Today we continue reading Lyttenburgh’s opus togther. And with my belated apologies to Lyttenburgh for losing my self-control yesterday, when I rudely inserted my own rant into his. In my own defense: I have endured in stoic silence all these dreadful re-stagings of classic operas, but the murderous rage has been building up in me for a long time. Well, what can I say, I finally exploded! It was bound to happen, and I feel responsible in a way, that you all had to be there to witness this ugliness.
On the brighter side: What a coincidence, that Lyttenburgh addresses that very issue in today’s installment! Which he begins with the routine mangling of yet another classic opera, in this case Wagner’s masterpiece Tannhäuser. And, since we have been working our way down through the various levels of Hell, it transpires, that none other than our Wayward Minstrel of Love is the spark — Russians would say the iskra which set off this much-delayed firestorm. In other words, Dear Readers, we are almost there. Just buckle your seat-belts and hang on, the ride is still bumpy!
Hence, without further a-do or a-did, I will turn the mic back over to Lyttenburgh to continuing working us all up into a froth of righteous rage. To be turned into a massive Army of the Embittered Philistines; and launched in the general direction against the Russian Kreakl Intelligentsia, it goes without saying.
На сцену выходит Петраков-Горбунов, хочет что-то сказать, но икает. Его начинает рвать. Он уходит. Выходит Притыкин.
Притыкин: Уважаемый Петраков-Горбунов должен сооб… (Его рвет, и он убегает).
Макаров: Егор… (Макарова рвет. Он убегает.)
Серпухов: Чтобы не быть… (Его рвет, он убегает).
Курова: Я была бы… (Ее рвет, она убегает).
Выходит маленькая девочка.
Маленькая девочка: Папа просил передать вам всем, что «театр закрывается. Нас всех тошнит.»
– Даниил Хармс, сборник “Случаи” (1939).
yalensis translation into English:
An Unsuccessful Play. Onto the stage strides Petrakov-Gorbunov, he starts to say something, but hiccups. He starts to throw up. He leaves. Pritykin walks out onto the tage. Pritykin: Respected Petrakov-Gorbunov wishes to inform…. (he starts to throw up and runs off). Makarov walks out onto the stage. Makarov: Egor… (Makarov starts to throw up, he dashes off.) Serpukhov walks out on the stage. Serpukhov: In order not to be… (he starts to throw up, he runs away). Kurova comes out on the stage. Kurova: I would have… (she starts to throw up, she dashes off). A little girl walks out onto the stage. Little Girl: Papa asked me to tell all of you that the theater has been closed. We are all feeling quite sick. Curtain comes down.
Daniil Kharms, Collected Works, 1939
Previous chapters served to provide some sort of exposition, to set up the stage and introduce the main sides of the conflict. With this done, the laws of the genre (and palpable tensions and contradictions obvious to anyone) dictate one thing – an explosion of the conflict, which affects all the participants while changing them forever.
This explosion did happen – but nearly a year and a half before Konstantin Raikin’s speech and present day heated arguments, which in fact are the fruits of this earlier scandal.
When nearly a year ago I read yalensis amazing article about MET’s production of this staple Wagnerian opera, there were no bounds to my amazement and relief. It turns out, that in prestigious, respectable and world-famous opera house you still can stage operas which look like, well, “operas”! I confess that when I read “Tannhäuser ” in the very first sentence of that review, a dreadful sinking feeling of despair overcame me – and it was all thanks to the way how I (and many, many other Russians) was first introduced to that immortal classic back then.
Back in late 2014, a screenwriter and director of Novosibirsk Opera theatre (state owned and funded, naturally) Timofey Kulyabin envisioned a brand new project – a “[post]modern” interpretation and production of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”. In interviews and in private conversations Kulyabin stated outright, that two topics still remain most forbidden and scandalous in society – the Holocaust and religion. But because introducing any bold and whimsical interpretation of the Shoah would surely brand any kreakl as unhandshakable person in the worthy circles, he opted to focus on the present day’s all-time favorite acceptable punching bag of “thinking” persons claiming to represent the common European civilization – i.e. Christianity. So, with the blessing of Novosibirsk Opera’s theatre artistic-director Boris Mezdrich (a self-professed atheist), Kulyabin rushed to expose the spectators to his Vision. It was, I remind you, the same time, when the Ministry of Culture released its “Fundamentals of the State Cultural Policy”. Both the art-director and his young prodigy Kulyabin didn’t heed its words, if they read them at all.
