There are two sides to every coin
What Mikis Theodorakis described as the political dimension of the artist has been a leitmotif on An Overgrown Path over the years. In recent months several posts have focused on the decision of humanitarian activist Joyce DiDonato to perform in Oman and China, while remaining silent about the with well-documented histories of human rights violations in those countries. In recognition that there are two sides to every coin I invited Ms DiDonato to respond to my concerns. Her response is reproduced in full below, and my thoughts prompted by it are published as a separate post.
Dear Mr. Shingleton, I had intentions of crafting a lucid, erudite response to your numerous articles about my recent performances in Oman and Asia, which you have vociferously denounced, but as your postings kept pouring in, there seems to be only one possibility of response, and that is a defensive one, which I am admittedly loathe to do.Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).
Yet, I naively promised you a response which I shall honour, hoping to eschew too much of a defensive tone. Perhaps it’s naive of me to think that this reply will be met with anything other than continued cynicism when you carry such headlines as “Let’s stop pretending classical music will change the world.” But I have beautiful news for you: it always has and it always will. Perhaps it hasn’t changed policy, but it absolutely changes the world for countless people - this is something which deserves much more than cynicism. But more on that in a moment.
Before getting to the heart of the matter, please allow me to set a few things straight immediately: I did not move to Askonas Holt in a desire for “mass exposure”, and making such an argument via an article in which someone who has absolutely no insider knowledge whatsoever of the move who purports to render a “guess” that this was the reason, or supposes that it was because of the “famously good Christmas parties” is simply irresponsible, and absolutely detached from the reality of how I have consistently handled my career. Secondly, the tours you allude to under the guise of this new-found grab for “exposure" were all negotiated by Intermusica years ago, and have no bearing whatsoever on my new management. I note this only to set the record straight and correct rabid misinformation.
But to the main point at hand: your issue with my performing in Oman and China while previously boycotting Russia in protest to their position against ‘Gay Propaganda’: in actuality, you have already found my answer by quoting my blog posting of September 5, 2013 before my appearance at the Last Night of the Proms:
"That doesn’t mean that I always know how to speak up, that I always do speak up, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I always know the most effective way to speak up in order to actually invite people to listen, and then – under the best of circumstances – perhaps to actually feel the call to action. No. I’m not an expert in any of those areas."
I stand by that statement fully, and it rings just as true today. I do not profess to know the most effective way to bring Equality for All, but I’m determined to try within my own capacity.
I’ve also spoken at length in various articles about several misgivings I have had, most notably with Alex Ross for the New Yorker very soon after the Proms dedication:
"She is aware of the pitfalls of artist activism. 'I have to choose my battles—I’m no politician,' she told me. 'I know that, as an American artist, I’m not in a position to sit in judgment. [For example,] should I not sing in Texas, because of what’s happening to women’s rights there? But I can’t paralyze myself, either. I don’t know if turning down the opera in Moscow was the right decision. Should I have gone there and spoken out? Should I have got myself detained? If I don’t go, does it mean they’re winning? In the end, it was just an instinctive thing. I couldn’t do it.’”
I am a work in progress. As an artist and as a human being, I have always given myself permission to misstep, to fail, to succeed, to live, to learn. Rigidity has always struck me as a destructive trait, and one I have worked to avoid. There is much complexity in this world that makes very little sense to me, and staying open to growth has always seemed to me to be the best shot at evolving. Knowing this about myself is precisely why I recognized that my decision to decline the invitation to sing in Moscow was perhaps not the correct one. Or, perhaps it was? That is not for me to determine, and I will never know if it was the “right” decision. But it is what I felt compelled to do at that time, and so I acted.
However, as I explored with Mr. Ross ~ if I’m for equality across the board and refuse to sing in states or countries that practice discrimination, then, with agonizingly little effort, that approach rules out the vast majority of venues, even though the extremity of intolerance can vary widely. So where do I draw the line? And what about my other passionate viewpoints? In my birth state of Kansas I disagree wildly with the Governor’s lack of support for the Arts and with his disastrous slashing of education - both of which I’ve spoken out about. In Texas, I’m appalled at the curtailment of women’s rights so should I cancel my world premiere there in October? In Missouri, how can I “lend support” to the rampant abuse of African American men by the police force in Ferguson by singing with my hometown Symphony in Kansas City? (Do we want to open up discussion about the morality of using computers and smart phones and wearing mass-produced sneakers?)
My decision not to sing in Russia in that moment was an emotional one. I stand by it fully, for while I’ve always been outspoken in my support for Equal Rights, overnight the LGBTQ community at large immediately knew that I was standing with them, and that support resounded across the globe. that is not to be overlooked. However, even as I spoke out publicly, as noted in my blog entry, I was questioning if it was the right decision. Would it not have had more impact to appear in Moscow - as an avid LGBTQ advocate - and sing anyway?
