Please Don’t Make Me Burn My Tickets, Mr. Gelb

I’m old enough to remember when people used to talk about Soviet Jewry. Religion, all religions were suppressed in the old Soviet Union. The Soviet Union while fervently anti-zionist, recognized Jews as a nationality – that is they weren’t Russians; Ukrainians, Kazakhs, or anything else no matter where they lived or how they long they lived there. They were Jews, but they weren’t really allowed to express any kind of Jewish identity. In addition to historic anti-semitism, there was institutional anti-semitism and discrimination throughout the Soviet era. I’m sure it’s still no picnic for Jews in Russia now. But back in the 1970’s when Jews were desperately trying to leave but weren’t allowed to, it was a really big deal. There were massive demonstrations in the United States in support of Soviet Jewry, primarily with the message of allowing immigration, as well as ending the policies that led so many Jews to seek it.

In those days, Soviet artists and performers no matter what their nationality were not allowed to freely travel. It was huge when they managed to escape their handlers and “defect” to the West. Imagine that. Leaving your country was “defecting,” proof positive of dissidence. It was historic when dancers like Nureyev or Baryshnikov sought refuge in the West. Sometimes defectors left behind their spouses, even children when they “escaped.” When Soviet performers form official companies made sanctioned visits to the United States, sometimes they were met with protests. But generally when visiting cultural ambassadors were performing in the US, we didn’t expect these captive artists to speak out against any of the heinous policies of their government. We didn’t hold it against them if they seemed to at least tacitly support the regime. What choice did they have?

However, let’s stretch our imagination for a moment. What if if back then, the Soviet Union had allowed some conductor and singer to travel freely, to even reside in another country without losing the right to return to Mother Russia? And what if those “free artists” had made statements in the past supporting their leaders? Now imagine a new “crackdown” on the Jews, new laws being passed that make it a crime to even speak about a Jewish identity, new semi-sanctioned pogroms. What if these artists didn’t even speak against that? Didn’t announce that they could not support those policies? What if one of them made a statement saying she did not personally discriminate against anyone including Jews, a statement in which she didn’t directly reference the crackdown or the specific policies of her government at all. Would she have gotten a pass? What kind of pressure would have been put on cultural institutions in the West sponsoring those artists?

Wouldn’t there have been protests? Talks of a boycott? While people might still give the artists sort of a pass in that maybe they weren’t completely free, maybe there would be some kind of retribution if they spoke out, wouldn’t US venues in which they were performing go out of their way to distance themselves from the policies? Not to stand against their visiting artists, but to simply stand with Soviet Jewry? Would that have even been considered “politics” or just human decency?

So why is it different if its gays and lesbians getting beat up and not Jews? Why is it different when it’s laws being passed that would make it illegal to even talk about gay rights or the full humanity of gay people rather than policies that kept Jews out of certain fields and didn’t allow them even the freedom to serve matzoh on Passover or express themselves as Jews?

I get that supporting a corrupt despot like Putin does not necessarily mean you support all of his policies, but neither Netrebko nor Guiliev have stated they don’t, or weighed in on the recent laws other than Netrebko’s statement, which is ambiguous at best. Maybe they don’t support those particular policies “personally” but are afraid of the consequences of speaking out. Damn it, I do not want to boycott Eugene Onegin. Nor do I want to go and boo performers for not having the courage or conviction to speak out though it would be nice if they did.

I want to go and I want to see Netrebko sing her heart out. I want it to be glorious and cathartic, but I don’t want to feel that by even showing up, I have tacitly supported oppression.

I bought my tickets to Eugene Onegin months ago, and they aren’t returnable. My empty seat would only be a symbolic. They aren’t tickets to the opening night, but to a performance weeks from that. I am still crossing my fingers that the Met will take action, but if it doesn’t, and enough people just don’t show up on any given night, does anyone get the message?  Or is my empty seat merely a simple way for me to at least refuse to go along?

If the Met as an institution doesn’t do something to make it clear that it supports human rights and its patrons support human rights, if the Met doesn’t speak out not only for itself as an institution, but for and with its ticket holders and donors, if it doesn’t make clear — with more than a press release – that “we” love opera, we appreciate your artistry, but we don’t support the anti-human rights, oppressive policies of Putin or anyone else, then maybe I will be standing outside burning my tickets and inviting others to do so, even if it’s only a symbol, and maybe I won’t be alone.

(Comments are welcome.The best way to “like” this post is to buy a book or at least look at one.)