If they were hoping for scandal – they got it. In Kulyabin’s version of the opera, Tannhäuser is a modern day film director, who arrives at the film fest with his movie exposing the “hidden truth” about Jesus Christ, who is having a jolly good time (on stage, in full view of the spectators) with half naked guys and gals. Another major difference from the original – there is no Redemption and Forgiveness for Tannhäuser in this version of the opera. Oh, and there was a poster of a crucified Christ on the backdrop of a vagina on stage . And its reproduction as the ads posters at the theatre’s entrance – which quite a lot of people had a chance to see.
The production of this audibly impeccable and visually revolting opera robbed the very limited theatrical budget of 12.5 million rubles – which is not that big a sum, compared to Moscow where the average production costs about 20 millions, but for the Novosibirsk theatre, it was a lot. All “actors” involved in the lengthy orgy scene were in fact not Novosibirsk opera’s regulars – and a lot of them were in fact foreigners.
Throughout February of 2015 this “feast of the spirit” was on stage, gathering accolades from the forward thinking critics and causing a significant measure of dismay of the clergy and religious people. Naturally, the latter opposed such a wildly post-modern interpretation and accused their opponents of offending their religious sensitivities (a “hate-speech” offense, punishable in accordance with Russian legislation). People of Novosibirsk were rallying against the opera, gathering as many as 3000 protesters. While counter-protesters defending the “freedom of expression” of Kulyabin and Mezdrich’s Vision were few and far between on the streets, but most numerous and active in the safe-spaces of the social media, jeering and deriding the religious bydlo for having such “medieval” standards of culture.
Public Backlash vs Pubic Backlash
Paradoxically enough, while the People were not silent anymore, it was the Ministry of Culture which tried at first to avoid any commentary or actions regarding the scandal. Even with the supposedly “unhandshakable” and despised by the intelligentsia Medinsky as its head, the Ministry was still full of shy and conscientious intelligents, who were used to being shamed and browbeaten by the boisterous artistic bullies. The latter grew from the starving kittens of the Rough 90’s into a bunch of ungrateful and opinionated fat cats, who, indeed, learned nothing and forgot nothing.
Russian people exposed to this “modern culture” suffered from a cognitive dissonance for a long time. On the one hand – they were finally free to worship and express their faith. At the same time – state owned museums and art galleries started to host provocative exhibitions that, indeed, could be profoundly offensive to these people. At schools kids are still taught what is the High Art, how it’s important to attend theatres, concerts etc. But then state owned (and funded) theatres and operas began hosting extremely avant-garde, borderline pornographic productions. What previously was deemed as a way to slightly “spice up” the mainstream, became the mainstream. People came knocking to the state asking it to interfere, because they, the people, funded the Artistic institutions with their taxes and they should have at least some say in what they got in return. Aristocrats of the Spirit told the rabble to sod off. It’s their Vision! No one can influence them – neither the state nor the filthy peasants such as them.
And thus the “medieval” people of Novosibirsk protested – and filed a lawsuit against the director of Novosibirsk theatre. The same persons, who defended as “street-performance art” the hooliganism and degeneracy of such modern “paragons” of Art as Pussy Riot, the art-group “Voina” and the “artist” Pavlensky — these same people proclaimed (and still believe it, judging by Zvyagintsev’s rant) the lawsuit filed in accordance with norms and regulations as yet another evidence of creeping Dark Ages and Censorship.
Fast forward to March 2015. The Ministry of Culture, finally, takes notice of the disturbance and decides to do something. As was mentioned previously – there is precious little it could actually do in regards of influencing the behavior of the artistic types. Still, the Ministry asked (not ordered – asked) the artistic director (aka its theoretical subordinate Mezdrich) to tone down the stuff, which clearly offends lots of people. Also, the Ministry pointed out that the budget of this one particular opera’s production is kinda overblown, so can they scale it down a bit and relocate the funds on something more urgent – like paying long overdue salaries of the stage crew and performers? But they did not order him to cancel the Tannhäuser outright. Still, Mezdrich, as any Aristocrat of the Spirit in his place, arrogantly refused to do anything about the opera and to bow to the demands of the Grey Masses and Faceless Bureaucrats.
