Protested Met Opera Gala Ends on Happy Note

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The Metropolitan Opera has been surrounded by months of mounting tension as its opening production of Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin has become a vehicle for protest of Russia's anti-gay laws. Those tensions finally flared Monday in a colorful protest outside the theater and a brief disruption at the start of the opening night performance.

Gay New Jersey-based composer Andrew Rudin initiated the protest by creating an online petition six weeks ago that called for the Met to dedicate its opening night gala to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in response to a gay crackdown in Russia. The opera's Russian composer, Peter I. Tchaikovsky was a homosexual active in the 19th century. Two of the stars of the Met's current production are Russians who have significant political ties to Putin. By Monday night, the petition had garnered close to 10,000 signatures.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Rudin said he came away satisfied that both the Met and the protestors got what they wanted.

"Every single thing that mentions this Met opening mentions what happened there," Rudin said. "I especially loved the last line of Anthony Tommasini's review in the New York Times this morning: 'After the performance, the cast appeared on the outdoor balcony overlooking the plaza where the outdoor audience remained to applause. The protesters were gone. The issues they raised remain'."

Every concertgoer found a message from General Manager Peter Gelb folded inside the program. The message was a printout of his message published on Bloomberg over the weekend titled Why the Met Won't Bow to Protest of Anti-Gay Law, refusing the challenge thrown down by the petition. The note pointedly acknowledges that Tchaikovsky was gay and further states:

We stand against the significant human rights abuses that take place every day in many countries. But as an arts institution, the Met is not the appropriate vehicle for waging nightly battles against the social injustices of the world.

We respect the right of activists to picket our opening night and we realize that we've provided them with a platform to further raise awareness about serious human rights issues abroad.

"I don't know whether they thought they were being confrontational or if it was just brilliant," Rudin said, bursting into a laugh. "He managed to dedicate the opening night by saying why he wasn't dedicating the opening night!"

TheStreet was instrumental in raising awareness of the petition, publishing an interview with Rudin soon after the petition appeared and when it had gained only 200 signatures. In the following week, that number shot up to close to 2,000, attracting interest from other major news outlets around the world.

Rudin credited the many who stepped in to support the effort, making his role more one of coordination, "following up the leads and making sure anybody who was interested got the information they wanted," he said.

On Monday night, the gathering of protestors included a broad range of people, Rudin said, from crazily costumed to those in plain clothes, some with disabilities, many waving signs. Activist group Queer Nation stepped in to help organize the protest and played an important role, Rudin said, calling the group "amazing."

"They knew how to take the ball and run with it, they know how to not cross over the line," he said. "I was so nervous when I got on the train to go over there. I've never done anything like this before. Frankly I didn't know what would happen."

Rudin arrived early and found the plaza pretty much empty of any signs of a protest.

"It got to be 5 minutes to 5 and nobody was there and I thought oh my, is this going to fizzle? And then all of a sudden this thing materialized, almost like a party."

The protest -- including individuals who showed up on their own along with those brought by Queer Nation -- numbered about 50, Rudin estimated. "I've seen estimates that were higher and some that were lower, but that's my guess."

Once the large rainbow banner was unfurled, the crowd drew the attention of casual concertgoers on the plaza, "as if someone had just titled the plaza toward us," Rudin said.

"The audience came to us even though we were across the street. They saw this huge banner and chanting."

The group moved to the sidewalk at the foot of the plaza and continued the protest. Police set up a metal fence barricade to keep the protestors' activity contained.

Inside the concert hall, after the national anthem and before the production started, a few protestors shouted at the stage, briefly disrupting the hall. The cries singled out the silence of the Russian stars, Valery Gergiev who conducted the performance, and Anna Netrebko, who sang the soprano lead. Neither star has commented directly on Putin or the anti-gay laws, although Netrebko has said she personally "will never discriminate against anyone."

Four people were escorted out of the hall by security officers, according to news reports.

"It really didn't disrupt the performance," Rudin said. "After the national anthem they made their statement and they were ushered out."

The rest of the evening was a typical night at the opera. The production itself received mixed reviews. But the message of the protest was driven home.

"The people on the stage need to know that you can't bring that stuff here," Rudin said. "There was a sign: 'homophobia is not welcome in America'."

The irony of staging a protest here over laws in Russia, where such a protest would not be permitted, was not lost on the composer.

"If anything makes me happy about my country it's that," he said. "We assembled so freely so easily and we did our business. And then we disappeared into the night.

"In Russia we'd have been beaten up."

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York

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