Thursday, 8 August 2013

Onegin as tool?

Updating last week's argument, which began with hero Desmond Tutu and ended up at the Met,  I draw your attention to a petition set up by 75 year old composer (Charles) Andrew Rudin. Its title quickly clarifies: 'The Metropolitan Opera: Dedicate 9/23 Opening Gala to support of LGTB [don't we usually say LGBT?] people.'

The reason? The deep irony that the opera is Eugene Onegin by that not exactly closeted, but hardly 'out and proud' composer Tchaikovsky*, due to feature Anna Netrebko as Tatyana and Valery Gergiev as conductor, two artists who have explicitly lent their support to Putin's campaign.

Should they be forced into the position of decrying their leader now that he has unquestionably gone too far and taken a leaf out of Hitler's rulebook? That's a difficult one, but asserting their support for the LGBT community worldwide might release them from explicitly condemning their friend and supporter. Should they be dis-engaged if they don't speak up? No, of course not. But in that instance it would be up to the individual whether to go to their performances or buy their CDs if they carry on remaining silent. Each person must make his or her choice, but imperatives - as I wrote, paraphrasing QE2 in Gloriana, 'the word MUST is never to be used to Princes' - won't get us anywhere. Come to think of it, Deborah Warner, whose oddly anodyne production this is, might be in a better position to say something.

Working on an article for Kasper Holten's much more vivid (to me, at any rate) Royal Opera production of Eugene Onegin earlier this year (scene above with Krasimira Stoyanova, Peter Rose, Simon Keenlyside and a recumbent Pavol Breslik by Bill Cooper), I came across an essay in the annual Bard publication, in this instance devoted to Tchaikovsky and his world - I think it might have been by Alexander Poznansky, whose refutation of suspicions about the composer's sudden end I don't entirely buy - giving me more chapter and verse on Tchaikovsky's attitude to his gayness than I'd seen before. I'm indebted it to it for these lines following the usual report on the composer's decision to marry Antonina Milyukova:

Pyotr Ilyich certainly had no intentions of fighting his nature. Of Modest’s charge, the eight year old deaf mute Kolya Konradi, he would no doubt have gone no further than to admit that he ‘adore[d] him passionately’ and to write to the boy ‘ I kiss you warmly 1,000, 000, 000 times’. But he continued to have (buy?) sex with the likes of a high-school student in Vienna and a coachman on a friend’s country estate which he described as ‘nothing but a homosexual bordello’. He told Modest that he could not think of his loyal manservant Alyosha Sofronov ‘without being sexually aroused…[his] boots I would feel happy to clean all my life long’. In January 1877 he fell in love – admittedly without the wish or the hope for consummation - with the coquettish 21 year old violinist Josef Kotek [pictured with the composer up top] and remained so during the whole affaire Milyukova; Kotek was even one of the two witnesses at the wedding [official photo below].

Amazing how much we have come to know. Of course the whole confusion over Kolya and later over his nephew Vladimir 'Bob' Davydov brings in the horrid equation of homosexuality with pederasty: exactly the sort of grim muddying of the waters in which Putin's laws are currently revelling. But then, as Stephen Fry points out in a passionate polemic I've already eulogised, if you were to even bring up any of the above in the Russia of today, you could find yourself in jail. Enough; I feel my blood pressure rising even as I think about it. Action is what we need, and quickly.

I must note one funny thing that's happened since I started blogging about all this: the number of weekly Russian pageviews which had hovered for ages between the 200-300 mark has dropped to about 20. Now I only noticed the original figures because they seemed rather high - bots, possibly, thought I - but now it's the sudden drop which seems weird. But it's easy to get paranoid about these things.

