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Slipped Disc editorial: The Met gets it on gay rights

Peter Gelb has published an article on Bloomberg, defending his decision not to dedicate his season opener to oppressed gay citizens in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The performance will be conducted by Valery Gergiev, Putin’s kapellmeister, and stars Anna Netrebko, who signed Putin’s election manifesto. The work is Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, whom Putin lackeys have loudly claimed is officially not gay.

Gelb’s case is: As an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.

The sad thing is, he’s right. For all that we endorse the public campaign to make Gergiev & Co aware of our disapproval of Putinist policies, the Met is not the right forum for a war of ideas.

Put simply, the Met is a business. It has suppliers (artists), customers (audience) and investors (donors). It needs to keep all three sectors happy to stay in production. If any of the three were to abscond, the Met would have a significant problem.

Gelb has tested the waters. He knows that no major artist will boycott the Met over Russia, no donors will withdraw cash and the public will fail to defect in droves.

Those three omissions tell us that Gelb is right to refuse a dedication.

Right for the business, right for civic purposes, right on the night.

The Met is an opera house, not a debating society. For ideas and ideals, look elsewhere.

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  1. Peter Gelb is 100pc right, and it is not simply “political correctness”.

    Arts organisations have enough complications in their lives already.They do not want to have a staff department of political judgements as well, determining attitudes and policies towards various political interest lobby groups.The more political stones you turn over, the more unpleasantnesses, hypocrisy, entrenched positions and ignorance you will find.

    I thought Joyce Didonato’s BBC Proms commentary about the status of gays in Russia was completely sincere, nonetheless badly judged, inappropriate and open to exploitation by others totally insincere. Putin-bashing is fashionable in the USA and all about issues totally divorced from gay rights – the media manipulators could not give a monkey’s either way. No-one in our business should get into this glasshouse stone-throwing competition without extreme caution, especially arts organisations with plenty of other things to get on with where they can make a real difference.

    • “Putin-bashing is fashionable in the USA and all about issues totally divorced from gay rights”

      Very true. It’s worth noting that Russia’s neighbor Lithuania passed a law very similar to Russia’s back in 2009, and it still stands despite EU challenges. None the less, I don’t see any calls for musicians or anyone else to boycott Lithuania. Is it because Russia is still perceived as a threat or too powerful, and Lithuania isn’t?

      • It is, because there is no money to be made having tiny Lithuania as an enemy.

      • No, Lithuania is a small country that is “below the radar” on the world stage. But if the Olympics, for instance, had been awarded to Vinius then the issue would be exposed and the concern would be the same.

        Believe it or not, there is no special animus toward Russia on this issue though Putin’s authoritarianism, intolerance and willingness to resort to extreme measures to persecute his opponents fit longstanding Western preconceptions of Soviet/Russian behavior. That is Putin’s fault and the fault of those Russian’s who are his apologists.

        Putin bashing? This IS entirely separate from gay rights. Do you expect the world to roll out the red carpet for a man who has had opponents imprisoned and murdered and skims billions off the Russian economy for himself and his associates. These facts are well established and it is trite to suggest that world outrage to Putin is merely fashionable. It is you who is detached from objective facts and attempting to dismiss the truth with accusations of “Putin bashing.” Russia is not the enemy and the military industrial complex is not using gay rights to justify defense spending…what a stupid thing to imply (Al qaeda is used for that now.)

  2. Theodore McGuiver says:

    Well said.

  3. That may be but I’m still predicting there’s going to be some kind of disturbance or protest on opening night. One outside for sure and possibly one from the audience during the performance.

  4. Well, there are always demonstrations outside the Met when I’ve been there, so that won’t surprise me. If they demonstrate inside, then that will just be a disgrace and will show themselves up more than any Russian issue. It would be disrespectful towards those who have paid good money to go to the Met, disrespectful towards Tschaikovsky’s own art and talent, and disrespect towards the singers and musicians who are there to perform and who would have enough to do on an opening night without playing Russian politics in the US, and getting distracted by a Russian anti-gay lot. The right decision was made, and the Met is most certainly not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world. You can just imagine if this were to happen at London’s Covent Garden. Get on with the show, I say, and leave the politicians and other venues, places and time to sort out any demonstrations. DiDonato’s announcement on the Andrew Marr show in London, the morning after her Prom concert here, was certainly inappropriate as well. She certainly didn’t announce it in the Albert Hall as I was there, and perhaps she’d have ended up in trouble, like Nigel Kennedy, for his comments about Israel. Get on with the job for which you are getting paid, and leave opera out of any more politics than it’s own internal politics we all have to suffer at times in an opera house. Doesn’t mean we agree or have to be rude to each other, but this is my own view, which concurs with Peter Gelb.

    • Marguerite Foxon says:

      Joyce DiDonato announced well before the Last Night of Proms that she was personally dedicating ‘Over the Rainbow’ to those whose voice has been silenced, principally the gay community. She was very clear on her tweets and FB page that she had no intention of saying anything from the stage out of respect for the Proms and that it was in appropriate in that setting. She is someone who very much “gets on with the job” as you put it, while using her voice to speak out on occasions in a respectful and influential way to her fans.

  5. All true, of course. And we might add that one of the reasons that classical music is becoming a dead art form is that it can’t make such protests. Opera is an especially good example of the bulky, socially conservative encumberances that have made classical music moribund. We need smaller, more agile forms that can better fulfill the time honored function of art which speaks truth to power. Instead, we see the ironies of necrophiliacs objecting when a cadaver is asked to protest.

    • So very well said! Thank you.

