Opera director: ‘This is a genocide of Russian theatre’

Opera director: ‘This is a genocide of Russian theatre’


norman lebrecht

March 30, 2015

The international opera director Dmitry Tcherniakov has written a furious denunciation of the state dismissal of an opera intendant whose Siberian production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser offended local Russian Orthodox bishops.

Tcherniakov, 44, is presently staging Parsifal at the State Opera in Berlin. Here is his response:

dmitry tcherniakov


Let’s say, for the sake of the argument, that there was indeed crime. If so, who is the victim in this particular case? Who suffered a loss? What exactly is that loss? Who, after attending a show at a theatre, will have suffered enough to feel his/her very religious identity threatened? I, frankly, can hardly imagine such a person. I think to claim this is a presumption, a perverse exaggeration. If a person is indeed firm in his/her beliefs, then what kind of a threat a theatre show may pose to those? What can be seen as insulting? If we are talking real, true faith – is it reasonable to believe it can be shaken by anything that happens on a stage, even if the faithful may feel offended by it? For such a faithful sees many an offensive thing in real life, too, things that are unacceptable. But what happens in real life happens, you cannot “correct” it. So why do we think it is possible to correct what happens in theatre?

For theatre aims to tell us everything about the real life, without hiding or embellishing anything. Why do we fail to trust the people – the spectators – with their own judgement, why do we feel it is necessary to question people’s ability to decide for themselves and solve the important questions on their own? Are people non-thinking objects bereft of agency who must be protected and guided?

I can imagine a person humiliated or offended by a real-life direct attack on religious tenets or holy things. But if we are talking theatre and art, you cannot regard the things that happen there as real, it is impossible and improbable. I feel this is some regrettable, shameful, primitive – if not savage – way of appreciating the art. The art, by definition, is not truly real, it is always, so to say, in scare quotes. Art is always placed at a distance; anything may happen there, even truly dreadful things. The same applies to our own thoughts and fantasies. And all three are this way by nature, you cannot correct that!

And then of course all these thoughts have no bearing at all on Timofey Kulyabin’s Tannhäuser. This show is totally outside of any religious discourse – even more so than the original libretto of Richard Wagner. The Novosibirsk show is about something completely different. And if we do try to find something to be offended by in this context, it should rather be Wagner himself as a person. In the words of one of the most respected opera directors of Germany, Peter Konwitschny, Wagner’s Tannhäuser is a story about people’s journey to freedom from the pope and the dogmatic power of the church.

At this very moment I am myself rehearsing another Wagner opera, Parsifal. Why, don’t we know, Wagner himself tells us it depicts religious services, such as communion and Good Friday. But this theology is imaginary, invented, of Wagner’s own creation. And Parsifal is a great work of art that has 130 years of history of performances in all countries and continents. You can interpret it any way you like. Moreover, the religious side of the opera gets very different reactions: some people adore it, some people criticize it, some people are offended by it – exactly because it is a faux religion, it is Wagner’s artifice, not the real thing.


berlin parsifal2

Only yesterday we had a talk during the rehearsals and agreed that rituals in the church cannot be subject to criticism, these things are just taken in whole, accepted without questioning by definition – in stark contrast to a ritual on a stage. The latter will always be appreciated, dissected, discussed – is it well-done, is it well-played, what is the author’s idea etc.

I cannot imagine an artist who makes a work of art, be it a show, a movie, or anything else, with the specific aim to offend anyone. All such “offensive” intents are read into the work by the audience, i.e. by the outsiders. I have worked in theatre long enough, and I can name any number of cases when I myself tried my best to tell people about something I find beautiful. My intentions were always sincere and naïve, I just found myself in a state of certain bliss and wanted to show people some beautiful things.

And then, after all was said and done, I would be shocked, time and again, to hear accusations of my supposed cynicism, malice, denigration, vulgarity, dirtiness and even sabotage. I could never quite grasp where all this comes from, why people have these urges to see insults and conspiracies everywhere they look.
Why so much hate? If we are talking Christianity – is this how a good Christian should behave? If these are Christians, people for whom the faith is a true and deep experience, how could they look at the world this way?

We all know only too well that, in a society, there will always be people who would like to standardize everything, to always point out the mistakes and remind us “how things should be”. Whatever you do, there will be someone who will say that you are wrong, that your view is not the same as his/her view. Yet if such marginal views of a marginal social group are officially adopted as governmental policy, then we are in real danger. It is horrible even to imagine the consequences.

For an attempt to protect the comfort of a couple of hypothetical spectators is in fact an act of destruction of tremendous scale. This, I think, has not been yet fully appreciated in the entirety of its horror. This is an act of treason against our very motherland, and if I sound pathetic, so be it. This is vandalism, an attempt to destroy Russian art as a whole – and do I really have to remind us that Russian art is as valuable as is Russian religion. It is not only valuable – it is one of the few things that we, as Russians, may truly, sincerely be proud of.

