Director of Novosibirsk opera house fired over controversial production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser

Director of Novosibirsk opera house fired over controversial production of Wagner's Tannhäuser

30 March 2015

The director of the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre was fired from his post on Sunday following the recent scandal over a controversial production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, which incensed the Russian Orthodox church. Boris Mezdrich, who headed the theatre for over ten years (2001-2008, then again from 2011), refused a request from the culture ministry to amend parts of the production and apologise to anyone offended by the show. He was fired by Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky due to his “failure to comply with instructions”, TASS news agency reported.

“As they said in Soviet times, I feel a sense of deep satisfaction,” Mezdrich said in an interview with Izvestia. “Seriously, I’m feeling really happy. I am glad that I withstood the pressure and didn’t pull the performance. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to survive to the end and win. But I am grateful to everyone who supported us — colleagues, theatre-goers. I went my own way with dignity, it seems.”

The performance of Tannhäuser, which features a number of provocative biblical scenes, was slammed by the Russian Orthodox Church, who accused the production of “humiliating believers’ feelings and the Orthodox Church”. A court case against the director of the performance, Timofei Kulyavbin, was dropped last week due to lack of evidence, however the decision has since been appealed.

In a recent visit to Novosibirsk, Magomedsalam Magomedov, deputy head of Russia’s Presidential Administration, talked of the need for Russian state theatre to be monitored by experts to prevent the recurrence of a similar conflict in future. “The staged opera has lead to confrontation between the secular and religious communities,” he said. “The Ministry of Culture was forced to intervene in the situation, to publish its position and take appropriate action regarding personnel.”

Commenting on the need for “an advisory body to be present in theatres to oversee affairs”, Novosibirsk governor Vladimir Gorodetsky criticised the cultural figures involved in the staging of Tannhäuser for “creating something indecent”. He added: “Nobody has the right to offend people’s feelings — neither state, nor regional, nor private theatres.”

A proposal published as “the position of the Ministry of Culture” which listed suggested amendments to the performance was refused by Mezdrich, who said that a number of [Medinsky’s] suggestions could not be implemented. “In particular, the reduction to funding for Tannhäuser and the apology. I said that for me, that is not possible. My professional morals do not allow me to ‘surrender’ performances and apologise to people who didn’t see the opera”.

Mezdrich’s removal from his post is the latest in a line of confrontations between the cultural elite and Russian Orthodox Church, with “traditional values” increasingly the centrepiece of today’s cultural policy in Russia. Last week, a priest in the Novosibirsk diocese Alexander Novopashin was awarded a state medal for “service to the homeland” after leading the campaign against Tannhäuser.

In response to the recent scandal over the performance, residents of Novosibirsk are preparing for a rally in defence of creative freedom planned for this Sunday.

Vladimir Kehman, CEO of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St Petersburg, will replace Mezdrich as director of the theatre.