Putin, Wagner, a Pink Person, and Singing Nuns

04/01/2015 12:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015


All the important arts news that's fit to print came in the news section of the March 30, 2015 New York Times. Vladimir Putin canceled a radical production of Wagner's Tannhaüser in Novosibirsk ("Russian Theater Director Fired for Offending Christians"), the good people of my native Queens are in an uproar over public art the public doesn't want ("After Outcry Over Pink Sculpture, Bill Would Require Hearings on Public Art"), and an op-ed piece proposes a darker version of The Sound of Music, of all things ("After 50 Years, It's Time for a Better 'Sound of Music'").

My head was reeling with all this and suspect there will be more from all sides of the Freedom of Expression and the Religious Freedom opinionators. OK! Here goes:

Russian Orthodox Christians objected to a new production of Wagner's controversial opera of sex and God -- especially to a poster, which apparently showed a crucifix between a woman's naked legs. Of course, this is the perfect -- and most shocking -- visual image to represent exactly what Tannhaüser is all about. The early Christian myth comes from a time after the conversion of Europe to Christianity, when all the old pagan gods were banished. The legend was that Venus -- the goddess of love, sex, beauty, and fertility -- was not dead, but lived in the caves under a mountain. There she encouraged those who did not buy into the new religion's attitudes on things moral could live in debauched ecstasy. The trick was to find it! Tannhaüser, a songwriter, is introduced to us living with Venus herself and writing songs in the opera's first scene -- just after a tumultuous overture in which Wagner described sexual activity for the first time in music history (1845).

That overture, a pops piece now, was performed before the opera began, and with the curtain closed. Therefore, if you had a dirty mind, so be it. Brilliantly, Wagner set up the two kinds of love in the overture's music: chaste and pure (a hymn tune, so that was easy to do) and down and dirty (starting with a little "tickle" from the violas and building into a throbbing, pulsating series of thrusts that reaches its joyous climax as the suspended cymbal whooshes its seminal fluids -- only to be interrupted by the call of the "other" love, which triumphs at the end of the overture). Curtain up.

Not quite. After composing his Tristan und Isolde, Wagner was asked to bring his old Tannhaüser to the most important opera house in Europe: Paris. But Paris required ballets in operas, and just as the Opéra's director made a similar demand to Verdi for both his Aida and Otello, Wagner agreed. (So did Verdi. They were both practical men, after all.)

Wagner fulfilled the request in his own fashion. Instead of giving Paris a ballet in Act Two (that was part of the requirement because the influential Jockey Club notoriously came to the Opéra late, and wanted their ballet when they wanted it), Wagner elided his overture -- in which, after all, one had a personal choice in interpreting the "meaning" of the notes -- into a ballet that was a full-scale orgy. He easily could have written a court dance before the song contest in Act Two, but that was not in the cards.

This meant that sex had to be depicted -- acted out on stage -- on the evening of March 13, 1861 by the ballet company. If you think the world premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in Paris of 1913 caused uproar, Wagner, not surprisingly, got there first. After three eventful performances, Wagner and the Opéra, pulled the opera from the stage.

Vladimir Putin has been smart in many things, but the smartest thing to ensure his support among the populace was his embrace of the Orthodox Catholic church. While the German (remember, he was German!) Karl Marx's oft-quoted "religion is the opiate of the masses" may, in fact, be true, it is religion that is the glue that holds many societies together. That Soviet Communism was atheistic made the work of the Soviet leaders a lot harder. When various unpredictable crises occurred no one could say "There must be a reason for this. God is good." It was, after all, the great revivalist movement in the very young United States that held our country together, and for many, still does.

Putin knows his audience and understands that Russians need a little Christmas and Easter, too. And if some arrogant artist wants to insult the average Russian walking to school or to work on the streets of Novosibirsk, he is going to shut it down -- and win points for it. Certainly, it is one thing to create a scandal inside a theater and another to be offensive in the streets.

Questions of "offensive" and "obscene" are important to consider. If Muslims say, "Do not depict the image of Mohammed" and you do, where does each of us fall in the discussion? (They also do not allow images of Jesus or God the Father.) If one of the Ten Commandments tells us not to draw or carve images, does that mean we should not be praying to a statue of Jesus? Some say yes and some say no. Does that mean we do not have pictures of God in our temple? (There are no images of anyone in a Jewish temple.) It is a particular irony that the exact content of the sacred Ten is different in different religions. The Lutherans, it should be added (Wagner was baptized into the Lutheran Church) eliminates this proscription against "graven images" altogether. Who could have predicted that from Martin Luther?

And that brings us to Queens County and a great big PINK statue that is proposed to reside on the grass median on Jackson Avenue and 43rd Avenue -- and that everyone will have to see every day whether we want to or not. It has been paid for by public money. If we lived in a monarchy we would be looking at the art that Her Majesty rather liked to see. If we lived in fascist Rome, we would (have to) applaud Mussolini's new, wide, and straight roads and nouveau-Roman architecture. But we live in the United States of America and our opinions matter and they count.

Should the public decide on what is public art? Is this a vote -- yes, no, maybe? This is a complicated subject and there are no easy answers. For all we know, Mr. Meromi's giant pink reclining figure will become a symbol of Long Island City, like the publicly hated (and now beloved) Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the controversial Sydney Opera House is not only to its city, but to its country. One thing for sure, if this were Novosibirsk, someone would be telling us whether the Pink Person of Jackson Avenue would be a "da" or a "nyet."

On another front, the Times Editorial Observer, Lawrence Downes argues for a remake of the movie of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music that is edgier. Fine with me. Just raise the money and get permission from the rights holders. That's America!

Personally, having seen the original Broadway production as a little boy, and having conducted the show at the Hollywood Bowl, and of course knowing the film version, I can truthfully say it is a perfect work of popular music theater. If you want edgy Nazi musicals, go to Cabaret. The Sound of Music tells a very clear story of its various characters and the moral complexity of many Austrians in the wake of its unification with Germany. I am pretty sure that there are stage directors who might have a new vision for it, but this is more a question of the immutability of films, as opposed to the malleability of dramatic and musical works that require live -- and living -- performances and interpretations.

And, as far as Boris Mezdrich, the ousted Director of the Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, he is lucky. He cannot be sent to Siberia. He already lives there.

John Mauceri
New York City
March 30, 2015