Let's end, though, with the consolation of Tchaikovsky. The story behind the performer gets us into muddy waters again, I'm afraid; if I understand aright, Russian law helped Pletnev get out of a sticky situation when rape charges were brought against him by the family of a teenage boy in Thailand, where he was living at the time. As a performer, he stopped being welcome in the UK, though not in France, where I heard him conduct a typically inconsistent performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. His pianism has always been on a higher, if still sometimes maddening level; I'm sorry to hear he's stopped playing. Anyway, here he is in the Kremlin with the 12 miniatures that make up Tchaikovsky's The Seasons (properly The Months). If you want to indulge in elegy, try the June Barcarolle at 15m40s or the October 'Autumn Song'  at 27m20s.

(9/8) I've just read here on the Limelight site that Gidon Kremer has enlisted his great long-term collaborator Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, inter alia, to give a concert in Berlin on 7 October in support of Russia's jailed or persecuted opposition.

Kremer, too, has made his own observation on Netrebko's and Gergiev's support, which you can read in the link, but no harm in reduplicating it here as it rounds off everything so eloquently:

I don't want to point the finger, but it always upsets me to see talented colleagues more interested in self-promotion than in their art form becoming state delegates rather than artists. I'm highly suspicious of patriotism that identifies itself with the government. An artist, in my opinion, and historically, should be independent.

6/9  Mr Rudin's petition waxes stronger - over 8,000 signatures and 10,000 likely by the time of the Met gala. He also drew my attention to the isolated but magnificent voice, among singers, of Joyce DiDonato, great artist and clearly true Mensch (I guess you can use that word about both sexes). She has written an eloquent blogpost here, telling us that she'll be dedicating her Last Night of the Proms performance of 'Over the rainbow' to 'to all of those brave, valorous gay and lesbian souls whose voices are currently being silenced – either by family, friends, or by their government'. What a woman.

12/9 In response to the Arts Desk piece ('When artists could speak out') and my statement that if only to square my own conscience I wouldn't be attending a Gergiev concert until he says something, a reader responded: 'I’m afraid Mr. Nice is unlikely to be found at one of Gergiev’s concerts anytime soon. Gergiev was asked about it by a Dutch newspaper. Today there was an article about his festival in Rotterdam. He said the law was misunderstood abroad: “In Russia we do everything we can to protect children from paedophiles. This law is not about homosexuality, it targets paedophilia. But I have too busy a schedule to explore this matter in detail.” ' So the heinous confusion between the greatest of crimes and a natural human instinctcontinues here. Nice.

*8/9 Not according to Putin's Russia. Just read this in Private Eye: 'a new state-sponsored film by the director Yuri Arabov presents him [Tchaikovsky], ludicrously but in line with what seems to be official policy, as heterosexual. Attacked for this deception, Arabov has said it's "absolutely not the case" that the composer fancied men, adding: "I am opposed to the discussion of such things, particularly in the arts." Who said the old ways of the Soviet Union were gone?'

And - 18/9 - Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky has jumped on the revisionist bandwagon, commenting on the film: 'There is no evidence that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual'. How many explicit references in the diaries and letters - faked, no doubt - does he want?  

Tom Service has the right idea of how to answer this in today's Guardian: Beethoven made up his deafness to bolster his reputation! Brahms wore fake beards! Britten kept secret his marriages to several women! And so the game goes on. My own contribution: Mahler concocted his Jewishness because as the bored son of a perfect Viennese Catholic bourgeois banker, he wanted to kick against the grain.


Claire Suthren said...

I've signed the petition because the fact it's a Tchaikovsky opera is enough. It seems unfair to assume Gergiev and Netrebko are the slightest bit prejudiced because of general support of Putin.

David said...

I'm sure they're not, Claire - Anna, after all, has done her charity AIDs work as I pointed out in the other post and is apparently a good friend of her co-star in this forthcoming Onegin, the gorgeous Marius Kwiecien. I just think that the phrasing of the petition - an opportunity to celebrate LGBT people around the world - gives them the chance to add their voices without specifically denouncing their leader-friend.

John Gardiner said...

