One of the things I love about academia is that despite the best attempts of creeping “managerialism” (awful word for a dreadful phenomenon) academia is still a place where people freely give of their opinions on anything and everything given half a chance. It may drive those around us crazy, but it’s one of the wonderful by-products of what can at times seem a frustrating career choice. However increasingly in communities of many kinds – work, faith, geographical, common interest – that is not the case. People seem more than ever, at least here in Scotland, to be afraid of voicing their opinions or engaging in debate. I grew up in such a world, where having opinions was called being mouthy and debates were called arguments. Luckily enough I seemed to have been born without an off switch or an ability to sense the pejorative when it is directed at me. But it could have been different, and I do know how hard it can be to break free from those constraints. So it was with great pleasure that I read the words of Joyce di Donato recently.
Those of you who know me may be surprised. I have often voiced my contempt of “celebrity culture” – I could care less what someone who happens to have access to the media thinks about anything. Her words did not impress me because she has anything new or special to say, or because she might be “speaking up for me” or “educating the public” or any of the other nonsense “people” (i.e. the media) ascribe to celebrities (i.e. those the media create in order to make money). No, what encourages me is the idea that here is further evidence of a debate within the opera world about something that world really ought to be seriously debating. Her letter of support for “us” is most important I think as words from someone in a community (the opera world) that ostensibly is as queer as it gets but all too often is (ironically) silent on the subject of freedom for the LGBT community. Especially as she reveals herself as someone who understands why we LGBTs in the West feel so particularly aggrieved by Russia. I am tiring of hearing “why get so excited about Russia it happens all over the place?”. Well yes, of course what’s happening there is not unusual, but it’s such a clear reminder of the spectrum of oppression that covers the world like some dreadful Rainbow from the dark side.
From the frequent small digs that I experience as an out UK lesbian and mother, to the torture and death that my LGBT brothers and sisters face in other countries, all of us in the worldwide LGBT community await freedom. Russia reminds us that the horrors of the extreme end of that spectrum are closer than we in the West might wish to believe. We have our violence – like most LGBT I have been both verbally and physically assaulted directly because I am a lesbian. We have our state sponsored discrimination – the legality of my connection to my children is still tenuous according to the law. We have our daily slights and asides. But the force of violence, the extremity of the oppression, erupting in Russia – the country that more than any other marks the boundary between the West and “everywhere else” – is terrifying.
That is why Russia is such a potent symbol for us. And why the vocalising of people like this, who are able and secure and safe enough to speak up, is important. Not because they are speaking to the public but because they are speaking to their own communities. As a “vested interest” outsider to that world – a devoted opera goer – it lifts my spirits to see that there is debate. It’s important because music and the Arts, like academia, are places that are meant to be hotbeds of debate and dissent. It’s important because so much music is about freeing us from oppression. It’s important because the opera community draws on the LGBT community heavily. We are a large part of the fan-base, we are a large part of the community itself. The public silence of the opera community does not unduly concern me, but to hear it speaking up does greatly encourage me. People like Malena Ernman and Joyce di Donato and no doubt many others I am unaware of, speaking to their community lift my spirits because I would hate to think that the affliction of silence in the face of injustice might be found in community whose work enhances my life so very much.
I know I will not live long enough to be able to go to a public square and gather with many others, as I did in Edinburgh the night Nelson Mandela was freed, and sing Freedom Come Ye All in celebration of the day true equality for LGBTs worldwide is reached. But I hope my children will. And I hope when they do, the opera world will be able to claim its part in that victory. In the meantime, knowing that a community I value so highly is at least engaged in the debate is an occasion for celebration. Joyce di Donato reminds me to say thank you to all – known and unknown – who keep the debate alive within the opera community. More than any other you know that silence is not an option.