by having to stay closeted in, yes, Russia!

Aug. 30 2013 11:15 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

I think the key is Brian's first sentence above: "If it wasn’t Tchaikovsky, it may never have come up."

I can't understand why it is difficult for the Met or for any reasonable person to oppose dedicating the opening night to support of LGBTers. The context worldwide is very well understood.

Even in NYC, the effects of anti-gay bigotry are seen in hate crime attacks and murders of innocent LGBT people. Cardinal Dolan is hugely active as a political gay basher.

Just saying that gay people are human enough to be treated like people doesn't seem like it should be controversial among intelligent, caring human beings.

This smacks a bit of the Kitty Genovese murder -- lots of witnesses but nobody wants to get involved. The Met did in fact, though, issue a statement saying that it deplores discrimination -- at least the institution did say that. However, not dedicating the opening night to support of LGBTers misses a chance to affirm gay people's humanity in places where it is not being respected. Throughout the Cold War, every time an artist who escaped the Soviet Union appeared in performance in the West, there was a political subtext to their performance. The claim that there is no precedent whatsoever for dedicating the opening night to support of LGBT people is a tad dubious.

Aug. 28 2013 05:38 AM
Floria from NYC

This is all so ridiculous! The Met should not be hog-tied to a view. Some people may not agree with the LGBT community, and that's their opinion. What they MUST do,however, is have respect for another person's being. Let people be who they are. The Arts are full of gays...who cares?!! Who knows what creates an artistic person? Who knows what creates a mathematical person? Who knows what creates an organized or a pathetically disorganized person? or a heterosexual or a gay? Who knows and who cares! However, we, ourselves, are responsible for respecting that other person...no petition or corporation can make us do so.

Aug. 26 2013 01:08 PM
MAK

On the anniversary of "I Have a Dream", other words by Dr. King seem fitting-"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

I can't imagine the pain of not having personal and legal freedoms and that people are persecuted for who they are. This is the civil and human rights moment of our day. I also believe that the idea that art exists in a beautiful, apolitical bubble is not true. The Met has the right to determine its policies, but perhaps "in the end" someone will have the personal courage to break with tradition, in a Muti/"Va,pensiero" moment, and not be silent.

Aug. 25 2013 11:50 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

The history of the world has always been one of cruelty and war among different factions. All of these pros and cons about a gay rights petition. Let us put this all in perspective, this weekend is the anniversary of what happened to Pompeii and Herculaneum and the other towns that have been destroyed by Vesuvius, including my father's. He used to narrate how part of the beach was haunted. Well folks, in 1981 some boat slips were discovered with 300 bodies that were burned by the eruption. The world right now is also in danger of being distroyed just as those towns were. Whenever I watch the History Channel with that documentary, I am ready to cry. Those were my ancestors. Lighten up.

Aug. 23 2013 05:12 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

To PS from NY: I think you said it best, and I absolutely agree with you. The Met is in opera company - nothing more, nothing less. Let them do their job, and save the activism for activist groups.
To Concetta: I enjoy these little "kerfuffels" too, and I'm laughing right along with you!

Aug. 23 2013 01:16 PM
PS from NY

I don't understand why the Met should be expected to make this gesture. It is not a gay-rights organization. It is an opera company that has hired artists and technicians of different races, nationalities, religions, and sexual orientations, as well as political persuasions. As opera performance schedules are arranged years in advance, Gergiev and Netrebko were hired way before this controversy. If these two artists are supporters of Putin (and the article does not confirm whether they support his policies concerning gays), then your problem is with them, not the Met. It is your right to boycott any performances where they appear, and even to organize protests outside the theater and the Russian embassy, if you like. That is your prerogative, and expecting the Met to do your work for you is armchair activism.

Aug. 23 2013 11:30 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Gergiev and Nebrebko do know which side their bread has been buttered on. Before Nebreko became an opera singer, she worked as a janitor. I am pretty sure she received help from the government. Let's boycott the Met, Russian Music, Russian Literature. I want a dedication honoring blue-eyed Sicilians with Moorish features.
Glad we have another kerfuffel going. This can be great fun for those of us who laugh at the world and human nature.

