The treatment of homosexuals in Russia in the news these days is alarming, and deeply troubling. Despite the fact that I wrote this article a couple of years ago, I think the ideas herein are, sadly, quite timely.
Note: it was written at Christmastime.
Thoughts on the Nutcracker, the Olympics, and What It Means To Be Tolerant
“The public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius."
Oscar Wilde (1864-1900)
As always at this time of year, audiences around the world are pouring into theatres to sit in awe of the magical dancing set to Tchaikovsky’s great score for the Nutcracker, which was given as a double bill with his opera Iolanta when it was premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892. Also this season, members of the band Pussy Riot are being showily released from prison a few months early in an attempt by the Russian government to put on a more acceptably tolerant face for the eyes of the world, which are turning toward Russia in anticipation of next month’s Olympics. At such a time, it seems fitting that we should, as a world, remember what became of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, possibly the greatest Russian composer of all time and, we can now say without controversy, a homosexual.
The composer of such classics as Swan Lake and the piano concerto that, even if you don’t know classical music, you could probably easily sing along with, and numerous other great and powerful works. There is no composer who has placed himself more in the center of the affection of lovers of western music. He resides in the illustrious company with Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, forever on the orchestral top ten list, his swans dancing in our hearts.
As a fan and writer of murder mysteries, I’ve read about all sorts of horrible ways to kill a person. Even so, the death of Tchaikovsky stands in my mind as one of the most horrible ways to die imaginable. The facts were disputed, even at the time, but now it is confirmed by most scholars who are familiar with the details that his death was a suicide, either by poison or deliberate ingesting of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. Worse than that, it was a suicide decided upon by a “court of honor.” His own brother, also gay, was at his side, and helped to promote the false story that he had died due to the cholera. In other words, Tchaikovsky, adhering to the judgment of others, killed himself to spare his country and society the shame of accepting his homosexuality, just nine days after the premier of his great symphony, the Pathétique.
It’s never exactly correct to point at another culture and say, “they shouldn’t do that.” However true or well intentioned the words may be, they are, at best, of limited usefulness. Not only because we’re speaking from outside of the situation, but because it’s what we do more than what we say that matters most. And looking at the attitude of the Russian government toward homosexuality, what is the right thing to do about the Winter Olympics?
Disclaimer: I love the Winter Olympics. Love them! I always think that opera singers are much more like athletes than we are artists, or at least we’re half and half. We train to do this very specific, very difficult thing. Even if people train like we do, not everybody can do it. It’s exceptional. It’s also weird and wonderful bordering on miraculous that a human throat, any human throat, can train itself to sing Tosca, Pagliacci, Tannheuser. And it’s exceptional, weird, and wonderful bordering on miraculous what Olympic athletes do what they do, excelling within a very narrow range of expression. Ski jumping. Speed skating. Luge. I especially love the figure skating, which I find the most comparable to the demands of an operatic aria. About five minutes in length, with prescribed difficulties escalating to a make or break moment. The audience knows the repertoire well and roots for the skater, cringing when they miss, exploding in rapture when they succeed. Triple Axel equals High C. Ta da!
The U.S. Olympic committee has decided that their delegation will be led by Billy Jean King and other openly gay athletes, and the TV network will have former Olympic bronze medalist and openly gay figure skater Johnny Weir providing commentary for the U.S. network coverage. Both of these choices are examples of allowing positive actions to express a position, rather than choosing non-participation. Both choices could be viewed as living examples of a principle stated in Leonard Bernstein’s oft sited quotation: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
Similar to the idea of answering violence with music is the more general principle of answering hatred with excellence, and no more poignant example of that principle can be found than the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, when African American Jesse Owens became the most decorated athlete of those games, showing the world the utter fallacy of Hitler’s espousal of Aryan supremacy. (FYI, for fans of this story, a biopic of Owens is in the works, written by the Oscar winning screenwriter of The King’s Speech, David Seidler.)
