An Orthodox Russian laments the loss of opera freedom

An Orthodox Russian laments the loss of opera freedom


norman lebrecht

April 02, 2015

The following commentary is by Slipped Disc correspondent, Varvara Turova:


There was a director who made an opera production. A cleric noticed a poster. He took a dislike to it and went to court. He sued Kulyabin, who had staged the show, and the director of the theatre Mezdrich for offending his religious feelings.

In Russia there’s a law which prohibits “insulting religious beliefs”. There’s no one securing the beliefs of atheists, or theatre directors, or those revolted by what’s going on in the country: knee-deep in war and corruption, disgraced by the horrid squalor that old people are thrown into. These feelings aren’t secured by anything. Unlike those of religious Orthodox believers: they are cherished as a precious gem.

Many of the people who belong to artistic circles of Russia have joined efforts to fight for a director’s right to create whatever show he pleases; the right for freedom in general. Actors and critics, directors and musicians, heads of theaters have been writing multiple open letters united by one simple message: art is the realm of freedom. There was one person though, one of the very few theatre people, who publicly condemned Kulyabin’s production, subjecting it to aggressive and malicious criticism without even watching it.



His name is Kekhman, and he is the director of the Mikhailovsky theatre in St Petersburg, known for being an entrepreneur, a banana importer and the holder of numerous awards from the Russian Orthodox Church. The case was stopped by the court. However, after a few days the theatre director Mezdrich was dismissed, and the person who was appointed to succeed him was no other than Kekhman.

This move stifles all liberty, all vibrance, the audacity of artistic statement, replacing this with flagrant mediocrity: atrocious, vile, shamelessly toadying with the powerful. It’s rumored that the decision to fire Mezdrich was made inside Vladimir Putin’s office. I have no evidence to prove it. Nor do I doubt that it is true. But what’s really dismaying is the reaction of the majority.

People who work in theaters (such as the Bolshoi) have been making statements like “blasphemy is so wrong”, completely missing one simple point: they’re next. Everyone is. Because all things have to be made safe, standard, lifeless. On the day Vladimir Kekhman arrived in Novosibirsk accompanied by Aristarkhov, the deputy culture minister, in the airport Mezdrich was told he had been fired. They had not even bothered to tell him beforehand. Not even to be civil. There was a “standing prayer” in front of the theatre that day.

I’m an orthodox Christian. And I will never concede that these people have anything to do with either me or my religion. Some people who joined the “standing prayer” were actually those who participated in the production. The trouble is not that people are being deprived of freedom. It’s that people welcome and contribute to the freedom being taken away from them.

(c) Varvara Turova, Actress, Musician


  • John Borstlap says:

    Incredible story, but not a surprising one, alas. A majority in Russia seems to be led, by a cynical regime, to the primitive society which created so much suffering in the past ages.

    However, the story also raises the question of how free art should be. There does not exist something like ‘total freedom’, because the very word has only meaning in combination with the words ‘from’ and ‘to’, and this applies to any territory.

    It seems fully legitimate to protect a paying audience from tasteless, superficial, puerile or incompetent presentation of works of art, a form of professional discipline which reigns at concert platforms but does not seem to extend to visual presentations of opera productions, where professionalism in the pit often lurks in gloomy contradiction to absurdist stage presentation meant to ‘shock’ a ‘bourgeois’ audience which has expired already long ago. Also, much contemporary music performances, as for instance at the Darmstadt Summer Courses (widely marketed as presentation platforms for the newest music), are offensive to any cultured person with a residu of musical awareness. Here, ‘artistic freedom’ can be translated as ‘freedom from any aesthetic constraint’, a freedom which is entirely self-destructive. And there are many more possible examples.

    So, ‘artistic freedom’ is a relative notion, depending upon context and intention. In former times, which were much less ‘free times’ in the modern sense, artists were able to transcend limitations applied from outside (specified commissions, cultural expectations) and the inside (limitations of style and tradition), and the tensions between existing structures and individual intention formed a fertive ground for creation. For instance, if Beethoven had not to struggle with the limitations of the classical style, he would not have been able to infuse his music with so much individual expression and intensity. How different that was from the thoughtless ‘artistic freedoms’ being preached in our own times, which hardly leave great works in their wake.

    • Anonne says:

      “How different that was from the thoughtless ‘artistic freedoms’ being preached in our own times, which hardly leave great works in their wake.”

      This kind of comment is counterproductive in the argument initiated by Varvara Turova. There are plenty fora for discussing aesthetic differences, tastes, etc. — on these very pages I constantly read posts decrying conductors either too committed or not committed enough to new music, and on the varying merits of said music. Chacun a son gout. If you don’t like minimalism, skip a Glass concert. If you are fed up with the Fifth, skip the Beethoven night and wait for some Stockhausen.

      Religious freedom, and the taking of offence, are huge controversies in modern western society, and the right way to deal with these matters is a daily struggle in far wider fora than the concert and opera stages of the world. They must be addressed if people are to live without fear of prejudice, as must the ability to differentiate between interpretation, satire, etc. and prejudice or hate speech. And what is good for one religion must not be overlooked for others — maybe the matter wants to be walked back the other way round. For whatever reason — largely the historical maturity and tolerance of the group in question, and its ability to allow a certain amount of criticism, humour and other interpretation over the years — Christianity seems to be seen as a safe target for any sort of offence anyone wants to hand out while the cartoon is a hanging (or worse) offence elsewhere. Maybe there is an outer boundary. Whatever, it would profit all engaged in this subject to park their musical preferences at the door.

      • John Borstlap says:

        If it is about freedom, contemporary global culture with information spilling all over the place is the worst possible context for such a discussion. People will go protesting on the streets and burn Christian monasteries in the east when in the west a silly magazine freely publishes tasteless mohamed cartoons, etc. etc.

    • Mayakovsky Headache says:

      Who decides what is “tasteless, superficial, puerile or incompetent presentation of works of art”? Should the Rusian government (which a critic might also call tasteless, superficial, puerile and incompetent – or at least hugely corrupt and amoral), have the right to rule on artistic issues and install dubious businessmen at the head of artistic institutions in order to make sure that the output conforms to what the government deems ‘acceptable’?

      So much great art was dismissed as tasteless by the mediocre critics of its day. If you don’t like something, don’t go to see it. You can’t pre-emptively censor everything because it offends your personal aesthetic, religious or artistic tastes. I’ve spent years studying the reception of jazz in the Third Reich – respectfully, I have read most of the arguments you make (for example: “Here, ‘artistic freedom’ can be translated as ‘freedom from any aesthetic constraint’, a freedom which is entirely self-destructive”)in various National Socialist music journals. And jazz is now considered a great art form in its own right.

      Your argument that great art thrives under the setting of limitations amounts to nothing other than a defence of censorship. The fact that living under a totalitarian regime has inspired some great art in its time (Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita would be unthinkable without the Stalinist purges) should not, I think, amount to a justification of those regimes.