The Column: Met Opera Protests, Lots of Questions, But One Definite Answer

By James Inverne on Sep 28, 2013 04:29 PM EDT

So the opening night performance of the Metropolitan Opera's 2013-14 season has been disrupted by protesters, angry at President Putin of Russia's anti-homosexuality stance. The reason, as anyone who remotely follows the classical music scene will know, it that the evening's leading lights, conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko, are being put under intense pressure by music fans to decry Putin's measures. They have thus far declined, and as fate would have it, the Met's opener was Evgeny Onegin by Tchaikovsky, who was not only Russian but, most agree, probably gay.

The Met has issued a statement pointing out that as an arts organization they remain steadfastly non-political. Few commentators seem to have a problem with that; they do have a problem with Gergiev and Netrebko's silence.

This is all part of a large, profound question--more than one. What is the role of artists in society? Are the arts, in fact, political? There are no proscribed answers. Sometimes the arts are political--as with Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, dedicated to Napoleon (and then Beethoven changed his mind), or for that matter Arthur Miller's anti-McCarthyist parable, The Crucible--and often not. Sometimes they may appear to be political when that's not the intention--countless classical works were commissioned by kings and other leaders for great events and their own political glory, while their chosen composers were just writing music for music's sake. The opposite is also true. Shakespeare paints the Earl of Richmond as a thoroughly nice chap in his play Richard III, for the greater glory of Richmond's granddaughter and Shakespeare's own monarch, Elisabeth I.

As for artists themselves, some stay above the fray and focus on the continuity of art, some are simply uninterested and others throw themselves into political activities. But when should they say enough is enough and get involved? Why do we expect that of them in the first place? Netrebko is a lovely singer, not a politician. If she has publicly supported Putin in the past, the truth is one needs to, to have a career in Russia these days. On the other hand, Vladimir Ashkenazy and others simply upped sticks and left despotic regimes in Russia in earlier eras. Is Putin as bad now as some of his more ruthless predecessors? Note that I'm making no judgement or statement on the current issue, because I want to focus on what is a recurring challenge, across many issues, for the arts.

There is, surely, one immutable truth. Most of these questions are subject to contexts, sliding scales and even personalities. But even when protests rage outside the doors, and fair enough when they do, that's called free speech, the art itself must be free to be art. People will infer different things from great art in any case--there may be those who saw the very performance of Onegin in New York as an affirmation of a gay Russian's greatness and popularity. The art must speak, it must be hallowed and it must not be interrupted. That's called free speech, as well.

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TagsThe Column, Metropolitan Opera, Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, Vladimir Putin, Valery Gergiev, Anna Netrebko, Beethoven, Eroica, Arthur Miller, The Crucible, Shakespeare, Richard III, Vladimir Ashkenazy

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