David, I happen to be catching up with Theo Aronson's Prince Eddy and the Homosexual Underworld, recently reissued and, while hardly bringing anything new to what we know about the policing of late Victorian sexuality, done with sympathy a nice lightness of touch. It reminds me of the unfortunate connection made in the 1880s between homosexuality and pederasty, the infamous 1885 Act being designed really to protect underage girls - that is, until Labouchere's amendment, thrown in at the last moment, added all homosexual acts between men. Aronson suggests that pederasty and homosexuality were both seen as symptoms of excessive and therefore 'perverted' sexuality. Given that the law existed until 1967 in England and Wales, and 1980/82 in Scotland and Northern Ireland, you can trace the unfortunate conflation of the two. I remember it when I was growing up in the 1980s and even early 1990s, social attitudes of course not changing the moment laws get passed; no doubt you can remember all this too.

It's very depressing that Russia has these laws in place and that there's no civil rights tradition to challenge them. But then I suppose the Soviet Union always was about 25 years behind the West in terms of living standards - and if we look back 25 years to 1988, there we had Section 28: hardly comparable with Putin's laws but of the same stable. I suppose we can only hope that progress happens, and doesn't take 25 years. How this is best encouraged I'm not sure. As in the West, it probably takes role models, living (if they're brave enough) or dead (without being salacious, let's have more of that gay Tchaikovsky discussed in opera programmes and even hinted at on stage); I'm not certain that Netrebko and Gergiev making a statement would sound anything other than politically correct. Thumbs up, yes, for Marius Kwiecien. I'm looking forward, too, to Yannick Nezet-Seguin's new Tchaikovsky 6 with the Rotterdam Philharmonic on DG.

David said...

Good to hear from you, John. Of course there are plenty of civil rights activists in Russia but their voices are stifled by imprisonment or murder (as in the case of Anna Politkovskaya, on the anniversary of whose death Kremer and co are giving their concert).

The saddest thing of all is that in the anything-goes era of the late 1990s, gay clubs sprang up, if not all over Russia, then certainly in Moscow. But the homophobia remained strong, and the horror is now that it has state licence.

Must read that book - sounds fascinating. Didn't know about YNS's Pathetique, but looking forward hugely to his Prokofiev 5 at the Proms, before which I'm talking.

David Damant said...

Section 28 although deplorable must be seen in the context of the time, when very left wing local authorities were deliberately over-spending ( hitting the country's attempts to sort out the economy and wanting to do so) declaring nuclear free zones, etc - and ramming all sorts of left wing propaganda into schools and libraries. Even a gay might see that they were really out of control on those and many other issues - as I did, but I could see why Section 28 most unfortunately got caught up in all this.

David Damant said...

Poor Russia.... and what a disaster was seen in the revolution of 1917. Despite all the negatives about the rule of an autocratic Emperor, the economy was growing very well before WWI, land reform was going forward, the Duma was becoming representative ( it even had some Bolsheviks ) - and as Nicholas was not a strong Autocrat things would have developed democratically over time. As it was the economy did not recover the level of 1914 until 1927 - soon after which Russia experienced the horrors of Stalin, which ( joined to the distorted economy) cramped intellectual and moral thought for decades. No one could trust anyone except in their very narrow circle. It is hardly surprising, after all this, that primitive ideas are still around in Russia.
BUT there is a rising middle class - or otherwise the educated young people - who think much more like we do in the international community - and not just in the West - the Vietnamese minister of Justice has said that same sex marriages are necessary to avoid discrimination !

Susan Scheid said...

I have signed. At this distance, it's hard for me to evaluate the pressures on artists in Russia and what may or should be expected of them. Kremer's comment is striking--did they feel they must sign on in support of Putin to begin with? How would we compare this with the relationships of Prokofiev and Shostakovich to Stalin's regime? What does seem reasonable, at the least, is for the Met to make a forceful public statement, rather than the weave and dodge I see in the comments to the article to which you link. Perhaps more signatures on the petition can help that to come about, who knows? Meanwhile, perhaps the most eloquent statement so far is the Berlin concert Kremer is putting together.

