Richard Wagner's Siberian scandal.

Photographer: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Russia Tries Cracking Down on Opera

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The operas of the 19th century German composer Richard Wagner have long been controversial. They have never been performed in Israel, for instance, because Wagner was a rabid anti-Semite much admired by the Nazis. It turns out he can also generate scandal in President Vladimir Putin's Russia -- but for an entirely different reason. The government and its allies have recently treated Wagner's work as an opportunity to remind the public to stay in line.

A peculiar trial ended today in Novosibirsk, Siberia's biggest city. Archbishop Tikhon, a local Russian Orthodox leader, filed a complaint last month to the prosecutor's office about the local opera theater's performance of Wagner's "Tannhaeuser." It "humiliates believers, insults the Orthodox church and is aimed at inciting religious hatred," he wrote. "This is quite relevant in connection with events in Paris which have led to casualties," the archbishop continued, referring to the terrorist attack against the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. 

On the surface, "Tannhaeuser" is hardly a radical anti-clerical statement. Its plot, written by Wagner himself, follows the title character, a poet knight, who is tempted and entertained in the grotto of the goddess Venus and finds it so agreeable there that he devotes a song to her and sings it at a contest. For that crime, he is sent to Rome to beg the Pope's forgiveness. It's not forthcoming: Tannhaeuser's sin is too great. The rest of the story deals with the singer's attempts to regain the true faith.

Director Timofey Kulyabin understandably decided to modernize the plot when he staged it in Novosibirsk. He recast Tannhaeuser as a movie director making a film about Jesus Christ who is tempted by carnal love. And that's what triggered the archbishop's anger.

Musicologist Yury Bershidsky (a cousin of mine) pointed out on Openrussia.org that Tikhon behaved exactly like the Pope in the Wagner libretto -- except, instead of condemning the sinful performers, he took the modern path by complaining to a prosecutor. "When the action of a play splashes out beyond the theater and people begin, without realizing it, to act like characters in the play, that is a rare creative accomplishment," Bershidsky wrote. Indeed, the opera, featuring some well-known guest performers, has been highly successful. More than 3,500 people have watched it so far since it opened in December.

The prosecutor's office, however, found merit in the archbishop's complaint that the production insulted religious symbols and they summoned Kulyabin and theater manager Boris Mezdrich. "We spent four hours there, about as long as our opera runs," Kulyabin recalled in an interview with Classicalmusicnews.ru. "It's funny: you sit there talking to the assistant prosecutor, telling him about Wagner."

Then the case went to trial. Unlike the members of punk group Pussy Riot, who were sentenced to prison terms for performing an anti-Putin song in Moscow's main cathedral, Kulyabin and theater director Boris Mezdrich faced only fines or community service. Perhaps because of that, the case never made much of a splash internationally.

In Russia, however, the creative community noted it as a precedent. For the first time since the Soviet era, a theater performance was made the subject of a trial, and for the first time ever, a cleric of the highest rank was officially involved in a censorship attempt (in the Pussy Riot case, the Church had no official role in the complaint).

Today, the court cleared Mezdrich  and Kulyabin of the charges after hearing from experts who testified that the Christ in the movie-within-the-opera-performance was not the Christ of the Gospels, just a character in a play.

This ostensibly happy ending could be taken as a sign that Russia has avoided a return to the Middle Ages, after all. Hasn't justice prevailed and wasn't the narrow-minded archbishop shamed? While "Tannhaeuser" ended with the title character's repentance, the real-life play seems to have unfolded as a comedy of errors leading to a vindication of hedonism.

Not quite. The fact is that anyone who now stages a play in Russia -- be it a modern docudrama or a Wagner opera -- will have to wonder about the Church's reaction and the possible legal repercussions. As the court case dragged on, Orthodox activists demonstrated in front of the Novosibirsk theater, as they often do these days whenever they get a whiff of freethinking art: Another warning to anyone about to challenge what Putin calls "traditional values."

The Orthodox hierarchy and the repressive machine managed to make a strong case for self-censorship. And that's a more desirable outcome for the Putin regime than a highly publicized, protest-generating guilty verdict that would have created new martyrs for Russia's battered creative class. The result will be a self-censoring media, a cautious movie industry, a largely timid theater community.

Today's oppressive atmosphere in Russia doesn't resemble the era of Communist uniformity.  It doesn't express itself with the crude methods of totalitarianism, but a series of mild reminders to toe the line and follow the moral majority.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net