Let Tamar Iveri have her opera straight

IVERI HOMOPHOBIC Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri.
IVERI HOMOPHOBIC Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri.

A Writer (sort of) defends a diva.

AMID the flurry over Georgian opera singer Tamar Iveri and the comments she made in the social media about a protest march in Georgia on International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) in May, 2013, there was an assumption the soprano was just one homophobic voice in an accepting international opera industry, an aberration who must be silenced.

In an open letter to her country’s president, the singer compared gay people to “fecal masses”, a description picked-up by the social media ahead of Ivari’s scheduled performances for Opera Australia last year.

“Homophobia needs to be exposed, and that’s best done in the limelight where it has maximum impact.”

While I believe it was hypocritical of her to court Western dollars for her performances while condemning Western values which have attained mainstream followings, like LGBTQI equality, I’d like to place Iveri’s conservatism in context, particularly in the Australian performing arts scene.

Australian showbiz has long had an unspoken ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about its same-sex attracted performing artists. From our televisions screens to our stages, generations of us have grown up with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender entertainers and personalities, it’s just that we never knew them that way.

Almost forty years since Australia’s decriminalisation of homosexuality started in South Australia, you’d be forgiven for thinking the only ‘queer’ in prime-time, mainstream Aussie showbiz was Peter Allen, followed swiftly by Carlotta, Todd McKenney and opera singer Deborah Cheetham.

Statistics and common sense tell us that the numbers are much higher than that. Kindness and respect tells me that it would be simply unfair to extrapolate the rumours about which of our stars were (and are) simply ‘not the marrying kind’.

Does it really matter? Well, perhaps it does, when we are baying for blood over the homophobia expressed by a diva from the other side of the world, and the performing arts industry she has been a guest of puts on a very straight front.

NO PROBLEM Iran’s President Ahmadinajad speaking at Columbia University in 2007.
NO PROBLEM Iran’s President Ahmadinajad speaking at Columbia University in 2007.

The Tamar Iveri homophobia story reminds me of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reception at Columbia University in 2007, when he guilelessly professed that they do not have the gay ‘phenomenon’ in Iran.

A ripple of snorts, which became a wave of laughter, washed across the audience and left Ahmadinejad blinking.

After expressing their deeply held convictions about the level of homosexuality in their countries (Iveri cites a statistic with no evidence: “3 in 50″ are “born gay”, and the rest are “following the trend”), both commentators had their foundations rocked.

I see this as consciousness being raised, and I can only applaud it, because homophobia needs to be exposed, and that’s best done in the limelight where it has maximum impact and ongoing ramifications. So what is going on in 21st century opera for gays?

“Fabio is now the benchmark for the male opera star, not Pavarotti.”

When I typed “out gay opera singer” into a search engine I was met with extremes. The first news stories covered out gay opera singer, American counter-tenor David Daniels, who spoke with pride about his sexuality; and Swedish tenor Rickard Soderberg, who survived a random (possibly homophobic) attack.

At “33 Opera Hunks Who Need To Serenade You Right Now”, the parade of muscle men (one of whom, England’s Ed Lyon, identifies as #teamgay) reminded me of beefcakes gracing the romantic fiction section of bookstores.

Fabio is now the benchmark for the male opera star, not Pavarotti. Gone are the days when divas built like Brunhilde could pull off the role of starving slave girl.

Despite the sexy new out gay veritas in the opera industry, like closeted movie stars, gay opera performers might feel that being out while suspending disbelief as a straight hero or heroine is a bridge too far.

Meanwhile, amongst the ranks of design and directing staff in particular, same-sex attracted opera makers have maintained a public silence about homophobia. The secrets of the most ill-mannered and worst-behaved divas have always been kindly kept behind the scenes, the stuff of myth.

Pauline Pantsdown is one of only a few voices of protest from Australia’s showbiz industry about the Iveri issue. Opera Australia issued a statement announcing Tamar Iveri’s explanation of the circumstances behind her comments. Less than a week later, they released her from her contract.

While I applaud their decision, when I think about all the marriages of convenience and closeting in Opera Australia’s not too distant past, the company’s decision to part ways with her at this late stage, over homophobia expressed more than twelve months ago, contains a level of hypocrisy.

That they fêted her so long, and seemingly so unaware, smacks of blindness.

I would have liked to see Iveri perform in our country, just to see if the fuss caused any kind of protest. Surely at least one of the same-sex attracted opera staff might have sprung something on her, like not turning-up for her quick change, or not combing her wigs. A conductor could have downed a baton for Iveri’s big numbers, or one of the stage crew left her waiting.

Had she stayed, she couldn’t possibly have gotten through her Australian seasons without a hint of doubt about the ranks of same-sex attracted men and women working alongside her in the Australian opera industry, and a large percentage of the paying audience.

It’s laughable to inhabit the opera industry and commentate negatively on homosexuality. Take the gay out of opera and what are we left with? One homophobic diva who thought all those designers, costumiers, wigmakers, make-up artists and hairdressers were just a little light on their feet?

The work of composers Tchaikovsky, Britten and Schubert may one day land on Iveri’s music stand. Will she refuse to place their notes and lyrics in her mouth and have them flowing across her vocal chords because these men, being same-sex attracted, were akin to fecal matter? Or will she swallow that gay shit and project it to the back row?


Hopefully, the whole incident will have a lasting positive impact on same-sex attracted performing artists in this country. If so, it’s about time.

This article first appeared on No Fibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

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