'Boo!' to the Metropolitan Opera

An excerpt from On the Future of Wagnerism first published on Huffington Post, 10/22/13.

As already noted, the situation of human rights abuses of gays in Russia is not only very serious but seriously redolent of the early period of Nazi laws and persecutions of Jews. As with the situation in World War II, we look to our leading arts institutions and artists for help, for support. Let's look at the Metropolitan Opera and what is and isn't happening there. It's now well-known that there was significant gay protest surrounding the Met's opening-night production of Eugene Onegin, starring leading Russian soprano Anna Netrebko under leading Russian conductor Valery Gergiev. The Met was asked to dedicate the opening in protest of Putin's anti-gay policies, which it politely declined to do, pleading decorum. If the Met were to officially sanction this protest, so the argument went, the floodgates would open for any and all other protests. (Sound familiar? If gays were allowed to be married, we were told, it would open the floodgates to incest, polygamy and bestiality. Gay marriage would set the stage for people to marry their pets.) The Met, it was affirmed, is an artistic, not a political, institution. If this were Nazi Germany, would the Met be making these same arguments? It's to the Met's considerable credit that, by and large, that did not happen during World War II. But how it would respond today is worth pondering, especially in light of its current reticence. Already we can begin to identify the Schwarzkopfs and von Karajans among us.

This protest of the Met was reasonably well-covered by openly gay music critic Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times (in the wake of an earlier article by Zachary Woolfe noting the controversies ahead of opening night), so notoriously lagging in its coverage of pressing human rights issues in the past, including the early Nazi persecutions of Jews and the early period of AIDS. At the first international conference on AIDS in Atlanta in 1985, I asked New York Times science writer Lawrence K. Altman why the Times wasn't covering AIDS more and better. His response? "We're not an advocacy journal." This time, for the Met's opening-night protest, the New York Times was there. But was that coverage, and the Met's response to this protest, adequate?

In my opinion, the answer to that is no. While it's a comparatively positive development that the whole controversy was not ignored altogether, as it would have been a generation ago, the Met said no to anything more than tepid, kid-gloves acknowledgment of the protest, making an antiseptic statement of neutrality. If you tried hard, you could interpret one or two of managing director Peter Gelb's phrases as veering toward thoughtful and sympathetic. But where was/is the statement by Gelb on behalf of the Metropolitan Opera of protest to his Russian artists, to the Russians themselves? Following opening night, the subject was dropped, both by the Met and The New York Times. (Here's a question for the Met broadcast intermission feature, Opera Quiz: How many of the Met's heavily gay staff participated in the demonstration outside the Met on opening night: many, few or none?)

Subsequently, I attended the cinema HD performance of the Met's coarse, unimaginative Onegin and was appalled to discover that the subject was not broached, not by reigning Wagner soprano Deborah Voigt, who conducted the intermission interviews, nor by any of those she spoke with, including Netrebko, Gergiev, and Gelb. The spectacle of knowing the reality of Tchaikovsky, who was hounded for his homosexuality---however active, ostensibly self-accepting and socially "tolerated"---and witnessing this cowardly silence was heartsickening, because I realized that in this silence and evasion was passive collaboration in what's happening in Russia now. Amidst the otherwise numbingly superficial commentary, no one mentioned that Tchaikovsky was gay, or that Russia is trying to eradicate that information, as it always has, by ignoring it. It's not so surprising when you consider how disconnected Voigt, Gergiev, Gelb and other Met Ring cycle participants have been from the controversies surrounding Wagner. Has Voigt ever uttered a thoughtful word on the composer whose works she's devoted her last 20 years to singing? Is her thinking about Wagner as rote and bland as her performances became?

The time has come for us gays to realize that we have been under a very big illusion, not only that we matter, but that we are really important within the world of opera. How wrong we were/are! This is a big subject, but my first inklings of all this emerged many years ago via my acquaintanceships with leading music critics, among them Richard Dyer, Peter G. Davis (both close friends in those years) and Martin Bernheimer, many of them closeted gay men who were too intimidated, self-hating and self-absorbed to come out in print or consider gay issues and perspectives. As Dale Harris entitled his Opera News rejoinder when I and others accused these critics of not dealing with Tchaikovsky's being gay, "Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer." The overwhelmingly pertinent observation to be made about Tchaikovsky, in other words, was that he and his music were Russian, not "gay." So insignificant was the gay perspective held to be as to continue to be unworthy of discussion or even mention. Harris died from complications of AIDS in 1996.

A similar awareness came to me via my appreciation of Maria Callas. Although gay people have been conspicuously involved with her, as fans, as chroniclers, as directors, the reality of Callas is that I don't think she ever expressed one public word about gay people, our lives, our struggles, just as I doubt she ever uttered a critical or regretful word about the Nazi occupation of Greece that cradled her early career. Did that bother the likes of her closest friends who were gay, like directors Franco Zeffirelli (an ultraconservative!), Luchino Visconti or Pier Paolo Passolini, or Dallas Morning Star critic John Ardoin? If so, they certainly never said so publicly. Rather, Callas was forgiven for everything because, as Ardoin wrote me, she was "a very self-absorbed artist." Vissi d'arte. Art über alles.

And what of the silence of the Met's biggest-of-all star, James Levine, regarding the Russian situation? Despite persistent rumors that he might be gay, Levine has never uttered one public word on the subject of gay people or, for that matter, anything else political, not in the past, not now. In any case, isn't it rather disconcerting that one of the most powerful figures in the history of American music has not found some way to say something about his most preeminent colleagues' support of the perpetrator of anti-gay policies, the policies themselves, or the safety of Met, American, Russian and other musicians and artists, to say nothing of music and opera lovers, ordinary citizens, in Russia? Is it really conscionable to remain silent when some of your biggest fans can now, under current Russian law, be fired, beaten to a pulp, jailed or killed if they intentionally or inadvertently say or do something "pro-gay"?

Again, where are the statements of dismay and protest from the Metropolitan Opera and its leaders about what's happening in Russia? From Opera News? Where are the statements from other musical and arts associations? From our critics? Apart from Tommasini's and Woolfe's coverage, critics predictably ignored this controversy, writing their usual superficial performance reviews, disagreeing with each other about this or that detail of acting, singing or staging, in what openly gay playwright William M. Hoffman, co-creator with openly gay composer John Corigliano of 1991's Ghosts of Versailles, has called "fairies' basketball." Hoffman, my close friend in those years, shared my interest and dismay in art and artists who were collaborators in Nazi Germany. He once suggested to me that Capriccio, Richard Strauss' last opera, should be split-staged with slow-motion scenes of Auschwitz on one side of the stage with the "action" of the opera on the other. (Capriccio, which had its premiere in 1942 in Munich, is possibly the wordiest opera ever penned; there's almost no action.)

Levine has been through a lot. He now conducts under considerable physical duress from a wheelchair. Is it fair to call him on his silence on Russia? Shouldn't he be allowed to just be the great conductor he is and otherwise left alone? To me, the answer to the question of whether Levine should not be judged for his ivory tower isolation as an artist is no, even if here in America, he is entirely within his rights to do so, and even if the histories of art, music and opera are dominated by artists who have made similar choices.

And what of Gergiev and Netrebko, both of whom claim reticence re Russian anti-gay policies in deference to their art? For starters, what is all this Russian presence at the Met all about, anyway? For years I think we've all felt intrigued and grateful to have such abundant post -perestroika/glasnost exposure to Russian art and artists, to have some of the great works in the operatic repertoire, a number of them rarely performed outside Russia, become more accessible, and in authentically Russian performances. Exchanges and alliances with such treasure-trove institutions as the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg have been dreams come true. I've certainly treasured a number of Russian nights at the Met. But has it gone too far?

Anna Netrebko is a good singer who is musical and attractive and has a measure of stage presence. Alas, she has never been anything more than that. She's proficient and appealing, sufficiently so that it doesn't strain credibility that she's become a staple at the Met, even if nothing she's done places her in the same league as the greatest interpreters of the roles she's sung. The Met is a big business. It has to consider availability, casting and scheduling, and Netrebko has shown herself to be a valued professional. OK, but three Met opening nights and new productions in a row? Netrebko's superstar status at the Met is simply not supportable, unless there's some behind-the-scenes angle to it that we don't know. The same is true of Gergiev. He's a good conductor and a valued professional. But he's not in the ranks of the greatest conductors, not even the second-greatest that Levine belongs to. Would the Met suffer great loss without these resources? Behind the scenes, is this dominant Russian presence at the Met part of some strategy of detente? To what extent might the Met's budget and artistic planning be affected by more explicit dissociation from Putin and his policies? What would be the losses versus the gains, in other words, of a bolder level of confrontation between the Metropolitan Opera and its Russian partners? Whatever one's views of all this, I, for one, would greatly appreciate having updated information and perspective on the current state of relationships between the Metropolitan Opera and the Russian artists and institutions it has been so in bed with.

Whatever the complexity and value of those relationships (and coincidentally as we approach Halloween), a big "boo!" is in order for the Metropolitan Opera: to James Levine, Anna Netrebko, Valery Gergiev and Deborah Voigt, and of course the man they all answer to, Peter Gelb (son of Arthur Gelb, the managing editor of The New York Times in the 1970s, the heyday of its homophobic indifference to gay liberation events, issues and concerns), for their cowardly reticence and silence in these most pressing of times, for squandering precious opportunities to speak out, for putting their heilige kunst above the lives of opera's lifeblood: its gay people. Boo!

But let's end on a higher note: "Bravissima!" to Joyce DiDonato for being among the first musical/operatic superstars, along with Cher, to decline an invitation to appear in Russia, in protest of Russia's anti-gay laws. Postscript to Elton John: Are you still planning to appear in Russia, with the same logic that you performed at Rush Limbaugh's wedding (coincidentally earning $1 million for that gig), arguing that since you're known to be gay, your efforts can help gay people? If so, shame on you! It's not enough to just dress like Cher, Elton, even on the eve of Halloween. You would do a lot better to have her heart, courage and integrity, the very things missing from the Metropolitan Opera's opening night Eugene Onegin and its response to Putin's anti-gay onslaught in Russia.