COMMENTARY: The ‘Hero of Labor,’ the Met Opera Gala, and Sochi

The ‘Hero of Labor,’ the Met Opera Gala, and Sochi (…and for that matter, what WOULD Wilhelm do?)

(oringially published on, Sept. 2013)

Valery Gergiev, with his bulging eyes, perma-stubble, and twitchy-hands-conducting-style (1), is bandied about as the most active musician on the classical circuit and the most conspicuous champion of Russian musical culture; he is also one of the highest paid (2) classical musicians in the world and is without a doubt the industry’s most powerful persona. He is, in fact, so active, so rich, and so powerful that he doesn’t use email. Ever.

In May, shortly after being named the first recipient of Russia’s long-defunct-Stalin-era-recently-revived-by-Putin-specifically-to-honor-Gergiev-himself Hero of Labor Prize (3), Gergiev unveiled the $750 million theater known as “Mariinky II” in St. Petersburg. Closer to the Queen Mary 2 than the Matrix 2, the Mariinsky II is the most expensive concert hall in recent memory, coming in a solid quarter billion more than Beijing’s National Performing Arts Center (“The Egg”) (4), and is possibly the most expensive performing arts center built since New York’s Lincoln Center (which, in 1964, had a price tag of a little over a billion dollars by today’s currency).

I don’t mean to be callous, discussing personal stature and price tags when rights are at stake (and they are certainly at stake); my point, rather, is that even though the US Government has long since abandoned the idea of “art” as at all meaningful within “American culture” (which, correct me if I’m wrong here, said abandonment came long before the now-realized Orwellian dream of total surveillance was even being dreamed, and sometime shortly after rumors started to leak about the CIA embedding secret messages in Pollack paintings (5)) and focusing instead on military and economic hegemony, other parts of the world seem to have continued to value their homegrown art and culture, as evidenced by relatively heavy investment in artistic infrastructure. Did I mention that both Mariinsky II and The Egg were entirely government funded? So even though it sounds laughably absurd to assert that such a thing exists as a “powerful classical musician,” there he is…swirling his fingers in front of every major orchestra the world over, creating the most compelling recordings of Russian repertoire, coaxing jewels from the pockets of the former-KGB-proto-Tsar, and throwing down his trump card in an arms race of cultural opulence.

(And yes, I’m a huge fan of his work.)

In September, Gergiev will lead the Metropolitan Opera’s Season Opening Gala (6), a performance of Eugene Onegin by (famously-gay-Russian) Tchaikovsky. A few months and a couple hundred conducting engagements later, Gergiev will be an Ambassador at Sochi (7).

So two things:

1.) Gergiev is conducting an opera by a gay Russian composer in New York City at a moment when we are particularly incensed by Russia’s position on gay culture/human rights, especially in light of Russia’s impending hosting of what we all used to consider and-mostly-still-want-to-consider the largest summit of international culture and good will…


2.) in a stunningly rare moment of Platonic coming-togetherness between athletes and musicians, Gergiev is going to be an incredibly high profile representative of Russian culture at said summit…even, dare I say, a symbol thereof.

But exactly what do these two things have to do with each other? This is precisely what I pondered when I saw the online petition (8) urging the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its Gala to the cause of LGBT people. How would such an act actually help the cause of homosexual oppression in Russia? And really, except for the common denominator of Gergiev, what does the Met Opera have to do with the Olympics? Even in economic terms, the Met’s $350 million annual budget is a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated worth of the IOC (9). It initially strikes me as a rather hollow and inconsequential gesture. Because, of course, the Met COULD make such a dedication, and Gergiev COULD still perform at the Gala…the dedication coming, after all, not at HIS urging. And, further, since the performance is taking place in that land-of-questionable- (questioning?) -morality that is New York, could even Putin really hold it against him? These programs are decided two to three years in advance. Who could have seen this current hubbub coming? And they just opened that incredible theater…wouldn’t it look bad for Putin to turn around and reprimand the recipient of the recently revitalized Hero of Labor prize? It seems too easy for all involved simply to slouch off…

…which, coincidentally, is exactly what the Metropolitan Opera did, taking a proactive stance and beating everybody else to the slouching (10) with the worst kind of “But some of my best friends are gay!” response they could have offered when the petition came to their attention. With only 1700 signatures on the petition (ie: a mere 47% of the Met’s seating capacity on any one given night), why on earth would they decide go to the trouble of making such a pathetic and drively public statement?

