THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
February 12, 2015
The Whiff of a New Blacklist
by James Panero
Recent protests at the Met Opera and Carnegie Hall signal a new turn in the relationship between art and politics.
With his ties to Vladimir Putin , the government patron and old acquaintance ultimately behind his St. Petersburg-based Mariinsky Theatre, conductor Valery Gergiev has become, for some, a proxy figure representing the anti-Western turns of the Russian state, both in human rights and geopolitics. These tensions first took center stage in 2013. Following Mr. Putin’s suppression of gay rights, protesters lined up outside Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House with signs that read “Gergiev Choose: U.S. Dollars or Putin’s ‘Morals.’” Inside, just as Mr. Gergiev raised his hands to conduct, they shouted him down, yelling “Valery, your silence is killing Russian gays!” Performances were halted until security could remove the disrupters.
With the 2014 Russian incursion into Crimea, Ukrainian sympathizers have joined the chorus of dissent. The Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili publicly declined Mr. Gergiev’s invitation to perform in St. Petersburg while also indicting Western audiences for supporting his music. At the premiere of “Iolanta” at the Met two weeks ago, a Boston-based, pro-Ukrainian protester even leapt onto the stage at curtain call with a banner depicting Mr. Gergiev, the Russian headline soprano Anna Netrebko, and a Hitler-inspired image of Mr. Putin with the slogan “Active Contributors to Putin’s War Against Ukraine, Free Savchenko” (after the parliamentarian and former Ukrainian officer imprisoned by Russia in 2014).
Protesters shouting down concertgoers; musicians silenced by hecklers; agitators taking the stages of our performances. All this represents a new turn in the relationship between arts and politics. There’s even the whiff of a new blacklist. At the continuing picket line outside the Met, protesters are distributing fliers that accuse Mr. Gergiev and Ms. Netrebko of using “their artistic standing to support and promote war and aggression... We call upon the institutions to review their policies and to consider appropriateness of allowing vocal supporters of aggression to perform on their stages.”
Current events have now claimed a front seat on the culture, and it’s time to stop them at the gate. Let’s put aside the obvious security threats that political agitation can pose to audiences and performers: It was in a Moscow theater in 2002, we should remember, that Chechen militants left 130 people dead. In 1987, members of a radical group known as the Jewish Defense League pleaded guilty to a series of bombings that targeted Russian performers as they toured the U.S., including the firebombing of a stage door of Avery Fisher Hall and releasing tear gas into the audience at the Met, an attack that hospitalized 20 people.
A banner today may be a weapon tomorrow. Concert houses clearly need to do more to keep us safe, and the Met has since increased security for subsequent performances of “Iolanta,” which have proceeded without incident. But more than that, they must speak up more forcefully for the integrity of the arts and its performers outside of politics. As Russian-American relations continue to deteriorate, it may be tempting for those of us who are justifiably critical of Mr. Putin to join the protests. But by blacklisting artists over not professing the right beliefs, the only guaranteed victim is the art itself. Moreover, such censorship is bad policy toward the causes we might hope to advance.
Mr. Gergiev’s response to such interruptions has been to focus more intensely on his music. “I cannot comment. It’s a silly, silly new invention, silly, ugly, what else can I say here?” he said as he boarded a flight south to conduct in Florida. “People come to the concert hall, the opera house. They are searching for beauty, for a very exceptional journey with the artists. They want to hear great music played well, sung well, staged well. I think that’s all they expect.”
And that’s the point. During the Cold War, when both tensions and the stakes were even higher, culture was used as a bridge, not a wedge. Between 1958 and 1988, 50,000 Soviet citizens visited the U.S. through our initiatives of cultural exchange. While some Americans at the time feared this Soviet influence, Oleg Kalugin, then a KGB general, later said such exchanges were a “Trojan Horse” within the Soviet Union. As Soviet performers brought their Western stories back to Russia, “They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system. They kept infecting more and more people over the years.”
Today, no Russian figure promotes cross-cultural exchange more than Mr. Gergiev. Last month, he brought 300 members of his Mariinsky Theatre, which included over 75 musicians, 50 chorus members, and just as many dancers, to a residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and various appearances in Chapel Hill, N.C.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Palm Beach, Naples and Miami, Fla.; and Washington, interspersed with his own conducting for the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He had a role in bringing “Iolanta” and “Bluebeard’s Castle,” the new Tchaikovsky-Bartók double bill, to the Met in partnership with the Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera. Tens of thousands of people will see him conduct during this latest American tour, which Mr. Gergiev notes marks his 25th anniversary performing in the U.S.
And the conductor is also responsible for promoting cultural exchange back in Russia. In June, he will helm the next Tchaikovsky Competition, the same international contest that Van Cliburn, an American pianist, famously won at the height of the Cold War in 1958. Today, “big countries like the U.S. and Russia are sending competitors,” says Mr. Gergiev, “but also smaller countries like Georgia, Uzbekistan, Armenia. Last time, an Armenian cellist took gold. Armenian. It’s not a huge country, as you know. It was a surprise.”
What unites all of these initiatives is great music. Two weeks ago, I was at Carnegie Hall as Mr. Gergiev led his Mariinsky Orchestra through Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4. Despite vocal protests outside, it went off without interruption. In fact, after a gripping hourlong performance that sounded like an approaching subway train, he held the packed audience in silence for nearly a minute before the house erupted in applause. “Symphony No. 4 requires concentration. The audience was really good,” he told me. “This symphony, somehow, naturally, goes to some mysterious world, which cannot be interrupted.”
Exactly. Such music deserves to be heard for what it is. Most of us still understand this is possible only by putting differences aside in the communion of a concert hall.