Aug. 23 2013 11:10 AM

Frank from UWS

"Minority performers" without a doubt must be given their opportunities.

However, one would be hard pressed to argue that a significant number of persons in the homosexual community have been persecuted in the Arts as a result of their colleague's prejudices. The Arts have been historically most receptive to Gay persons. Persecution in the Arts did not come from within the community itself; rather, for the most part it was based on societal norms and laws in place at the time--for example, the tragedy of Oscar Wilde--from external sources; another example, more recent (well, relatively in any case), is the accusation in the 1950s concerning Liberace's homosexuality. There was not a person watching his television show that did not know that this popular pianist was "different"; and though he successfully sued two newspapers at the time for slander, no one really cared who he slept with--he was entertaining, his show was fun to watch, his musicianship was acceptable, so what else did one need? I still have a number of his 78 RPM records. They still charm.

Unfortunately, other fields have not be so accommodating to homosexual persons. The man who immediately comes to mind is the mathematician, Alan Turing. Turing, a Gay man, was the brain behind the algorithm which helped the British break the German Enigma codes during the Second World-War. Were it not for Turing, many things might be different today--in a very negative way. Turing was arrested for homosexual behavior in 1952. He was chemically castrated by court order. He committed suicide in 1954.

Martin Luther King argued that his natural, creator given, inalienable rights, guaranteed for all Americans by the Constitution, were being violated. He did not argue his case on the basis of skin color, he made it instead on the fact that he is a man, a human being. The court agreed and ruled in his favor! As Americans, the Gay Community--as well as any other minority under persecution--should follow the same path! I believe that the country would be much better for it.

Aug. 22 2013 08:23 PM
Frank from UWS

Interesting points @dov. It's worth remembering too that singer Paul Robison once said, "Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. They are civilization’s radical voice. What we do with that voice is to instruct, to inspire."

In other words, art doesn't live in a vacuum, nor should it. The Met has taken social stands in the past, embracing minority performers when they weren't given full rights in other parts of society. They should speak up again now.

Aug. 22 2013 07:37 PM

Though many in the homosexual community may have appetitions to the contrary, America is not Italy during the 1920s—like it or not, we do not live in a holistic environment (“totalitarian” is the word which Mussolini used at the time to describe it); consequently, the values of one minority group (oftentimes, fascistic in its behavior) may not be held in the same
positive light by the vast majority of society’s other members.

The current scenario is a tempest in a teapot with aspirations of becoming another Hurricane Katrina—but it should not be permitted to become one.

There have been more significant issues in the Metropolitan’s history—namely, the matter of performances of Wagner from January 1933 up until the collapse of the Nazi state in May of 1945. Frankly, the Met buried its head in the sand for twelve years concerning the music which so exemplified the National Socialist world view.

Other than a radio matinee interview with Lily Pons which immediately followed her naturalization as an American citizen in 1940 (and the use of the flag of the Free French during performances of La fille du régiment)—along with the playing of the Stars Spangled Banner before each performance—the Met management never descended from their mansions in Valhalla during this era. True, “Buy War Bonds” ads in the performance programs appeared throughout the war years (not to mention that the audience was filled with a plethora of men and women in uniform); however, other than these things, one would be hard pressed during a Met performance to realize that we were fighting for our very existence. From my perspective, everything else since that time takes a back seat—the current scenario isn’t even worth putting in the trunk!

Aug. 22 2013 07:26 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

A few points:

The petition reads "Dedicate 9/23 Opening Gala to support of LGTB people."

[LGTB = Lesbian, Gay, Transexual, Bisexual]

There are no specifics on what "dedicate" means, much less "support." Certainly it's not a requirement that the two star performers must wear rainbow ribbons on their lapels. It would seem to be too late for a note in any brochures that will be handed out though little notes might be pinned in. Maybe a small poster on a side door will be the extent of the dedication and support.

