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Homophobia scandal forces Opera Australia to dump diva

Richard Watts

Following 48 hours of intense drama, the contentious opera singer Tamar Iveri has been released from her Opera Australia contract.
Homophobia scandal forces Opera Australia to dump diva

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Opera Australia this morning announced that the Georgian soprano would no longer be performing in the company's production of Otello, due to open in Sydney in July.

In a statement released this morning, the company said: 'Opera Australia has agreed with Tamar Iveri, to immediately release her from her contract with the company.

'Ms Iveri and her husband have both made public statements in the last 48 hours with regards to comments attributed to Ms Iveri. She has unreservedly apologised for those comments and views.


'Opera Australia believes the views as stated to be unconscionable.'

The company has not yet announced who will take over Iveri's role as Desdemona in Otello; not has it confirmed that she will be replaced in the Melbourne season of Tosca, which she was also due to perform in.

Iveri had previously denied responsibility for a viciously homophobic letter which came to light on Friday, in a story broken by Limelight Magazine.

Discovery of Iveri's letter provoked outrage among Australia’s LGBT community and their supporters, with calls for Opera Australia to sack Iveri from Otello and Tosca quickly spreading across social media. The company was also criticised for its slow response to the crisis, though major sponsors such as Qantas and Mazda responded more quickly, after social media pressure was brought to bear on their relationships with Opera Australia.

According to a message sent to Opera Australia patrons on Monday, the company's initially cautious response was due to its respect for due process. ‘OA is a workplace that embraces and encourages diversity. We also value due process and fairness in every decision that we make. Know that all of our values have been upheld over recent days,’ said the message from Opera Australia CEO Craig Hassall, which was circulated by Patrons Manager Ailsa Eckel.

Following the dissemination of Iveri's views on Friday, Brussels-based company Monnaie Opera quickly moved to drop the soprano from a forthcoming production of Ballo in Maschera.

The open letter to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, dated 18 May 2013 and bearing Iveri’s name, was written in response to the President’s condemnation of violent attacks on a gay rights parade in the Georgian capital Tiblisi the day prior.

In the letter, Iveri praises the anti-gay violence, writing ‘in certain cases, it is necessary to break the jaws in order to be appreciated as a nation in the future’. She describes those who perpetrated the violence as ‘Georgian youth of pure blood’ and the gay rights movement as ‘fecal masses’.

Following its initial publication, the Georgian LGBT rights organisation Identoba wrote to the National Opera of Paris on 31 May 2013, requesting an upcoming concert by the soprano be cancelled. Their letter read in part: 'We would like to bring your attention to homophobic and hate inspiring activity by one of your opera singers, Ms. Tamar Iveri, resulting in death threats and physical injuries to many Georgians.'

Subsequently the performance did not proceed, though according to Iveri this was because of an 'indisposition'. Other sources say the National Opera of Paris indeed cancelled the concert. ArtsHub has contacted the National Opera of Paris about this issue and is awaiting clarification.

Early Saturday, Iveri responded to the allegations aired in Australian media outlets with another open letter on her Facebook page in which she claimed the letter was not written by her, but by her husband – a claim which would appear to contradict an interview she gave in July 2013 in which she said 'I was very agitated and absolutely sincere in expressing my opinions' when writing the letter to the President, whom she described as having 'a very good relationship with'.

At no point in the July interview – a more nuanced translation of which can be read here – did Iveri suggest her husband played a part in writing the letter in question.

Her latest statement reads: ‘For my entire career I have been working with gay people and some of them are very dear friends. All of them can confirm that I never lost a word that might associate me with homophobic ideas. I respect every single human being and I am against all kind of descrimination [sic] and violence.

‘Please let me explain what lead to the recent articles that you might have read:

‘On the 17th of May 2013 a gay parade was supposed to pass directly in the yard of an Orthodox Church in Tiflis. At the same place and for the same date a commemoration for Georgian soldiers killed in Afghanistan had been announced. For that reason and because Georgia is a country where 90% of the population are deeply religious, conservative Orthodox Christians I wanted to express my sincere doubts that a parade made sense under these circumstances, in the yard of an Orthodox church. I was worried that this would provoke people and lead to violence. Unfortunately this is what happened then,' she wrote.

‘Besides myself my husband was using my Facebook account at that time and he is a very religious man with a tough attitude towards gay people. He copied my text, changed it considerably and posted it under my name. You might imagine that I was not happy with that at all and I immediately deleted it when I saw the text about half an hour later. This text does not express my own opinion. I'm afraid it was too late and the text was already spreading in the internet.

‘I explained the situation and officially apologized to the LGBT community in Georgia a year ago and they accepted my apology.’

Irakli Vacharadze, Executive Director of Georgian LGBT group Identoba called Iveri's latest apology 'meaningless'.

'13 months have passed after your May 18th, 2013 letter and you have not shown that you finally came to understand what it feels to be hated, kicked out, refused, tolerated and accepted. Instead of meaningless apologies, you  could have offered to visit us and talk to the victims of the homophobic violence. That would be an apology worth listening to. That would be a sign that you really found an inner strength to overcome hate and fear,' Vacharadze said.

Australian gay rights activist Pauline Pantsdown has rejected Iveri's account of events, pointing out that the the commemoration for fallen soldiers which Iveri said was the cause for her concern was in fact held the day prior to the gay pride march, not on the same day. 'Confirmed: the commemoration for fallen soldiers was the day BEFORE the gay rights march. Your contextualisation is a lie,' Pantsdown wrote on the opera singer's Facebook page.

Referencing Opera Australia's status as a company funded through government taxation, Pantsdown added: 'You called us cancer. You called us shit. You said that sometimes we need our jaws broken. You supported a crowd of 20,000 people, led by priests, attacking a small gay rights parade, resulting in injuries. Hold these views as much as you like, but we are taxpayers who are currently paying your wage while you rehearse. Stop rehearsing, because you will not be on that stage on July 5th. We are your employers, and you are fired. Leave now.'

Veteran LGBT journalist and broadcaster Doug Pollard was equally suspicious of Iveri's attempted apology. 

'She produces a litany of excuses, rather than an apology, and tries to shift the blame onto her husband. Apparently he had access to her FB page at the time, and wrote all the really nasty bits,' Pollard told ArtsHub.

'None of which excuses the fact that the letter was written in the first place, and allowed to stand, under her name alone, until she was called out on it.

'A proper apology would have to include some concrete action to make amends. Perhaps she could mount a fundraising concert for the victims of anti-gay persecution in Eastern Europe. Or do a free concert at Mardi Gras. But this cost free exercise in spin simply won't wash,' he said.

Shortly after midday on Saturday, Opera Australia responded with a short statement on their Facebook page: 'Opera Australia has become aware in the past 24 hours, of the media and social media coverage of comments reported to have been made by soprano Tamar Iveri. 

'The company has made the singer aware of the response from the Australian media and people via social media.'

The statement – which neither condemned homophobia nor included an affirmation of the company's own inclusive values – went on to mention the soprano's response via her own Facebook page, and added: 'Rehearsals and performances at Opera Australia are continuing as planned.'

The below video shows the Georgian response to the gay rights parade of May 17 2013, praised by Iveri in her letter.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts