Petition for Met LGBT Gala Gains Ground

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- After attracting the attention of major news outlets, a petition asking the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its season opening gala to the world's gay and lesbian community, as a counter measure to strict antigay laws enacted in Russia, could easily pass 10,000 signatures before the Sept. 23 gala.

An interview I had with its author, New Jersey composer Andrew Rudin, was published in an article on TheStreet Aug. 2. At that time, the petition was just beginning to gain notice on Facebook ( FB), and had just over 200 signatures. By Aug. 5, it had broken 1,000. By the time the New York Times published its article Aug. 20, the total had grown to over 3,000.

At last check 8 a.m. Friday, the petition had close to 7,000. To put that in perspective, the opera house seats about 3,800.

The Met and one of the Russian opera stars involved in the performance have both issued tepid responses that have left signers of the petition unsatisfied. In addition to the New York Times, most of the world's media outlets have picked up the story, including NPR, the LA Times and others. Rudin posted on Facebook Thursday that he has had interviews with Radio Free Europe, German Public Radio and CBS News as well.

Homosexuality has been legal in Russia since 1993, but circumstances for LGBT people have been worsening in recent years. Gay pride parades and other pro-LGBT demonstrations had been outlawed in several cities, with the official reasoning being to prevent mob attacks on gay people.

In June and July of 2013, Putin's administration enacted laws barring 1.) the adoption of children by same sex couples living in countries that recognize gay marriage and 2.) the dissemination of gay "propaganda," which apparently includes any open displays of support for LGBT people. The stated purpose of these laws is the protection of children. Homosexuality is widely viewed in Russia as a moral corruption by external influences. In particular, the Russian Orthodox Church views gay rights as literally a sign of the apocalypse.

In outlawing displays of support for LGBT people, legislators used language that equates homosexuality and pedophilia and says that making homosexuality attractive or equating it with heterosexuality undermines the sovereign integrity of the state. Even arguments for sexual preference equality in a court of law can be punished. Violations of the "propaganda" law may involve fines, jail time of up to two weeks and, for foreigners, deportation.

The laws have caused an international outcry, not the least because they seem to have further demonized gays in the public mind and increased violence against them.

The Met Enters, Stage Left

As the result of a programming decision made, in all likelihood, years ago, the Metropolitan Opera finds itself unwittingly and increasingly a focus of that anger.

Two Russian stars, soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev, publicly supported Vladimir Putin in his reelection to the presidency in 2012. They, in turn, have won favor from his administration, notably with the May opening of the Marinsky II, a $700 million St. Petersburg facility that likely could not have come into being without governmental support. Gergiev is the artistic director of the Marinsky Theater complex and Netrebko is one of its major stars. Putin was in the audience at the gala opening night performance.

The crackdown on gays no doubt took Netrebko and Gergiev by surprise and has left them in a political no-man's land, unable to speak out because of their ties to Putin on the one hand and to the international opera world, including the Met, on the other. The opera world contains many openly gay people and is fluidly international. It is expected that these laws will affect the entire opera community as it travels between the U.S., Europe, Asia and Russia.

By coincidence, the 2013-14 Metropolitan Opera season will commence with Eugene Onegin by the great 19th century Russian Peter I. Tchaikovsky, one of the most famous homosexual composers in the classical repertoire. Gergiev, a respected master of the Russian literature, will conduct. Netrebko, the reigning queen of the world's great operatic divas, will play the lead female role.

There you have it: With the spotlight already on Russia's antigay crackdown, a work by a celebrated homosexual Russian composer is launching the Met's new season, with two pro-Putin Russian stars onstage surrounded by many gay co-stars, musicians and crew, in a country that has recently become a leader in social equality for gays.

Fittingly, for opera, the irony is larger than life.

While Gergiev has remained silent on the issue, Netrebko, to her credit, has posted a tempered statement on her Facebook page, with no mention of Russia.
As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues -- regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.

If the antigay crackdown sounds decidedly Stalin-esque, Netrebko's indirect response likewise imitates the coded language reminiscent of Cold War-era protests, stopping short of direct criticism of the state policy.

Feeling the pressure of the rising call to take action, the Metropolitan Opera also issued a noncommittal statement, if somewhat more direct, quoted in the New York Times article:
As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad. But since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause.

The Met has also said it supports its artists "whether or not they wish to publicly express their personal political opinions."

Granted, the Met petition is only one small piece of the uproar caused by Russia's antigay policies. As I pointed out in my initial article, more pressure will likely come from athletes and sponsors of the Winter Olympics, to be held in February in Sochi, Russia. (The Russians' latest assurances, announced Thursday, that the "gay propaganda" law will not affect visiting athletes are being touted by the International Olympic Committee, but are being dismissed or eyed with skepticism pretty much everywhere else.)

But the Met is a powerful symbol, representing international relationships in a way that few cultural institutions other than the Olympics can. The repertoire, the cast, the support, the entire economic model of the big-league opera world, of which the Met is the acknowledged center, is dependent on international cooperation and respect.

In that light, the Met's claim of political neutrality rings hollow. We live in a political world and, regardless of profession, we sometimes need to take a political stand as a result.

On the other side, some voices have claimed protest can do no good, since it would either be ignored or play into Putin's domestic political hand, making him appear a strong leader standing up to Western decadence. To my ear, those arguments also sound like apologies for doing nothing when doing something would be definitely better. Russian society is not immune to international pressure.

Peter Gelb, artistic director of the Met, is quoted at the end of the New York Times article as saying that the petition's supporters are "barking up the wrong tree" by targeting the opera house.

"The Met has been a champion of L.G.B.T. art," he said.

True enough. The petition focuses on the Met in some respect because of its longstanding embrace of the LGBT community. But right now that commitment, and its commitment to the opera world as a whole, needs defending.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson

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