There is another example involving Hitler that demonstrates the triumph of achievement over dogma. It had to do with his favorite tenor, Max Lorenz. Lorenz, perhaps the greatest living Wagnerian tenor of the time, was gay but had married to conceal his homosexuality. His wife Lotte, was Jewish. Joseph Goebells, propaganda minister, ordered her and her mother arrested, and strangely enough, Hermann Georing interceded on their behalf. Georing, like Hitler, was a devoted lover of Wagner. These strange twists and turns aside, (you can’t make this stuff up) the most direct defiance of Hitler’s policies came from Winifred Wagner (wife of the composer’s son, Siegfried, and the head of the Bayreuth Festival from 1930 until the end of the War in 1945). Hitler did not want Lorenz to sing at Bayreuth because of his Jewish wife, and at that suggestion Winifred said she would accede to his request by simply closing the festival saying, famously, “Without Lorenz, Bayreuth doesn’t work.” It was an ideological battle Hitler lost. Not an everyday occurrence.
Taking this discussion to a deeper level, we can ask what this discrimination against homosexuals (or Jews for that matter) is emblematic of. Is it not a hatred of difference itself? Saying, “this is the way people are supposed to be. Not that way, this way!”
This is the time of year when we all hope to look at one another with softhearted eyes. So I think there is an opportunity in all this talk of discrimination and intolerance for us to turn and look at how we treat one another, and ourselves. Even if we are liberal minded and supposedly tolerant, don’t we often judge people as worse for their differences, which we perceive as weaknesses? And don’t we do this to ourselves most of all, loving the things about ourselves that offer us acclaim, status, pleasure, and running an internal dialogue about the other parts of ourselves that is, well, to put it mildly, less than kind?
So the act of decrying these forms of intolerance is fine, but if that becomes simply another way to judge, to say “You are wrong, I am right,” then it may come around to bite us on our own tail, feeding that attitude of judgment within ourselves which is not at all nurturing of our best intentions.
That is why I am happy about the choice for the U.S. to participate fully in the Olympics, not just because it means that there is some good TV in my future, but because it puts into action Bernstein’s sentiment. It is about what we are “for” not what we are against. Someone who is against discrimination towards homosexuals is for people being allowed to live their own lives, to be themselves without punishment or shame.
Another example, besides Tchaikovsky, of the impact of soviet attitudes to homosexuality on their artists is that of Sviatoslav Richter, (1915 to 1997) who was considered one of the great pianists of the 20th century. Russian born, he lived as a German expatriat and had female companions publicly, but he was gay. Perhaps not as dramatic a story as that of Tchaikovsky, but one of thousands of examples of lives turned inside out by unfair policies and attitudes toward gays, and yet the person leading that life accomplishing remarkable, admirable things.
The stories are endless. Only this week, Alan Turing, a mathematician and code breaker from the famous Bletchley Park in World War II was posthumously pardoned in the UK, where he was convicted and jailed over sixty years ago for “gross indecency.” Turing’s breaking of the so-called Enigma code is credited with shortening the war and saving thousands of lives. Turing was given a choice of two years in jail or chemical castration. He chose the jail time. Two years after serving his sentence, Turing committed suicide. (There is a very fine play about Turing, titled “Breaking the Code” which starred Derek Jacobi to great acclaim in London and Broadway. Jacobi is openly gay and has a civil marriage with his partner of 35 years.) One of the greatest playwright’s of all time could be also seen as a having been killed by Britain’s anti gay policies. Oscar Wilde, whom I quoted above, was imprisoned for homosexuality and emerged from prison a broken man. He died destitute in Paris.
If you were hoping for heart-warming Christmas tales in this column, I apologize for disappointing you. I don’t mention all of these examples to be ghoulish, simply to put forth that as a world society, we already know this. History has shown time and time again, that this sort of oppression is terribly damaging, not only to the individuals involved, but to the fabric of society, to all of our senses of safety and acceptance.
The current degree of public attention to this issue internationally, the outrage over Pussy Riot’s incarcerations as just one example, is an indication that humanity is evolving to be less accepting of this sort of intolerance. The brave steps that people such as Pussy Riot, and others in Russia are taking now against intolerance, is not only a way of honoring gay people of today, but of honoring the memory of gay people from the past, people who struggled and suffered in ways that humanity cannot be proud of.
What we can be proud of is the degree of personal excellence achieved by figures such as Jesse Owens, or Sviatoslav Richter, people who triumphed by being simply, truly, beautifully themselves and did so under umbrellas of discrimination that cast wide shadows over their lives. When someone does that, exists as fully as they can in the ways that are particular to their specific, creative gifts, they confront their oppressors with the simplest of questions: Is it not enough to be ourselves? Is it not enough to be talented and strange and imperfect in exactly the way that we are? Isn’t it enough to be Oscar Wilde? To be Alan Turing?
Is it not enough to be Tchaikovsky?