A production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin has caused a controversy over Russia's anti-gay laws. But should art get involved in politics? Jason Farago reports.

Earlier this month an interviewer asked Vladimir Putin about Russia’s draconian crackdown on the rights of gays and lesbians, who have suffered violent reprisals since the passage of a discriminatory law this May. Putin defended the law, but insisted he had no problems with gay people – and chose a surprising example to prove it. “They say that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a homosexual,” the Russian president said. “Truth be told, we don’t love him because of that, but he was a great musician, and we all love his music. So what?”

It’s a tiny comfort to hear that the composer of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker doesn’t meet with presidential condemnation. But Tchaikovsky – who wrote to his brother about his “cursed buggermania”, and who fell so in love with his own nephew that he dedicated his aching 6th Symphony to him – has become, in his own way, a victim of Russia’s new suppressions. A biopic of Tchaikovsky’s life that’s currently in production presents the composer as a heartbroken straight man. According to a reporter for Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, an earlier draft of the screenplay acknowledged his love for men, but the film’s screenwriter now says that “only philistines” believe the overwhelming evidence of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality.

And in New York, Tchaikovsky is at the centre of another controversy. On 23 September, the Metropolitan Opera launches its new season with a gala premiere of Eugene Onegin, the composer’s greatest opera. Opera companies plan their schedules years in advance, of course, but now the Met finds itself mounting a production by a gay Russian composer, featuring two noted Putin supporters. Anna Netrebko, the soprano singing Tatiana, endorsed Putin’s return to the presidency last year; Valery Gergiev, who’ll be conducting, is an even bigger Putin fan.

A chorus of disapproval

A storm has arisen, and more than 7,500 people have signed an online petition calling on the Met to dedicate its opening night gala of Eugene Onegin to the cause of LGBT rights. The petition hasn’t succeeded, but it’s had an impact all the same. Netrebko, who is headlining her third consecutive Met opening night (and who can count Putin as a fan), posted this mild but welcome note on Facebook: “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.”

But Gergiev has kept quieter. The conductor is a committed Putinite; he speaks of the president as a new Peter the Great, and his relationship with him made it possible to build the massive new Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg that opened this year. Gergiev, who is now the richest musician in Russia of any genre, is not retiring about his patriotism. He played a concert to celebrate Russia’s brutal military campaign in South Ossetia. He spoke in favour of the decision to imprison Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist rock band. This May Putin presented him with a recently revived Soviet-era prize, the Hero of Labour award; and he is also an ‘ambassador’ for next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, which are facing concerted protests.

Should artists be held responsible for their governments’ actions? It’d be absurd for every American singer or painter to have to answer for their country’s NSA spying program or gun laws. Nor should Chinese artists have to speak out in favour of Tibetan rights before they get a hearing abroad. Yet art is not some pure territory uninfected by ideology, and some artists, due to both their personal activities and their artistic inclinations, deserve special scrutiny. Gergiev is a tireless advocate of the Russian repertory: at the Met alone he has led revelatory performances of Prokofiev’s War and Peace and The Gambler, which had never been heard in New York before. Still, I’m glad that Gergiev’s intimacy with the Putin government is getting more attention. We shouldn’t allow his artistic gifts to excuse his political sympathies any more than we do with Wilhelm Furtwängler, the Nazi who was probably the greatest Wagner conductor ever.

Mission impossible?

A thornier question remains, though. What should the Met do? What responsibilities does the Met, as an arts organization, have to global gay rights and to the political realm more generally? In rejecting the online petition, which garnered the signatures of several major figures at the Met, the house’s general manager Peter Gelb deployed a ‘some-of-my-best-friends-are-gay’ defence to sidestep any awkwardness. “The Met is proud of its history as a creative base for LGBT singers, conductors, directors, designers, and choreographers,” the statement said. “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.”

But an artistic mission has never precluded political engagement. Quite the opposite: arts organisations get involved with politics all the time, and so they should. Nobody thought it was inappropriate when museums worldwide agitated for the freedom of Ai Weiwei, the imprisoned Chinese artist, in 2011; Tate Modern in London even wrote ‘RELEASE AI WEIWEI’ in giant letters on its façade. The Schaubühne in Berlin, perhaps the most important theatre in Europe today, produces plays alongside an intelligent and aggressive public lecture series called Streitraum, or ‘conflict room’, in which artists and scholars regularly condemn the Merkel government’s economic and political policies. Several opera companies, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, publish magazines that engage with political events; when the Munich house mounted a production of Boris Godunov this spring, it used the occasion to speak out in support of Pussy Riot. (All of these institutions, I’d add, receive government funding.)

The Met could take any of these routes. It could also devote the intermission features of its highly popular HD broadcasts or radio simulcasts to a discussion of Russia’s gay crackdown. Yet the Met has no artistic director who can lead the house towards political engagement, and the American model of arts funding – which leaves institutions dependent on ultra-wealthy benefactors who may not relish a political fight – means change is unlikely.

There is, though, one salutary effect of the brouhaha around the Met’s Onegin: at least it has called public attention to the homosexuality of Tchaikovsky, who like so many great Russian cultural figures – Nikolai Gogol and Sergei Diaghilev come to mind – would face arrest or worse in contemporary Moscow or St Petersburg. His love and longing cannot be erased from his music; it’s right there, fundamental to the work. One person who understood that was Anthony Minghella, the late British director whose thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley utilises Eugene Onegin in a key scene. Matt Damon’s conman Ripley, after killing his beloved Dickie, played by Jude Law, goes to see Onegin at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome. And as Tchaikovsky’s music swells, and two male singers stare at each other in passion and anger, the camera cuts to Ripley with tears streaming down his face.

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