Trivial and only significant if the two somehow key performers are actively anti-gay to the point where they could not associate with any hint of support for gay rights, however slight. I find it hard to believe that the Met has never in the past provided any support for any cause, group or organization on this level. Never a benefit concert? I don't believe it.

...

Regarding Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics, thanks to this recent controversy I've learned that much of the history we "know" of that event as it relates to Owens and Hitler is wrong or at the least misrepresentative. After Hitler personally met with and praised German medal winners he was instructed by the Olympic committee that that action was inappropriate and not allowed by Olympic standards. Based on that Hitler did not publicly meet or congratulate any winners afterwards, from any country. Owens was one of those not congratulated. The further outrage regarding Owens was that President Roosevelt did not meet with or congratulate Owens when he returned to the U.S. because he (FDR) was facing an upcoming election and couldn't risk offending southern Democrats. This was long before Nixon's "Southern strategy" following LBJ's "War on Poverty" and voting rights act (recently effectively repealed by the "Supreme" Court).

...

Multiple 'lifetimes' ago in English 100 I read an essay by John Milton. I don't remember the essay other than a small quote from it. Milton described a "fugitive and cloistered virtue" as being worthless. People can claim all sorts of things but only a real test, faced and passed has any value.

If somehow the people being beaten and even killed, in any of the multiple videos posted with pride by Russians with no indication of any possible prosecution or punishment, were at the level where you could say, "that could be me or my child or my wife or husband" (however the view) and then say, "no mention of any kind suggesting 'support' for those beaten should be allowed in some public 'artistic' event" then you've passed Milton's test for virtue (such that it may be), at least in terms of defending some imaginary artistic isolation.

Let's hope you never have to actually face that test.

Aug. 22 2013 04:05 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

The greatest value in the Met dedicating this particular opening night to support of LGBTers would be that of sending a message to LGBT Russians that the outside world is not going to just abandon them.

Aug. 22 2013 03:18 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Regarding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin: if the world, particularly the U.S., hadn't come to the games, Jesse Owens wouldn't have had the opportunity to show what a lie Hitler's so-called Aryan racial superiority claim was.

Aug. 22 2013 02:35 PM
Jack Frymire from Bellingham WA

Apologies for factual errors committed yesterday: it's the 60th, not the 40th anniversary of Vishnevskaya's Bolshoi debut as Tatyana, beginning a career memorable for bold stances on behalf of human rights. A couple of first names were also wrong. It does seem some correspondents are taking the position of Tosca: "I lived for art and music; I never harmed a living soul. Why is this happening to me?" She learned the hard way that artists overlook oppression by police-state sponsor at their peril. True, the position of Gergiev, Netrebko or Gelb toward a petition is a peripheral concern here. The real issue for Americans is, should the International Olympic Committee persist with plans to hold the upcoming Olympics in Moscow, when Russian officials have made it clear that athletes and visitors will not be exempt from laws criminalizing so much as discussion of same-sex marriage? Does anybody think it was right that the world came to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, despite the roundup of Jews gypsies and gays? I suppose they argued then that sport must be kept separate from politics.

Aug. 22 2013 02:15 PM
Andy from Lower Merion, PA

@Silversalty

Yes, if it were a different cause (Catholics or Jews being beaten), I would still say leave the two be separate and I would choose to express my views in other venues, and not by trying to co-opt an organization that has no stake and takes (and should take) no position on the matter. Carol said it better than I did: "the Met is no place for any activist group to push their agenda on others."

@Bill from UWS

As a non-profit, non-political artistic organization, the Met has no obligation to take a stand on a political issues. It may choose to perform a work of art that has political overtones, but it need neither support nor criticize the actions or views of its artists. Yes, Gergeiv and Netrebko have given support to Putin, but the Met hasn't, and doesn't by presenting these artists. The Met booked these artists years ago solely because they presumably are the best available for the roles on opening night.

As for your example of Leonard Bernstein, I can't discern whether his personal or professional views had an impact on NYPhil's artistic programming or the programming of any other podium on which he appeared. And if he had an impact on NYPhil, that might even be appropriate--after all he was its music and artistic director (until 1969). Gergeiv and Netrebko, as complete free agents, have only loose affiliations with the Met. As far as I know, they have no official titles, and perform only a very small fraction of their performances in Lincoln Center.

