The very wonderful Russian superstar opera singer Anna Netrebko this week made a very cryptic statement. She posted the following on her Facebook page: “As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.”
When I say cryptic, I mean that it is on the face of it odd that she should suddenly come out with this truism. It would be less cryptic and more clearly topical if she mentioned the country of her birth, and the increasing, legalised persecution of gay people there. That is obviously what provoked the statement. But the fact that she avoided naming Russia and its President angered many opera fans here.
On the classical music website Slipped Disc people lined up to say that as someone who has star power in her homeland and who, most pertinently, has been a prominent supporter of Mr Putin, she should have targeted her remarks firmly at Russia and its anti-gay laws.
Yes, it’s a rather coy, anodyne statement. But I would argue that she has at least said something - entered the debate, if only mildly. For while Russian politicians may scoff at Stephen Fry for speaking out and urging action over anti-gay persecution and prejudice in Russia, it would be a very foolhardy Russian politician who publicly mocked Anna Netrebko.
Fry is absolutely right that artists should speak out. But the artists who will make the Russian government and its leader sit up and listen are Russian artists. And Britain is not actually short of Russian stars. Take Valery Gergiev, the maestro who is chief conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra. He is a close friend of Putin, and has somehow succeeded in winning from him large sums of money to redevelop the Maryinsky theatre in St Petersburg, where he is also music director. What a jolt it would give Mr Putin if Mr Gergiev spoke up for gay rights and denounced the current Russian measures.
On the South Downs the baton at Glydebourne is being wielded by the festival’s resident music director Vladimir Jurowski, who is also music director at the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Another prominent Russian artist with a global reputation, as well as being based in Britain, he too could cause severe embarrassment to Putin.
This surely has to be the most powerful method of protest from now on. Russia must be challenged in its reactionary and inhumane attitude to gay people, and the challenge must come from Russian artists with the star appeal that gives them a global platform. So I don’t knock Netrebko. She has started, cautiously and tentatively, an artistic fightback. But now it must accelerate. Of course, all nationalities can and will take part. But it is the Russians, over here and elsewhere, who are most likely to make Putin and their compatriots listen, and thus most likely to bring about change.
And, would you believe it, the perfect opportunity will shortly arise. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York the season opener next month will be Eugen Onegin by (gay) composer Tchaikovsky, directed by (gay) British actress/director Fiona Shaw, starring Anna Netrebko and conducted by Valery Gergiev. What a moment for Netrebko and Gergiev to speak from the stage at the curtain call and make clear their feelings about the anti-gay legislation in their homeland. Now that would be one hell of a night at the opera.
Who can say what is or isn’t funny? It’s a debate that always occurs at this time of year when comedy takes centre stage at the Edinburgh Fringe. I once got into trouble when I claimed one year that the standard of women’s comedy wasn’t as good as usual, only to be memorably lectured by a po-faced Time Out magazine that “David Lister should expose himself to more female comedians.” Jokes can only ever be a matter of personal taste. There are no real criteria for a good joke, and no technical reasons I can give for saying that I loved Suzy Bennett this year on the Fringe saying: “A vinegar factory burned down last night. Police suspect Sarson.” Thousands might think it silly. I shortlist it for a Lister comedy award.
Memo to the head of Sky Atlantic: re your announcer who reminds us with relentless jollity seemingly every other hour that “later there are incestuous relationships in ancient Rome with The Borgias.” Please tell her, whoever writes these links, and yourself, that the Borgias were not around in ancient Rome. Oldish Rome perhaps, but definitely not ancient Rome. That’s something else altogether. And someone at Sky Atlantic should know that.