At some point while pondering these sundry, baffling conundrums, two things happened: 1.) I read Stephen Fry’s moving open letter (11) advocating a boycott of the Olympics and then also read fellow-Quire-contributor Jonathan Wolffman’s equally thoughtful and compelling anti-Olympic-boycott article (12), and 2.) I took a few minutes and scanned through the video of the Grand Opening Gala of Mariinsky II (13) from May 2, 2013.

33 minutes into the intensely Russian spectacle, following a rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria by a choir of 200 Russian cherubs, singing from a four-story-tall stage set reproduction of the interior of Mariinsky the First, out steps the most infamous of operatic anti-heroes, the Macbeth of Russian Tsardom, Boris Godunov. Yes. 33 minutes into the most conspicuous celebration of high Russian culture, there he is, standing in the replica Tsar’s Box of Mariinsky I on the real stage of Mariinsky II. There he is, bells a clamor around him, the courtier and secret police agent to Ivan the Terrible who would later ascend to the throne (sound familiar?), instigate the creation of Russian serfdom and leave Russia in the “Time of Troubles.” There he is, a symbol of the despot that was staring at the regime that is, the very regime that funded his presence on this magnificent stage.

Granted, it would be odd to overlook the musical contributions of Mussorgsky in the course of such a celebration, but they could have turned just as easily to his heroic Great Gate of Kiev. Could the invocation of Boris at this moment go over the heads of anybody? Could it be that Putin was informed ahead of time of what would be included in this performance, and that was perhaps part of the reason he chose a pair of oddly demur orchestra seats instead of seats in the Tsar’s…err…the “VIP” box of the new Mariinsky II?

A moment before Boris steps out on stage, the camera cuts to Gergiev. He is applauding. His lips are pursed. He casts a sideways glance intentionally away from the camera. (Is he shielding a thought?) He takes a deep breath. He wipes his nose.

I watched this sequence over and over again looking for subtle clues. I compared it with other sequences of Gergiev pausing between numbers. I want to believe, in that moment, that Gergiev has seized the grandest stage in Russia, that he grabbed the spotlight from the star of the show (the star being Mariinsky II) to offer a fleeting and subtle but deeply meaningful cultural critique. I want to believe he is a conspirator. I want to believe that there is an understanding. I want to believe that the same tacit understanding that allows gay teenagers to be brutally beaten under a “propaganda law” put in place to “protect children” exists here, in this moment, in this theater. I want to believe that this is as far as Gergiev and the Mariinsky programmers could go in accepting the boon to culture and creation that a close association with Putin has provided (the same unsettling closeness that has allowed the creation of so many of the greatest artistic wonders in the history of humanity), while still managing to criticize the regime in a way that would be lost on nobody who is paying attention. (And did I mention that later in the program Anna Netrebko sang an excerpt from Lady Macbeth?)

Which brings me to Wilhelm.

Wilhelm Furtwängler was one of the most prominent conductors of the 20s and 30’s, one of the most prominent advocates of German culture throughout his life, and has remained one of the most influential conductors ever. Because he stayed in Germany throughout the War, he was widely accused throughout his life of being a Nazi sympathizer, though history has long since revealed just how deeply and intensely the opposite was true. As it turns out, Furtwängler stayed in Germany precisely because he saw the Nazi regime not just as a threat to Jewish culture, but as a threat to all culture. At his de-Nazification trial, Furtwängler said,

“I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for German music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that German music be preserved, that music be given to the German people by its own musicians. These people, the compatriots of Bach and Beethoven, of Mozart and Schubert, still had to go on living under the control of a regime obsessed with total war. No one who did not live here himself in those days can possibly judge what it was like. Does Thomas Mann really believe that in ‘the Germany of Himmler’ one should not be permitted to play Beethoven? Could he not realize that people never needed more, never yearned more to hear Beethoven and his message of freedom and human love, than precisely these Germans, who had to live under Himmler’s terror? I do not regret having stayed with them.”