PS: you probably know by now that Fiona Shaw is now directing the Met Onegin. I wonder what her view will be of all of this.

PPS: re Prokofiev 5 and your talk: will this be available for listening on BBC3 Radio?

David said...

I think you plead Section 28's case overmuch as a staunch Thatcher admirer, Sir David, even if I accept your explanation of what it sprang from. It seemed pernicious at the time and even more so in retrospect.

Encouraging signs have been slowly emerging from unlikely places - some South American countries and India. I didn't hear about Vietnam.

I hadn't heard about Fiona Shaw taking over, Sue. She should liven things up in the production, as she turns out to be a remarkably strong opera director, though so did Warner until this.

Still I think the best statement is Fry's - depending on whether you think we should withdraw altogether from Sochi. I do, since I think otherwise it could turn out to be the same shop window as Stalin presented to GBS and the Fabians. They could suspend the 'foreigners' arrests' clause and then start all over again once it's over.

David Damant said...

The statement from the Vice Minister of Justice in Vietnam, Nguyen Viet Tien, was reported in Le Monde on 3rd May this year:

"Les personnes du meme sexe ont le droit de vivre, de s'aimer, de trouver le bonheur et de se marier"

I like especially "trouver le bonheur"....and somehow in French it is more splendid

I was thirty before gay relationships became legal, so I have seen it all. But, in judging the world, gay issues are not the most important - and if they are to us, well, we are not alone in the world

David said...

A la bonheur, indeed - how splendid. And our friends in Amsterdam have told us how the City Council is orchestrating the display of rainbow flags for Putin's visit. That's the way to do it. May he be smothered in ROYGBIV.

As for your last comment, I don't entirely grasp the tenor, but if you are saying we are not as important in the world as we think we are, then it's back to Tutu: this is on a level with apartheid in South Africa, and anyone who cares about human evolution should be concerned about it, gay or especially gay-friendly or not.

Susan Scheid said...

David, I have read Fry's piece now, which I'm ashamed to say I'd overlooked. You're right. It's powerful and well reasoned, and in a just world, the logic of it should prevail. To David D's point, I think perhaps it's not necessary to rank, but simply always, as best we can, to be on the side of justice. I think of the suffragist movement over here. Suffragists fought hard for justice for African Americans, only to be told, in seeking the right to vote for women (including African American women), that they must wait their turn. The wait was decades long. There is, of course, the practical aspect of "picking your battles" (the marriage equality approach over here is a case in point), but justice is, in the end, indivisible, or, as the song goes None of us are free, if one of us is chained (None of us are free, if one of us is chained).

David said...

As eloquent as S Fry, Sue, though I have to report a certain pique that a supportive comment I contributed to that blog entry four days ago hasn't been de-moderated. Nor have any others, and others there must have been, so why have the facility and let people waste words? There's a 'help' e-address, too, which yielded no answers. So I just maintain the respect, and give up on solidarity.

How true the words of the famous song. And, of course, of the famous mantra with the repeated 'they came for...'s.

David Damant said...

I was trying to say that there are issues other than gay issues and there are other ( wider) considerations which play their part. On the Olympic issue, I probably agree with a comment in the FT today (p4) that Putin has aimed at the widespread Russian electorate, to bypass the urban elite, and that if the Games were withdrawn ( contrary to the lack of such action on Beijing) he will be able yet again through his influence in the media to say that he is defending the values of "ordinary" Russians from the interfering West, and thus consolidate his support. If this is the case it is an argument which over-rides the arguments in favour of boycotting the Games, for then boycotting would make things worse, in many directions. This is an example of "other considerations"

Incidentally I am not a "staunch Thatcher admirer" . I found her personality wearing. But she transformed the economy of this country from one of the worst to one of the best, although her legacy was spent by her successors - to a limited extent by Major but to an enormous extent by Blair and Brown.

Catriona said...

Given the flavour of this thread, I hesitate, as a 'hetty' to mention how well Gergiev's conducting of the RSNO in Alexander Nevsky was received last night in the Usher Hall - at least in the cheap seats!