By late March, the Ministry of Culture, beset on all sides, decided that enough is enough. After the lawsuit against the persons responsible for production of the opera, was, quite predictably, dismissed on the grounds that there was “no substance to the claim of a crime committed”, the Ministry decided to organize several independent (and consisting of invited experts and members of the clergy) commissions, who’d review the opera. There were no Faceless Bureaucrats of the ministry itself on board – only members of artistic intelligentsia, all thoroughly handshakable people. Based on their conclusions, on March 19 the Ministry voiced its official position. The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation expressed that it is unacceptable to deliberately or not deliberately express disrespect to traditional values, and that’s what the art-director of Novosibirsk theatre did. That Boris Mezdrich exercised not enough personal control in his capacity as the head of this cultural institution. The Ministry of Culture asked the creators of this controversial opera to express a public apology to all people who were offended by their creation. Reaffirming their commitment to the law of the Russian Federation concerning unacceptability of censorship, the Ministry, still, reminded the offending parties of its program document on “Fundamentals” and that it still can exercise a fraction of control via the administrative and financial means (i.e. hinted about an upcoming audit that could make lots of people upset).
Mezdrich once again told the Ministry and the revolting plebeians to suck his enormous Spirituality and refused to bow to these preposterous demands.
Ten days later Minister Medinsky fired Mezdrich as the art-director of Novosibirsk opera theatre and replaced him with Mikhailovsky Theatre’s effective manager Vladimir Abramovich Kekhman. Who, due to his loyalty to the Regime is not a handshakable person, and thus most liberal Media and people could permit themselves a degree of anti-Semitism in his general direction.
Mezdrich didn’t protest his dismissal and now he is a professor at the (State, of course) Institute of Modern Art. The Public Council at the Ministry of Culture, which included the most famous theatrical luminaries of Russia, including Konstantin Raikin, had been made aware of the fact. They remained silent. Sadly, the self-appointed Conscience and Cultural Elite of This Country didn’t remain silent. Faithful to established traditions, they erupted with series of “open letters” (a one way street to express “better than thou” snobbishness that saves you any worry that there will be a response). The same people, who spared no ink to write tearful and schizophrenic letters defending an act of hooliganism of Pussy Riot were defending “repressed” art-director Mezdrich:
Oleg Tabakov, Mark Zakharov, Valery Fokin, Alexei Serebryakov (the star of the “Leviathan” movie), Evgeny Mironov, Chulpan Khamatova, Oleg Menshikov, Vladimir Urin (Bolshoi’s Theatre director) and many, many others signed it.
Russia’s Union of Cinematographers chimed in, not to be left behind in the most fashionable protest against Tyranny. Well known actor Stanislaw Sadalsky went the extra mile in this festival of handshakability in his LJ post, where he argued most forcefully for the Minister of Culture’s resignation, and proved once and for all his superior upbringing and faithfulness to the Ideals of Pure Art, by mockingly changing the Minister’s surname to “Cuntinsky” (rus. “Мудинский”).
All of these members of the creative class were in revolt, defending the honour of one of their own, wronged by the Oppressive Regime… but none of them was insane enough to defend the opera itself. All of these High Priests of Apollo and Muses, gazing boringly on the Fallen World of the laymen around them, forever elevated by their self-proclaimed status as Elites – none of them tried to influence young and daring director and screenwriter Kulyabin to treat the High Art with respect and dignity (about which they like to pontificate for hours). No – being a victim is much more profitable. This allows you to diss and slander the despicable Powers That Be, call for the resignation of the Minister and then demand (not ask – demand!) more and more money from the very same state, that was just recently the implacable enemy of the Freedom and Art.
As was the case with Raikin just recently, this scandal also exposed lots of dirty laundry of supposedly saint-like artistic personas, and gave the general public a peak into a the amazing world of theatre. Kekhman in his capacity as the new art-director of Novosibirsk opera did exactly what the Ministry of Culture was threatening to do – ran the audit of the finances. Defenders of the “wronged” Mezdrich preferred not to notice his findings, which were spoiling their preconception of the Victim of the Regime. The theatre had an enormous amount of debts. The orchestra conductor was not paid for 7 months straight and finally quit his job even before Kekhman’s appointment. The new art-director approached Kulyabin and reiterated the suggestions of the Ministry of Culture, concerning the production of his version of Tannhäuser . He was asked to drop the offending elements in an otherwise totally acceptable opera.
Kulyabin no longer needed that. He had reached his goal – notoriety and scandal. Mark Zakharov himself asked him to work in his theatre – a dream come true for any young and ambitious provincial director, and also a clear designator that such sort of behavior would not only be tolerated in the future – it would be rewarded. Timofey Kulyabin, the man responsible for all this controversy, the scandal, protests, lawsuits, hatred and conflict – he suffered nothing, no negative consequences AT ALL! Solidarity among the cultural luminaries proved to be stronger than directives and recommendations of the State and the anger of the people. Most recently, he had a chance to stage ”Don Pasquale” in the Bolshoy. Indeed – the world of Russian opera and theatre is his for the taking.
[to be continued]