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The General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera Peter Gelb has defended his refusal to dedicate the Met's season-opening production of Eugene Onegin to the oppressed citizens of Russia on the grounds that "as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world." Such a view of art institutions as insulated from struggles against oppression is not only cowardly and self-serving but also ignorant.
As Michael Cooper reports in the New York Times, the September 22 opening night of the Met was greeted with protests and disruptions.
As opera patrons dressed in black tie and ball gowns arrived for the event, they were met with chanting protesters and a 50-foot rainbow banner that said "Support Russian Gays!"
As the lights dimmed for the production, the first voice heard was that of a protester. "'Putin, end your war on Russian gays!" a man shouted in the vast auditorium. Then, focusing on two of the evening's stars, Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano, and conductor Valery Gergiev, the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, the protester continued: 'Anna, your silence is killing Russian gays! Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!'"
At issue is Putin's odious law banning "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships" that has incited increased violence and vigilantism against gay people in Russia. Both Netrebko and Gergiev were vocal supporters of Putin in his last election.
The protests were organized by the activist group Queer Nation New York, but gay composer Andrew Rudin inspired them by his online petition urging the Met to dedicate the performance to gay rights in Russia. The petition, which was signed by more than 9,000 people, noted that Tchaikovsky, a gay Russian composer, was being performed by artists who supported a Russian government that had passed antigay laws.
"Here's a chance for the Met, in an entirely benign and positive way, to use its great cultural influence to be relevant, and to do something positive," Rudin told the Times.
However, that request was summarily rejected by the Met's general manager Peter Gelb. In an opinion piece published in Bloomberg News, he defends his decision on grounds that are astonishing. The piece is breathtaking in its lack of insight and knowledge of the history of art.
His piece entitled "Why the Met Won't Bow to Protest of Anti-Gay Law," Gelb attempts to depict his cowardly refusal to acknowledge injustice as a brave act of defiance against gay bullies. It is a stance worthy of the Family Research Council or the National Organization for Marriage.
His main point is that the world is so full of injustice that all an arts organization can do is . . . nothing.
"We stand against the significant human rights abuses that take place every day in many countries," Gelb writes reassuringly before adding that "as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world. Over the course of our nine-month season, artists from dozens of different countries--some with poor human rights records--will be performing at the Met. If we were to devote tonight's performance to Russian injustice, how could we possibly stop there?"
Because the Met is unable to solve world hunger or end the Syrian war or otherwise eradicate all injustice in the world, Gelb seems to believe it is powerless to refuse to hire Putin's minions or even to acknowledge that a pogrom against gay people is underway on the very night it is presenting a work by a gay Russian composer who was himself the victim of Russian homophobia. Such a belief is so absurd as to be literally incredible.
Gelb announces, as though it were something of which to be proud, that "Throughout its distinguished 129-year history, the Met has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause, no matter how important or just."
Rather than a point of pride, such a record of indifference to human suffering ought to be a source of shame.
Gelb seems amazingly disingenuous in his lack of awareness of the role art, including opera, has played in furthering human rights. Not only has art traditionally been an agent of change, but arts institutions have also embraced that role as well.
It is unfortunate that Gelb seems to think that a venerable arts institution must remain aloof from political and social causes, "no matter how important or just." Such a stance is not only ahistorical, but it is also self-serving, for it licenses indifference.
Luckily, however, despite Gelb's attempt to insulate the Met from the struggle for justice, the protests at the Met have brought attention to the plight of gay people in Russia.
The clip below reports on opening night at the Met.