Russia: Theatre director fired for staging opera that offended church


Russia’s Ministry of Culture has fired the director and head of Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre for having staged a Wagner opera which offended Orthodox believers.

“What some perceive as a sophisticated work of art was interpreted as offensive blasphemy by others. The production of ‘Tannhauser’ has exposed the sharp divisions within Russian society,” wrote Ivan Nechepurenko in The Moscow Times as a large group of over 1,000 Novosibirsk citizens gathered in Novosibirsk to protest what they saw as attempts to destroy their culture, and as Russia’s culture ministry in response to the tumult in Novosibirsk stated that director Boris Mezdrich had been fired because “the feelings of religious believers should be respected”.

In a reference to deadly jihadist attacks in Paris in January 2015, the ministry branded the play as a “deliberate mockery” of religious belief, warning it could lead “to people’s deaths, as we have seen recently.”

The Russian Orthodox Church’s head of public affairs, Vsevolod Chaplin, had earlier branded the opera production a “desecration of a symbol revered by Christians.”

“Milestone towards censorship”
The controversy around the contemporary staging of Wagner’s opera in Russia’s third-largest city Novosibirsk has sparked comparisons with Pussy Riot’s punk protest against Putin in a Moscow cathedral in 2012.

Many prominent Russian theatre directors, actors and public figures have issued letters in support of the production, and leading figures from the Russian theatre scene have spoken out against the sacking of Boris Mezdrich.

Director Kirill Serebrennikov told Russkaya Sluzhba Novostei radio it was “awful, awful, awful. This is a really ugly incident.”

“This incident will be the latest milestone in the direction towards censorship, either by the state or by the Church,” Ksenia Sergazina, an expert at Sova Centre which monitors extremism and hate crimes, told AFP.

Vedomosti Business Daily said it was the “first … openly repressive decision” by Medinsky, whose ministry funds much of Russia’s vibrant arts scene.


Background information
Cultural figures in Russia describe a climate of anxiety as laws banning obscenities have made them compromise their work or face harsh penalties. An article in The New York Times looks into the effects of this law:

“Putin is a process,” said Mr. Vyrypaev, the director. “I treat him like hydrogen sulfide. If you breathe too much, you’ll die. But it’s still part of nature.”

“Cultural figures in Russia today describe a climate of confusion and anxiety in which the law banning obscenities, as well as a 2013 law that criminalizes acts offending religious believers, are often ignored unless someone wants them applied. Critics say the new laws are stifling free expression and pulling the country backward.”

» New York Times – 1 April 2015:
Russian Artists Face a Choice: Censor Themselves, or Else
Article by Rachel Donadio


“What the current authorities share with the Soviet ideological masters is the sense that intellectual and creative freedom are a threat to the absolute political power of the government. Today, just as in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, innovative and provocative art is seen as political disloyalty. And, just as it was then, an artist who is willing to make public demonstrations of political allegiance and to defame less coöperative peers stands to gain in career opportunities.”

» The New Yorker – 1 April 2015:
The New Russian Censors
Article by Masha Lipman

Read more

» Agence France-Presse | NDTV – 31 March 2015:
Russia Sacks Theatre Chief in ‘Blasphemous’ Opera Scandal

» The Guardian – 30 March 2015:
Theatre director fired over Wagner opera that offended Russian Orthodox church

» The Moscow Times – 29 March 2015:
Russian Cultural Elite Wants Medinsky Fired for Interfering With Wagner Opera Production

» The Siberian Times – 29 March 2015:
Director of Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre fired in religious backlash

» Freemuse – 10 March 2015:
Russia: Creators of ‘offensive’ Wagner opera acquitted

» More about Russia on

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