    • I concur. Perhaps what is needed are to create and fund leaner, crowd-sourced “classics with a conscience” companies to bring the beauty of classical music, ballet, and opera back to the people. Frankly, I am seriously considering quitting my current career and focusing on this sort of thing full-time. So many people who are progressive-minded are longing for meaningful performing arts experiences but cannot afford the obscene ticket prices and will not cow-tow to ultra-conservative interests who have a stranglehold on the arts. I love many of the performances by The Met and the LSO but I will not support those who seek to repress fellow human beings even though the art is beautiful.

  6. “The Met is an opera house, not a debating society. For ideas and ideals, look elsewhere.”

    Such a shame to read your comments. And there I was thinking you were an enlightened one. Music has always been a tool for political and social change, opera in particular. That the Met decided to deny those roots is simply a sad demonstration of American indifference to injustice – “as long as it doesn’t affect us, we don’t care.”

    I’m certain that if the Met could make some social cause “sexy” and appealing to its financial supporters, they would hop on the bandwagon in no time.

  7. Sina Hanson says:

    What a bazaar post! I’m not used to common sense in the arts like this.

  8. First of all, donors to an opera house, or any arts organization, are not ‘investors’. There is no expectation of a monetary return [other than a tax break, sometimes the ONLY reason for such gifts]. A donor is more likely to pull their gifts over an offensive production, and very often do.
    Secondly, it’s nonsense to say that arts organizations shouldn’t make statements; many do via exhibitions, performances, etc. Here in NYC, the Brooklyn Museum often hosts controversial exhibits, political in nature. And look at typical regie-theater in Europe – if many are not brazen political statements then you haven’t been paying attention.
    Mr. Glib Gelb had and opportunity, along with Netrebko and Gergiev to make a genuine statement, not about politics in Russia, but about basic human rights.

  9. I’m not sure that there isn’t a bit of inconsistency in condemning Gergiev and Netrebko while supporting Gelb’s decision. How is one to feel, really, about the fact that the Met hires, indeed idolizes and courts, “Putin’s kapellmeister”? It’s not all that relevant that the Met is “a business”; businesses may be held morally responsible, be boycotted, feel the effects of political situations. One would be perhaps on stronger grounds by saying that the Met is a temple of art, universal, unifying and above the fray. Are you serious when you say ” For ideas and ideals, look elsewhere.” ? Or is your whole article bitterly tongue-in-cheek?

  10. “Our disapproval of Putinist policies:” do I detect the royal plural?

    If the Met were a business, it would never need patrons.

    It is an ensemble of artists, and that is why it is wrong to allow it to become politicized.

  11. David Pickett says:

    Sounds like a variant of the Furtwängler Defence to me.

  12. Reading all this I can not help wondering what would Tchaikovsky think of this abuse of his personal peccadillo nobody ever really cared about before as political tool against his homeland?

  13. Derek Castle says:

    I am always amazed when otherwise intelligent people tell me what “God likes”, as in “God doesn’t approve of homosexuality”. How fortunate they are to get these messages from God, who has never spoken to me, or published a letter in the Times.

  14. cabbagejuice says:

    Some people would rather believe a letter published in the Times.
    There is another way to consider where and how the messages may be coming from. We get a world, a life and bodies with an instruction manual how to use them called the Bible!

  15. Personally I am not sure I agree with you on this one Norman; and I certainly don’t think that is is a clear cut or obvious decision (I’m not saying you are saying it is).

    The divorcing of politics from reality doesn’t work for me either. Gergiev has endorsed Putin and whilst I agree that a protest interrupting the music would be a ridiculous misfire, I don’t see the harm in dedicating such a performance to those who have been assaulted or murdered in recent weeks.

  16. We can laud Gidon Kremer’s concert dedicated to victims of injustice, but the Met is ok to play to its rich conservative supporters by staying mum? Well, that’s convenient for their budget.

    Let’s not be naive and pretend any decision on the Met’s part isn’t grounded in political and economic motivations.

  17. along with … not cutting your hair? not looking at the holy tabernacle if you need glasses? never wearing clothes made of two different cloths? believing that insects have 4 legs? never eating pork or touching anything made from the skin of a pig?

    How about killing your children when they talk back to you? Or all those people who committed adultery? Death to them all as well, if we use your 2000+ year old book as an “instruction manual”. How about keeping slaves? Raping and pillaging your enemies? Again, all part of your “instruction manual”.

    The bible is a book of stories written by primitive nomads who thought the world was flat, that the sun revolved around the Earth, that a big boat full of only two of every species in existence could actually repopulate the world. It’s a book of primitive fantasy.

    So, please, do tell us, why exactly should this book be used to dictate contemporary political policy and human rights?

    If you want that book to be used as the blueprint for all social policy and law, then you have to use ALL of it and cannot cherry-pick which laws you like and which you don’t.

    The American Constitution is one document used to regulate laws and rights.. but notice, there are no parts of it that have people saying “oh, well, we don’t apply THAT part”. If a document regulates laws and rights, then ALL of that document has to apply and be accepted by the population as the source of that regulation.

    Believe what you will, but don’t come and impose your fairytale beliefs on others.

    • Here, here. I’ve got nothing against god per se but the cults that have sprung up around the idea is deadly and deluded. The Arts are precisely the place to challenge repressive and inhuman behaviour. Classical music used to be music of the people, let’s take it back.

    • Derek Castle says:

      Mike.E – excellently put! And, of course, all these ‘great’ religions have their own, different books. An Islamic ‘convert’ (we do have a few in Britain) said on TV last Sunday that she wears the face cloth because it’s part of her religion, not her culture. Live and let live, by all means, but if you don’t want to integrate into 21st century Britain, then don’t be surprised if the less tolerant members of society ridicule you for wearing what Dame Anne Leslie (journalist) famously called ‘the full bin bag’.

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