Life, etc

Opera & homophobia: It’s not over till the fat lady Tweets

By J Brooks Spector 24 June 2014

The opera world gets into the news again – and it’s not for the ability of the diva to hit that high E. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look at how homophobia and social media made it all hit, well, a rather sharp note.

There used to be a time when opera stars got shown the door for singing badly or not showing up for rehearsals when they were supposed to do so. The former head of the Metropolitan Opera, Joe Volpe, had had an epic feud with soprano Kathleen Battle over her reported tantrums or worse (as well as rumours he had colourfully dissed her voice) before firing her. Volpe had started out as a set carpenter and he clearly knew how to hammer it home. Their clash had provoked a major story about their troubled relationship and his leadership of the Met in The New Yorker magazine and a book about the Volpe era at the Met. And, of course, years before, the battles between the late Rudolph Bing and Maria Callas over artistic matters became a running front page saga – especially given Callas’ legendary reputation and status.

At the time Battle was sent packing, the New York Times had commented about their fight, “Disputes between singers and managers sometimes seem part of the fabric of the opera world. Maria Ewing, James McCracken and Eva Marton have all stormed out of the Met when coveted roles or broadcast performances were given to other singers. But it is rare for a company to publicly question a star’s professionalism. The most famous recent case was Luciano Pavarotti’s dismissal from the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1989 after a dispute about the frequency of his cancellations.”

And, of course, the Met managed to get itself in the news, just the other day, virtually tying itself in knots, because of the way it had handled its cancellation of worldwide broadcasts of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer.

This week yet another operatic scandal has grabbed the world’s imagination with the news Opera Australia has dismissed Georgian singer Tamar Iveri (she’s from the Caucasus, not the American South, in case anyone was confused on this matter) from any future starring roles because of some homophobic Facebook comments under her name, comparing gays and lesbians to faecal matter.

Iveri had been a rising star, having made her debut at the 2004 Salzburg Festival, and having already performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, the Arena di Verona and L’Opera Bastille. But this may all be over. The screeds have quickly evoked into a real storm, with her firing, and concerns about the Facebook posting by a major Opera Australia sponsor, Qantas. (A cynic might possibly wonder if there wasn’t just a tiny bit of commercial fear in all this, given the impact and importance of the gay community to the arts.)

In her Facebook commentaries a year ago, Iveri had said, “I was quite proud of the fact how Georgian society spat at the [gay pride] parade … Please, stop vigorous attempts to bring West’s ‘fecal masses’ in the mentality of the people by means of propaganda.” Her comments appear to have been removed after a short time. But, too late, obviously.

Afterwards, Iveri apologised for her outburst, but laid the blame for the original posting at the feet of her husband, who she described as a deeply religious Christian, for putting the posting up in her name. And so, “my zealot of a husband did it” now replaces the evergreen “the dog ate my homework” excuse.

In her follow-up or sweep-it-up posting, Iveri wrote, “I have never been prejudiced against anyone, whether for religious, or racial reasons, or for any other kind of prejudice including those regarding sexual preference. I abhor prejudice in any form altogether. I have been performing in an art form that includes thousands of gay people on both sides of the stage, and there is no-one who can come forward and claim that I have ever exhibited any such prejudice against them. I have said before and say here again that the words attributed to me were not my own, and that I therefore cannot take personal responsibility for them.”

She insisted that while the comments did not accurately reflect her views, she added she had left Opera Australia to spare her colleagues “further controversy”. She went on, “By withdrawing, I wish to insure that the performances take place undisturbed by any further controversy… I do not want such an important artistic event to be marred by any problem which, however unintentionally, has developed because of my presence in the cast.” Given that statement, it does seem her husband has held a different view on the matter.

For its part, her now-former employer said it had reached an agreement with her to release her from her contract “immediately”, adding, “Ms Iveri has unreservedly apologised for those comments and views. Opera Australia believes the views as stated to be unconscionable.”

Posting her new statement, she switched the background of her Facebook page to an image that called for “peace, love, harmony”. That, in turn, provoked at least person to append the comment to her Facebook page, “ ‘Peace. Love. Harmony’ three things you clearly do not believe in! Bye bye!”

Once word of her/his comment had become known in Australia, some seriously annoyed people also began an online petition calling on the government to chuck her out of the country as well. And beyond her now-lost role in Otello, another internationally renowned company, the Brussels-based Theatre Royal de la Monnaie has also cancelled her performances with them. In this case, it is their upcoming production of A Masked Ball, scheduled for 2015. After all this, Iveri may have a tough career hill to climb – and it seems a reasonable bet her marriage may not be all that easy either, going forward.

Meanwhile, back in Oz, Jed Horner from the New South Wales Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby told Aussie media about this little fracas, “I think the initial response left much to be desired and when they first came to light they should have actually been addressed. There should have been efforts by Opera Australia to look into the background of this person because there has been allegations made that this is not the first time, that there’s actually been other comments as well. Those should have been addressed by Opera Australia when they arose.” Meanwhile, Australian Greens leader Christine Milne tweeted, “Good news @OperaAustralia has ‘released’ Tamar Iveri from her contract following insulting and highly offensive remarks re LGBTI people.” The Australian Morning Telegraph also had reported earlier that gay patrons of Opera Australia had said they would be boycott all her performances, after the comments gained publicity.

Out of all of this, there appear to be two big lessons rather painfully learned – too late – by Iveri – and, presumably, her husband – after he returns back from a quick course on the finer points of the social media world. The first one is to keep your mouth shut on Facebook and the rest of the social media universe – if you are going to go around comparing people to poo.

The second is that out there in the wild, untrammelled landscape of the social media universe, somebody is always reading what appears under your name or Twitter handle – and it never really goes away. Ever. Once it has been let loose, somebody is going to repeat it to others, or comment on it – especially if you’ve said something egregiously stupid or ugly. But then you, gentle reader, already knew those two rules, didn’t you? DM

Photo: Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri (L) and Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas perform during the dress rehearsal for the Opera Ball 2009 at the Vienna State Opera, 18 February 2009, in Vienna, Austria. EPA/GEORG HOCHMUTH

Read more:

  • The Met Drops Kathleen Battle, Citing ‘Unprofessional Actions’ at the New York Times
  • Soprano Tamar Iveri terminated from Opera Australia production Otello over homophobic comments at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website
  • Metropolitan Lives – It Happened at the Opera at the New Yorker
  • Opera Singer Fired After Homophobic Slurs Posted to Facebook Page at Time
  • Tamar Iveri, Leading Soprano, Leaves Opera Australia After Homophobic ‘Fecal Masses’ Facebook Comment at the Huffington Post
  • Tamar Iveri sacked by Opera Australia over gay slur at the BBC
  • Bloody Battle at the Met: prima donna / chief female singer in opera; temperamentally self-important person at the Independent (UK)
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