The Metropolitan Opera’s season-opening production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin on 23 September was disrupted briefly by a lone protester urging the house and its cast to take a public stand against Russia’s repression of homosexuals.
As the house lights dimmed, a man in the gallery shouted a protest against Russia’s ‘war on gays’ and urged soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev, Russians performing at the gala event, to speak out. Security guards escorted the man, and four other protesters in other parts of the house, from the auditorium. Outside the building, gay rights protesters had mounted a picket.
Composer Andrew Rudinn had launched a petition urging the Met to make the opening night gala a protest against the new Russian law banning ‘propaganda on non-traditional sexual relationships’. Met general manager Peter Gelb issued a statement before the gala explaining why he had refused the request.
‘I think it is important that the public understands why the Met is not dedicating its performance to the oppressed gay citizens of Russia, even though we’re being pressured to do so,’ he said in the statement to Bloomberg news bureau.
‘The activists argue that since Tchaikovsky was gay and our performance features several Russian artists who have been associated with Vladimir Putin, the Met must turn our performance into a public rebuke of Russia and, by association, the Russian performers on our stage. While I’m confident that many members of our company join me in personally deploring the tyranny of Russia’s new anti-gay laws, we’re also opposed to the laws of the 76 countries that go even further than Russia in the outright criminalisation of homosexuality.
‘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. Over the course of our nine-month season, artists from dozens of different countries ‒ some with poor human rights records ‒ will be performing at the Met. If we were to devote tonight’s performance to Russian injustice, how could we possibly stop there?
‘Throughout its distinguished 129-year history, the Met has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause, no matter how important or just. Our messaging has always been through art.
‘However, we’re engaged when it comes to social advocacy inside the Met. Through the choice of our LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] rainbow of artists and staff, the Met has long been at the forefront of championing sexual and social equality within our company. We leave it to our artists to integrate their own ideas about society and politics into the work they create for our stage.
‘We respect the right of activists to picket our opening night and we realise that we’ve provided them with a platform to further raise awareness about serious human rights issues abroad. As they watch our performance on the giant screen on the facade of the opera house, we hope that they will be moved by Tchaikovsky’s soaring melodies and telling drama.
‘Although Russia may officially be in denial about Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, we’re not. The Met is proud to present Russia’s great gay composer. That is a message, in itself.’