KENNETH FOSTER, director of the Arts Leadership Program, USC Thornton School of Music and Price School of Public Policy.
So, I signed the online petition.
Which petition? The one organized by composer Andrew Rudin urging the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night, which was Sept. 23, to the LGBT people of Russia in protest of that country’s recently approved anti-gay laws.
I’ll confess I don’t usually sign these online petitions, thinking them largely a waste of time. And I had no real expectation that it would have any real impact on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Still, it seemed important to be part of a growing effort to call out Russia for its barbaric laws banning so-called “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships”?
What made the petition particularly relevant – and frankly, intriguing – was that the Met opened its season with the opera “Eugene Onegin,” written by Tchaikovsky, who was gay, a fact that Russia’s cultural officialdom stubbornly denies. Adding to the potency of the event was the production’s superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who supported Putin’s election last year, and its superstar Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev, also a Putin supporter.
Rudin and his supporters targeted the opening with protests, both inside and outside the opera house. The haute bourgeoisie were not amused.
Peter Gelb, general director of the Met, in a stunning example of cultural noblesse oblige, wrote an insert in the program that deplored “the tyranny of Russia’s new anti-gay laws” but asserted that, “… as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.”
Anthony Tomasini, in his review of the performance in the New York Times, echoed Gelb’s sentiment. “It has been terrible to see the rights of gay people in Russia trampled upon,” the critic wrote. “Still, to make the Met the target of this call for action seems not entirely fair.”
Not entirely fair? I’ll tell you what’s not entirely fair. Not entirely fair is being beaten, imprisoned, tortured and even killed for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in Russia. Not entirely fair are the scenes of mob violence that attend gay gatherings in Russia as police stand by and watch thugs beating up peaceful demonstrators because they are gay. Not entirely fair are the gut-wrenching decisions that are even now being made by gay athletes who have to choose between being fully, comfortably and safely who they are or competing in the Olympic games for which you have trained all their life.
I’m picking on the Met not only because of its condescending attitude toward the petition and the cause it embraces. I also am troubled because the opera company’s response is symptomatic of a broader belief in the arts world: that somehow art should be removed from life – or as it is usually stated – removed from politics.
This pervasive belief has contributed to making the arts largely irrelevant to most people in this country. But why shouldn’t they be indifferent when arts leaders take an “above it all” stance when confronted with these vital issues of contemporary life? The National Endowment of the Arts will soon release its latest statistics on arts participation in the U.S., and the preliminary word is that opera is showing the largest percentage falloff in attendance of any art form. I wonder why.
The irony is that opera at its best is fully and profoundly engaged with the deeply human issues that matter to all of us. The Met had an opportunity to be a leader in what is shaping up to be a worldwide campaign to shame the Russians into rescinding their new anti-LGBT laws. That it chose to skirt the issue is a revealing response, especially potent for all the gay men and women who have created and supported opera for decades.
Art is — and should be — a vital part of every person’s life and being. But vitality requires deep and committed engagement not just on the part of audiences but also on the part of artists and production companies.
If arts organizations, including the Met, are not willing to be there for us when we most need them, then they cannot be surprised when we are not there for them, when they most need us.