David said...

Well, I daresay, Catriona, but as the piece makes clear with the Kremer/Argerich/Barenboim stand - and likewise Tutu's mentioned in the previous one - 'hetties' can (and should, though I hesitate to say 'must') have an opinion on all this.

The last Nevsky I heard from Gergiev live, RPO I think, was a bit of a mess. They'd had no rehearsal and the beginning of the concert was delayed by 15 minutes as the 'Maestro' was for some reason still in his hotel suite over the river...

Susan Scheid said...

Responding to David D: I take your point and have a rather long-winded question for you in response: The "gay" card has often been played in US elections for reasons that I think are not dissimilar to those you describe, and the debate over strategy in response similar as well. I agree that there are always complexities to consider particular to each case--and therefore that my analogy here is necessarily imperfect--but when I take the long view of how change on gay issues has occurred in the US, it seems to me that the arguments in the Putin case are in favor of protesting injustice forcefully, and that remaining silent or trying to compromise (I think of Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell", or the separate but equal doctrine on race) only cloud the issues and make the path yet more arduous for achieving a just result. So, if a boycott of the Olympics is the wrong strategy, the question for me would be, what strategy of protest would be better to achieve a just result?

David, we were talking about this further on our walk today, and recalled the Niemoller "first they came for" quote, which I thought might be worth quoting here in full:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

David Damant said...

Susan - first with Niemoller. Of course he was right. But that does not mean that in the face of evil, wherever it is seen, one should distance oneself as far as possible from it, and cut off links. No doubt that will give rise to moral satisfaction ( not very admirable). The right approach is to ask - what action will have the best effect?

In the general case, the development of contacts can have the effect of dissolving evil or primitive ideas. The opposite approach of distancing can have the contrary effect. If the 1000 apparatchiks who ruled the former USSR had been corralled by limits on trade etc (and not holding the 1980 Olympics) - that is if the USSR had been constantly rebuffed by the West - would they have elected someone like Gorbachev and presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall? Yes, but later. This is NOT "compromise" - that is the language of those who hold that any contact is a compromise and wrong. That is not a helpful kind of analysis. And on the present Games, as I argue in the comment above, to withdraw these Games might well strengthen Putin's position with "ordinary" Russians. Whereas contacts with the intelligent and educated people who signed in his support will assist in moving their minds in a civilised direction. Then they will influence opinion in Russia in a better direction
Of course politicians especially must guard against getting on with practical things and not taking proper account of human rights. A recent Prime Minister - OK Mrs T - said that in dealing as was necessary with unpleasant regimes she welcomed being reminded of the importance of the human rights dimensions by the various campaigners
Incidentally there is a difference between something that needs changing in one's own democratic country and something in another country such as Russia where we have no influence except persuasion. The question is how to exercise that influence
Certainly "protesting justice forcefully" about Putin's actions is the right approach - and that is what we are seeing from Obama, Cameron, Stephen Fry, and others mentioned in this blog and elsewhere. This is not being " silent"

To finish with Niemoller, his remarks about " I did not speak out " etc were not rhetorical - he had been a supporter of Hitler when he came to power, as were many Germans especially Protestants. Niemoller in these ( of course later)comments implies that the crucial point was earlier, which is quite right. (I have written on why the Germans voted for Hitler, if there is some way to get it to anyone)

Susan, David I feel intellectually anguished by all this, but I always rest on Bertrand Russell's two aims - the pursuit of truth, and the happiness of the human race. I only argue that in pursuing the second one must take account of the first

David said...

Valid points, David, but I had to laugh at Thatcher welcoming 'being reminded of the importance of the human rights dimensions by the various campaigners'. And then she went off and sided with mass murderers like Pinochet anyway.

I can see why so many people voted for Hitler in the first place, but I still wonder at someone with any ounce of intelligence being taken in by the Fuehrer's ludicrous rhetoric in the first place. Even in the early 1930s. Knowing what was around the corner is a different story.