Gergeiv or Netrebko need to be responsible their own professional images outside their performances at the Met, and can use their professional successes to support any causes they choose. Met ticket buyers can decide whether they'd like to boycott these artists, but the Met need not take a stand, and should avoid doing so.

Aug. 22 2013 02:14 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

For those that want to dismiss this matter as mixing "politics" into a situation that shouldn't be about politics, consider if the persecuted group was something other than the extended "gay" definition. Let's say it was Catholics that were being beaten in the streets with Russian "Orthodox" clerics looking on in approval - activities encouraged by the state and its police forces. Sport to be posted in videos on the Internet.

Couldn't happen you counter?

Remember what happened to Poland as the Nazis saw their stay there about to end. The Russians literally waited so the Nazis could completely pillage and burn Poland on their way out. The same Russians that would hang a German soldier from every telephone pole in their towns when they were finally driven out (a quote from a Russian woman I knew from my youth as she gazed down the block in Montreal looking at the street poles). And it wasn't as if the Nazis were going to fight. Their exit though would have been much much faster with far less destruction to Poland and its Catholic people.

Hey! This isn't a group you particularly relate to and really thinking about them leaves you a little queasy.

I don't condemn the performers though I don't know the particulars concerning how much support they have given to Putin and specifically his new laws related to gays. They live in what I've seen described as a Mafia like state with any lack of deference receiving harsh responses, to say the least. But I still don't see the suggestion that they would be supporting gays if they performed in an opera with what would seem to be a trivial ceremonial consideration from the theatre.

Regarding Putin, really, the guy likes to go around, and be photographed, shirtless. And hairless at that. What's that Shakespeare line? "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Aug. 22 2013 12:20 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Must agree with Ms. Luparella. Enough of this p.c. nonsense. I was wondering when QXR would be starting another kerfuffel. As for Gergiev perhaps being gay, what bothers me is that he always looks like he could use a bath and a shave. A person can be gay but unkempt? Never.

Aug. 22 2013 11:29 AM
Phil from Norwalk

One should be very careful about mixing music and politics. Case in point: the uproar whenever Wagner is to be played. Yes, he was at least as antisemitic as any German before or since, and his music (with its strongly nationalistic references to German mythology) was unfortunately appropriated by the Nazis. Yet his music stands apart from his racial views. Likewise, if Netrebko and Gergiev "stick to their knitting" and perform music, and don't use their appearance as a platform to actively promote their nation's homophobia, I don't see why they should be attacked simply for being Russian. That would be an inappropriate mix of music and politics. Leave them be, unless *they* choose to use their appearance for politics.

Aug. 22 2013 10:58 AM
Bo from Long Island

Does politics have to invade every aspect of our lives? How about art purely for art and the peace and beauty it brings to our lives. I don't believe the Met has to take a stand on this issue - it has supported all musicians regardless of their lifestyle or background.

Aug. 22 2013 09:11 AM
Jack Frymire from Bellingham WA

As a fervent admirer of the Carsen production starring the incomparable team of Fleming and Hvorostovsky, I nevertheless look forward to the new ENO version, by all accounts enchanting. The online petition calling for an opening night LGBT dedication is far from a perfect vehicle, interpolating gratuitous slurs on the current stars. Still, I signed it, as a belated atonement for the suffering inflicted on the composer. Perhaps those who contend that art and politics must be kept separate need reminding that this is the 40th anniversary of Galina Vishnevskaya's Bolshoi debut in the role of Tatyana. Vishnevskaya and her husband, Slava Rostropovich, defended Shostakovich and the poet Boris Yevtushenko against the tyrants of an earlier day. At the end of her career, Vishnevskaya was honored for her courage by none other than Valery Putin.

Aug. 22 2013 05:00 AM
Thomas from New York

Anyone who thinks music and politics cannot be joined doesn't know his history. And anyone who denounces a simple gesture in support of basic human rights is either a closet case or a monstrous bigot.