So where do I stand today? I have an even deeper desire for Equality than in September of 2013 - for ALL. I recognize the power of Art and Music to be a conduit to empathy, understanding and global connection, as well as carrying an immense power to heal. I choose to actively use my voice to support causes that I feel deeply about (see the Stonewall Video, e.g.), and to appear on any stage I choose, arriving as a known and outspoken advocate for Equality and Arts Education. (I also do not underestimate the immense power of waving a feminist flag, voiced by Monteverdi as Octavia, as I sang from the stage of the Royal Opera House in Oman, “Disprezzata Regina.”)
Now back to your headline: I would like to share with you some of the comments I received from from a some of the beautiful people who came out to hear me sing in Oman and Asia:
“Thank you for your support of LGBTQ rights! It means the world to us.” ~ Fan in Singapore
“You will never know how much we appreciate your support of us.” ~ Young man in Oman
“I cannot believe you came to sing for us here ~ we love you and thank you for standing with us.” ~ Young (lesbian) girl in Shanghai
“Tonight was my first night out of the house in 4 months, and you healed me more than many months of therapy have.” ~ Woman in Hong Kong
“Without music I don’t think I would be here today. Thank you for all you do for us.” ~ Fan letter
“Music is the only thing that makes sense in my life. Thank you.” ~ Fan letter
“You can’t imagine how much it means to me to know that someone like you supports someone like me.” ~ Fan letter
“Today is the last day of my 7th year!” ~ Birthday boy in Beijing (who I then serenaded with “Happy Birthday”)
Granted, these statements aren’t bringing about a Middle East Peace Treaty, but they show how the world - to each of these people - is radically changed because of an encounter with music. Indeed, the world is then changed.
LGBTQ youth in these countries know who I am, what I stand for, and that I stand with them. It is a deliberate choice that I go there to sing for them and celebrate the joy of music with them. They know that I hear them, see them, stand with them, and celebrate them. At this moment, I think my appearance as an advocate for Equality, and as a singer who celebrates the joy, beauty, and profound, healing qualities of music carries far more power than staying away and simply denouncing policy. As I’ve realized, I would then bear an obligation to boycott nearly every venue in the world.
After all, perhaps you are right about my desire for mass exposure, because if I can reach more people in this life-altering and positive way, why wouldn’t I seek that out?
I hope that harsh criticism launched at artists who are truly searching for effective, positive ways to make a difference will not keep others from taking the risk to speak out as they feel compelled. That would truly be a travesty.
The discussion in question is on the excellent blog, “An Overgrown Path,” written by Robert S[h]ingleton. He provides an interesting response to Ms. Donato. In the interest of fairness it should also be linked. It is here:
Mr. S[h]ingleton addresses the problems of selective activism. This is a real problem in the music world. We can’t protest everything wrong in the world, but it seems like the more famous an American artist is, the more likely they are to be involved only in protest that our government supports, or protest that carries a kind of hip cache and fashionability. They favor protest that does not involve personal repercussions and that does not require them to stand alone.
Sometimes protest that conforms to an easy consensus can even become a brutal type of mobbing and public shaming that is more destructive than the perpetrator’s offense. When people like S[h]ingleton try to address these problems, it is intellectually dishonest to say they are just being cynical.
As an example of these problems, I wonder when Ms. Donato, or any other famous American opera singer, will raise a sustained protest against the USA ranking 39th in the world for opera performances per capita, a lower number than every country in Europe. When will any famous American opera singer protest that we only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year? When will any famous classical musician protest that America is the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive system of public arts funding? These social conditions causes enormous suffering to thousands of artists directly involved with Ms. Donato’s field, so where is her protest?
We all know the answer. A famous classical musician who actively and consistently protests our lack of a public funding system in the USA could face serious career problems, so they ALL remain silent. As Mr. S[h]ingleton notes, this problem goes far beyond just Ms. Donato. Thank you for your thoughts about these problems, Mr. S[h]ingleton. Ironically, it is exactly the kind of protest that won’t make you popular…
I still think she's a hypocrite and her boycott doesn't bring any good to the table. Had she gone to Russia with a program of nothing but Tchaikovsky and Bernstein, creating her own 'gay propaganda' stunt, I would've respected her. But this, depriving her own fans of her presence because she disagrees with one particular law but chooses to completely ignore a plethora of other far worse inhumanities in Oman (which probably pays better, mind you) just makes her seem superficial and in search of cheap media attention. I think she is a great artist but this move seems empty-headed to me.