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Even Putin can't take the gay out of Tchaikovsky

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This being an arts blog, I try to leave political issues aside, but, sometimes, there's just no way to avoid them. Case in point: The anti-gay laws and sentiments in today's Russia.

The effect of those policies on the arts became all too clear and disturbing this week. It's bad enough to read about the seizure of satirical paintings that target Czar -- oops -- President Putin. The artist, Konstantin Altunin, has already fled to France seeking asylum, according to reports.

What galled me even more, on a personal level, was the news that Russian filmmakers working on a biopic of Tchaikovsky, with some government financial support, plan to give the famed composer a form of posthumous ex-gay therapy.

Rather than risk riling neo-Soviet neanderthals, the people involved in the project, including producer Sabina Yeremeyeva and screenwriter Yuri Arabov, have chosen to alter crucial facts about a great man. Arabov was quoted in The Guardian saying that Tchaikovsky merely suffered form rumors that he was gay.

This development isn't just dispiriting. It's chilling.

You may say I am over-reacting, but what's going on over there reminds me of ways that fascists of the past went about their hideous business of distinguishing between the acceptable and the unacceptable, the lawful and unlawful, the normal and abnormal.

The situation inside Russia has generated plenty of commentary around the world. Specifically on the arts front, one of the most talked-about responses is a petition going around the Internet -- more than 7,000 have signed -- urging the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its season-opening gala performance of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" next month to the support of the LGBT community.

That production will feature soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev, two prominent Russians who are favored by and, from all appearances, supportive of Putin. (The petition suggests that they also support the recently enacted anti-gay laws. That's a stretch, I think. It would be more accurate to say that they have not publicly disagreed with them.)

Not surprisingly, the Met is steering clear of the matter. In an official statement the company "deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad," but finds it "not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause."

Seems to me the news about the Tchaikovsky film adds fresh fuel to that cause. Maybe the Met could reconsider its position slightly, allowing for, say, a silent form of protest and solidarity -- no big statement in the program, no speeches, just giant rainbow flags filling the lobby windows, instead of the usual Chagals.

At a time when most of the civilized world has come to understand that sexual orientation is an innate part of human beings, not a matter of choice, it is simply repugnant to see anyone trying to erase Tchaikovsky's orientation.

His sexuality defined him. True, it challenged him, too, but modern scholarship has revealed a man considerably more at ease with himself than the old tortured image. (The story about his suicide being his noble way out, rather than face "morals" charges, has been pretty well debunked.)

If you're going to alter Tchaikovsky's personality, you might as well do the same for a whole bunch of other notable and gay Russian figures of the past. There certainly is a long, distinguished list, and it's hardly confined to the arts, needless to say.

I don't want to see another film about Tchaikovsky that's anything like Ken Russell's "The Music Lovers" -- a mix of bad taste, over-acting and even worse camp -- but I don't want to see a movie that turns the composer straight, either.

Today's young, slim-fit gays, who are growing up with such things as nondiscrimination policies, domestic partner benefits, and even same-sex marriage, may not have the need for gay heroes.  But for earlier generations, learning about famous people who were gay was a big deal, an important step toward coming to terms with one's own leanings and beginning to feel less alone.

And for many a gay classical music lover, Tchaikovsky was surely the ultimate personal connection. Yes, he experienced heartache and frustration with relationships. What mattered, though, was that Tchaikovsky was true, in his own way, to himself at a time when the risks were enormous.

For all of his mood swings and anxieties, he still functioned -- and managed to leave an indelible mark on Western music.

So hands off Tchaikovsky, you wimpy, myopic Russian filmmakers. You cannot have him, no matter what you do in an effort to protect your own skin and stay on the right side of a government that is so clearly, even tragically wrong. 

Sorry for this rant (I can't be expected to behave every day). As for the video clip, it's a performance by the superb tenor Swedish Nicolai Gedda of one of Tchaikovsky's most eloquent and haunting songs, "Amid the Din of the Ball."

I think it's pretty clear what drew the composer to this particular poem by A. K. Tolstoy. Anyone who ever experienced what it is like to live a closeted life will recognize the layers of extra meaning here:   

In the midst of the noisy ball,
amid the anxious bustle of life,
I caught sight of you,
your face, an enigma.

Only your eyes gazed sadly.
Your divine voice
Sounded like pipes from afar,
Like the dancing waves of the sea.

Your delicate form entranced me,
and your pensiveness,
your sad yet merry laughter,
has permeated my heart since then.

And in the lonely hours of the night,
when I lie down to rest,
I see your pensive eyes,
hear your merry laugh.

And wistfully drifting
into mysterious reveries,
I wonder if I love you,
but it seems that I do.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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