As long as it doesn't interrupt the performance, a dedication to the gay community is most welcome in light of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality and the current in persecution of gays in Russia that's being instigated by Putin and leaders in the Orthodox Church.

Aug. 22 2013 04:56 AM
Bernie from UWS

Rostropovich would be rolling over in his grave right now at the actions of these two musicians. I agree, the Met needs to distance itself from them and take a stand.

Aug. 21 2013 10:19 PM
Bill from UWS

Here's the issue as I see it: Gergiev and Netrebko are more than just supporters of Putin; they're lending their name and credibility to him and his gross violations of human rights. The Met has an obligation to either 1) distance itself from their actions, or 2) come out more strongly in favor of gay rights as a counterweight. The company would lose nothing by doing and make a principled stand, which is what artists have done throughout history (and don't give me the old cop-out answer "art shouldn't mix with politics." The two have always been intertwined).

Just look at Leonard Bernstein and how he spoke out against the Vietnam War and other wrongs of his day. The same applies here. It's time for the Met to do the right thing and step up.

Aug. 21 2013 10:14 PM
Dave from Stony Brook, NY

Isn't it unclear whether Tchaikovsky was homosexual?

Also, I agree that it is totally inappropriate to attempt bullying the Met into dedicating its opening night to the "gay community."

Aug. 21 2013 08:50 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I'm not sure what the two performers have to do with a theatre dedicating a performance to some group. I don't see where they are required to endorse anything. The only problem for them might be in being viewed as supporting what others support by not refusing to take part. But who would take that view?

It's as if any athlete who participates in the upcoming Russian Olympics were to be considered against gay rights and for gay persecution. That's a stretch on any terms. On a national level it's somewhat different.

What's happening in Russia is disgusting - humans treated like unwanted dogs - by statute. Beaten and killed .. for sport .. on camera.

That's political?

If it's too much for these performers to hold their noses (if need be) and perform then let them not show and lose the money they expect to get. They might return to Russia as propaganda heroes but their careers in the West will be very different.

If it's too much for the Met .. that's something for Met opera regulars to consider.

Aug. 21 2013 08:42 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

And suppose Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko refuse to give in to the demands of the gay rights lobby - what then? A boycott of their performances? A boycott of Russian orchestras? A boycott of the Metropolitan Opera? Oh, I know, how about a boycott of WQXR for broadcasting live performances from the Metropolitan Opera? I am so tired of all this "politically correct" nonsense! I agree with Andy - the Met is no place for any activist group to push their agenda on others.

Aug. 21 2013 07:19 PM
Jane Schmidt from Darien, CT

That is so ridiculous and inappropriate.

Aug. 21 2013 05:42 PM
Andy from Lower Merion, PA

Leave the Met out of this.

The Met presents artists, musicians and operas for the sake of art, not politics. There are numerous openly gay artists that perform leading roles on its stage, certainly one of the most prestigious opera venues, if not the most prestigious. As far as I know, the Met neither endorses nor decries any political position, nor discriminates against any person, but merely selects the bests artists it can for delivering the finest opera performances. I don't see the Met endorsing any position by presenting Gergeiv and Netrebko on opening night, and the Met should not get involved in investigating the personal or political opinions of its artists. If you don't want to support these artists for their political positions, then don't buy tickets. Let it remain pure art and not politics.

I suppose that if the Met makes an affirmative statement about support of gay rights it could alienate other artists and audiences who are also entitled to their viewpoints. The Met should not get involved. It's quite pretentious how gay rights activists try to captivate every opportunity everywhere to make a statement about their beliefs and drag everyone into the fray.

Aug. 21 2013 04:20 PM
Jock from Charleston, SC

Netrebko and Gergiev know what side their bread is buttered on.

I understand from an understudy of his that Gergiev himself is gay.

There's a special place in hell for those who can help others needing help but choose not to.

I've learned something new about the real character of these two as a result of this event. "Lots of personality but no character."

Aug. 21 2013 01:56 PM

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