Yesterday Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera wrote for Bloomberg:
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.
You can read the rest of his argument for not designating the opening gala for Onegin as an occasion to support LGBT people in light of Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation. While reading it I was overtaken by a sense of misplaced propriety by Mr Gelb and also made me wonder what arts bodies like the Met should stand for.
I don’t think arts organisations can be operating like social zombies…happy to hoover public funding but not keen to fulfill a social function. In the world of North American opera Houses the funders are the gods of the circuit. But what do they buy by giving millions to an opera house…a glitzy gala and access privileges or do they also castrate the ability of the organisation to have ideals and to pursuit them?
An organisation of the global reputation and reach of the Met Opera has more responsibility than smaller houses to set an example. The world of opera cannot afford to be seen in total removal from the reality. The real world is meant to be reflected in its work, outreach and education is part of it but also it should be brave enough to have moral values and to stand by them regardless of what the fat wallets have to say.
Life is political by definition (Aristotle defined it as being part of the Polis, the ancient Greek word for city. Being a citizen one is a political being) and art reflecting life should ideally have an engagement with what means to be human and to be ready to fight for gross injustice and inequality. The arts have traditionally been a fertile field for shady governments to find a fig leaf to cover their dehumanising policies and use artists as the disseminators of propaganda. In a democratic country like the US it is puzzling to me why Mr Gelb will post an open letter essentially presenting the Met Opera as a sympathetic but crucially inert behemoth. Many will say the anti-gay agenda is only part of Putin’s pursuit of his own people and neighbouring nations, which is understandable. My main protest against the Met is its happiness to be seen as a political blank slate. A company that has nothing to say with its work to a world audience, a brain-dead showbiz establishment with no social nous.
Art and artists have found ingenious ways to protest against oppression over the years. Due to the funding basis of the Met being largely private I can understand Mr Gelb wanting to please them by being seen to skirt controversy. But running a major institution can at times be a testing and political business. I was proud when British art establishments from National Museums to the Royal Opera House came together to fight the imminent budget cuts by an unsympathetic government and not sit and wait for it to happen with fatalistic abandon. If arts institutions don’t have anything to say about our wider environment and life they become a fossil, perpetuating emptiness and pushing themselves into a niche of irrelevance and deference.
Please do go and sign the petition on here which has reached over 9.116 signatories already.
Tonight’s opening gala for Onegin at the Met Opera and despite the management’s numb reaction. Has the potential to be a watershed moment, I hope a lot of the patrons present will wear the rainbow ribbons to show support for the campaign. What is more worrying is that Valery Gergev who is a close ally of President Putin has not deemed the campaign worthy of a statement in the New York Times or any other publication to date. His silence becoming more of a puzzle as the days go past.
A good recent example of applying political pressure are those two blog posts on the Royal Opera House website encouraging direct action across the country to make the government take notice:
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