Things that are true, new and meaningful do not happen in art any more often than elsewhere, and it would seem natural to expect everybody to help nurture such things, help them grow, protect them.

Yet, alas, the laws of nature, of humanity, of common sense seem to have been abolished in this case. Only too well do I imagine the scale of the psychological injury that Timofey Kulyabin may yet suffer because of this story. And who, might I ask, of those allegedly offended spectators will assume personal responsibility for this? Who will answer for destruction of the fruits of labour of many people who left their heart on the stage, who went through pain and tears in order to accomplish this feat of art? For theatre is a time- and labour-intensive thing, an all-consuming effort that only a few people can truly do.

The events that happen today are nothing short of genocide of Russian theatre! Is this not a crime? Shouldn’t the state prosecute its perpetrators?

Dmitry Tcherniakov


  • Gonout Backson says:

    I can’t remember where I read that Lion Feuchtwanger had been a fervent enthusiast of rhe “communist experience” in Russia until the day he discovered some of his books were censored, or forbidden there.

  • Philip Amos says:

    Tchneriakov’s statement is singularly well-written, goes straight to the heart of the issue, and in the present climate in Russia, more than a little courageous. Just before reading this item, I read a slightly dated one about the statements made by two members of Pussy Riot after they were released from their prisons under a pre-Olympic Games amnesty. They knew exactly why they were released, and they said so plus a great deal more. What needs to be understood is that in these days, the originally Quaker injunction to “Speak Truth to Power” is rare indeed, and in some respects as much so in certain Western ‘democracies’ as in the dictatorships of Russia, Saudi Arbaia, et al. This goes hand-in-hand with how few people seem to have within them the Kantian ‘Moral Imperative’ — simply put, ‘Do the right thing’. I suspect the are more who do have it within them, but everything in our society today — and this I attribute to the infestation of corporatism, and immensely menacing disease that even ails the education system. The crushing of artistic expression is far from the only symptom of this, nor the most serious. It will only be countered if it goes so far that there comes a tipping-point, a moment when a significantly large part of the populace rises up against it. There is no idealism in that, for sudden rebellion against oppression is one of the significant aspects of the historical past. The French Revolution, e.g., began in a year of plenty, not of famine. No one in the England of 1450 expected a near-peasant named Cade to initiate a rebellion against the abuses of the King’s household. I do, indeed, expect just such a happening in the U.S. before too long.

    • Gonout Backson says:

      I wouldn’t hold my breath. Some people have been expecting this (let alone – working for it…) since the day I was born. And that means a loooooong time.

      But it’s nice to see another Russian artist waking up to the reality of the regime.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Once again, the dark night of fascism is always descending on the United States but landing only in Europe.

  • Alexander Brown says:

    It is the age-old problem of all ideologies: the notion that “God is on my side”. That notion is, as history shows, probably the most dangerous of all to civilisation and Man in general. We managed to separate church and State back in the 18th century with the Enlightenment, but it seems that a new Dark Age is returning, not just in other parts of the world, but now in Europe, too. When will we ever, ever learn?

    • Anon says:

      The dark age is coming back, because the power elites has realized, that enlightenment creates difficulties when it comes to manipulating the masses. It is much easier to manipulate unenlightened “religious” masses.

  • Schwefelgezwerg says:

    “Genocide”? Dmitry Tcherniakov is clearly spouting off exalted gibberish!

    Can anyone accurately define the concept of “provocation” which excludes deliberately offending peoples’ religious sensibilities. This cynical provocation appears to be more a calculated publicity stunt, than a legitmate artistic reinterpretation which sheds a new and meaningful light on Wagner’s opera.

    • Alexander Brown says:

      How is putting on an opera composed nearly some 150 years ago “deliberately” offending people’s sensibilities? In any case, who is to define what sensibilities may be offended? The State? Ha!

      • Schwefelgezwerg says:

        Like in every country where the state finances and also enforces laws there is no alternative to the state deciding. Furthermore it is about “how” one puts on a 150 year old opera that is either offensive or not. If the reports are correct about a poster being shown “portraying a man being crucified – reminiscent of Jesus Christ – between the legs of a naked woman” most reasonable people would agree that this constitutes a deliberate provocation of the religious sensibilities of christians for whom the crucifixion of Christ is a profoundly significant moment in the life of Christ which deserves reverance and respect and cannot appropriately be displayed on a vulgar background without expecting a reaction from believers. This is cheap publicity mongering which is unfortunately the new fad in the opera world which is more and more coming under the control of cynical manipulators with more PR-savvy than they have artistic depth and perception.