I realize it may be hard to stomach a few of the those statements, but listen again, as I turn down the volume on the nationalism:

“I knew Germany was in a terrible crisis; I felt responsible for music, and it was my task to survive this crisis, as much as I could. The concern that my art was misused for propaganda had to yield to the greater concern that music be preserved…”

One of the most remarkable photos I have ever seen dates from 1944 (14). In it, Furtwängler is leaning down from the stage after a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to shake the hand of Adolf Hitler. Hitler is in mid-sieg-heil-salute to Furtwängler, whose own hand hangs down below the salute. The photo damned Furtwängler for many years, damned him who refused to perform in occupied countries, who refused to conduct German national songs, who played concerts for the Hitler Youth because they were the YOUTH, who was in on a conspiracy to kill Hitler, who finally had to flee the Gestapo to Switzerland, who was known among the top brass to assist Jews in fleeing Germany.

In that moment, captured and preserved for generations long after the passing of the regime, I believe there is an understanding, that Furtwängler, standing on the greatest cultural stage of the time and place and publicly slapping Hitler in the face by not returning the Führer’s salute has offered what he perceived to be fleeting and momentary critique infinitely more powerful than a telegram refusing to perform the concert…or performing the same concert from the safety of New York City and dedicating it to the oppressed of Europe. He is doing what he feels he must in the name of art, and doing it boldly.

So back to Gergiev. In an interview following the opening of Mariinsky II, Gergiev said this:

“Russia is seen very often as a country that thinks, but not always deeply enough, and acts maybe not always in the right way. The whole world makes mistakes, Russia included. And the whole world makes good things, thanks God, Russia included.”

(Re: thinking not deeply enough, see eg: the state of Florida.)

With this Gala coming up and Sochi in the near future, what would you do? It may be that the beast has been very good to you, but you are in its belly nonetheless. Would you, perhaps, quietly one evening have a trusted confidant or a lackey of a lackey convey a message to Peter Gelb at the Met Opera suggesting, obliquely perhaps, that the upcoming Met should consider its position on recent human rights causes? And more obliquely suggest perhaps that it might be nice to affirm that position at an upcoming high-profile event, perhaps a gala? Perhaps there is understanding that could be reached…

Because, as we all clearly understand, of course, the Met COULD make such a dedication, and Gergiev COULD still perform at the Gala…the dedication coming, after all, not at HIS urging. And, further, since the performance is taking place in New York City, could even Putin really hold it against him? Because, of course, these programs are decided years in advance and who could have seen all of this hubbub coming?

And after all, it’s not really about Gergiev anyway – Gergiev has all but distilled and re-distilled the idea of himself down into a symbolic shot of vodka at this point, a tin of sardines exported from the Motherland to all the corners of the globe – this has nothing whatsoever to do with Gergiev and the conspicuous centers of cultural power and their proximity to menacing regimes…except that this incredibly powerful and conspicuous man would then go off to Sochi, having recently performed at a Gala dedicated-not-by-him to the cause of LGBT people the world over, and he would lend his image to the grandest summit of culture that is the Olympics, and the machinery of power would take no notice because all is as it should be, but perhaps there, on the largest stage in all the world, some yet-unknown-athlete would be emboldened and would seize the spotlight, would steal the show, would photo-bomb the red carpet (metaphorically speaking) where he-who-could-be-a-modern-Furtwängler just trod, because that is, after all, what they (the athletes) are there to do anyway, to steal shows and loudly and visibly proclaim their beautiful individuality, and in so doing reassure for the rest of us that while government and law may exist to help preserve culture, culture – a culture of engaged individuals – transcends government and law, and perhaps this yet unknown athlete will be caught in a moment to be frozen and replicated for generations long after the regime has passed, caught in the spirit of Jesse Owens and Wilhelm Furtwängler, caught quietly punching Putin below the swastika (metaphorically speaking), and would they dare…could they dare send out the brute squad on international TV?

WritingsNicholas DeMaison