David Damant said...

We feel now in rational Britain that Hitler's rhetoric was ludicrous but that was not how many Germans heard it. As Otto Strasser ( who broke with Hitler before he came to power) said, Hitler's understanding of the human psyche was amazing, and his words went like arrows to the hearts of his listeners. One aspect not usually mentioned is that the German style of public speaking ( not just Hitler's) was to approach the microphone closely and shout. This applied even in the 1970s

David said...

I suppose it's like the change in acting styles. I can never adjust to Johnny G's Hamlet, and even Olivier gives me problems at times. But I don't think anyone with a tendency to the left would have bought most of Hitler's policies even in 1933, do you? Anyway, AH LOOKED ridiculous too.

David Damant said...

Hitler's policies were very well calculated to appeal to the German electorate - bearing in mind all that had happened since 1914. Restore Germany's position and her self respect,build up her power, see off communism and the international reparations, correct the trend to trendy culture etc. These were the crucial things in German minds, The country was in a mess and a strong government was yearned for - and there were authoritarian governments in Estonia Latvia Lithuania Poland Hungary Roumania Italy ( probably others) and in USSR. So a switch from democracy was not a specially German thing, and a right wing party would have been elected even without Hitler

As for Hitler's appearance when speaking or otherwise it was all calculated ( and he never let loose an unconsidered word said one of his ministers) Photos were taken to see what would work best as regards clothes and even the postion of his arms when speaking. He left nothing to chance

Susan Scheid said...

David D: I would love to see your writing on why Germans voted for Hitler. David has my e-mail address, so perhaps that's a route to send it on? Beyond that, I write quickly now and there is so much more to think about, so please forgive, but I wanted to write back while (I hope) David is still available to post this response. So simply this: I had some trepidation in writing again, as much can be lost or misunderstood when the only connection among relative strangers is written form. (Had I a chance to rewrite what I had written, I would have better separated the question to you and the Niemoller, for it was not my thought that your view was that the alternative was silence, but rather a different strategy.) All that said, I hoped for and received a thoughtful, intelligent response from you and welcome this kind of civilized conversation among those with differing perspectives that is so rare, and which David's blog promotes. I am particularly struck, just as a final note, by your distinction between applying pressure internally and externally. (As I thought further on this, I thought of the issues surrounding trade embargoes as a possible analogy.)

David N, So wish you'd been here last night for the Stravinsky to compare notes! (Indeed, I wish mightily that you had been here to give the pre-concert talk. Taruskin BTW was not able to attend, and a last minute pinch-hitter* substituted.)

*Pinch-hitter (substitute batter) is a baseball analogy, I have been prompted to realize—and I don’t even follow baseball! Interesting the way terms like that wend their way into every day language . . .

David Damant said...

I will (later today)send a copy of my talk on why the Germans voted for Hitler to David N so that you or anyone else in touch with him directly can access it.

David is very tolerant in letting a blog about so many beautiful things to be used for issues far removed from beauty. But some issues are central even if they reflect the darker side of human life, and also these other issues sometimes need rather a lot of explanation

Maybe we can meet sometime in London - perhaps David should arrange an annual dinner for his contributors, trouver le bonheur? What can such a group be called? Maybe the Nicean League?

Susan Scheid said...

Well, I can only say I love the idea of a Nicean League (with or without a diphthong) and of course I would embrace the Nicean creed, "Thou shalt not do harm to others." I also look forward to receiving a copy of David D's talk.

Retri Butioner said...

I agree entirely that artists should be independant. Love your CD reviews in BBC Magazine.

I am an indpendent artist, would you like to review a little of my music, and if you and your readers like it, you are welcome to download it for free. Here are some examples.

David said...

Thanks for that, Retri Butioner (over whom, I wonder, does your axe hover?) and well done on the music. As you might have guessed, it's not an area I could assess with any authority, but I hope you find the right listeners.