On April 8 and 9, the pianist Valentina Lisitsa was to perform the Rachmaninoff 2nd concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. This week, the orchestra paid out her contract, citing “deeply offensive” comments she was alleged to have made on her Twitter feed about the ongoing conflict in her native Ukraine.
Lisitsa, 41, who came to prominence through her YouTube videos and who has a huge social-media following, fired back promptly and at some length in a Facebook post (despite, she averred, pressure from the symphony not to go public about the incident). She makes no bones about having taken sides in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine; she is on the side of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians who represent the majority in the Crimea, and vehemently opposed to the current Ukrainian leadership. Her posts on Twitter repeatedly call Ukrainians Nazis and depicts them as a population of idiots and the insane; one purports to illustrate the leadership’s faces with a photograph of pigs’ testicles. The feed also has some racism and overtones of anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure. But, Lisitsa says, she was exercising her right to free speech. The orchestra’s position is that she went too far.
“This is not about political persuasion,” says Jeff Melanson, the Toronto Symphony’s president and CEO, in a telephone interview on Wednesday morning. He adds, “That’s no issue for us. [But] artists using their Twitter or public profile to regularly speak in an intolerant or offensive way about other human beings — that, you have to think about.” The orchestra invoked a clause in her contract that enabled them to dismiss her.
There’s food here for legitimate debate. But legitimate debate is not necessarily what’s fostered in the kangaroo court of Twitter and Facebook. The Toronto Symphony has been besieged by an outcry about free speech, and ultimately had to cancel the concerto altogether (Stewart Goodyear, who was to have replaced Lisitsa, says her supporters bullied him out). Some of the orchestra’s critics include people who have their own political axes to grind; some appear to believe that Lisitsa is supporting the Ukrainian rather than the Russian side in the conflict; and some include members of prominent newspapers’ editorial boards: the Toronto Star, for one, has weighed in with a strong indictment.
Few, if any, have mentioned an obvious recent parallel, when Opera Australia dismissed the Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri in 2014 after a lengthy Facebook post was found in which she supported attacks on a gay-pride parade in her native Georgia and referred to gay people as “fecal masses.” Free speech? Sure, but Iveri found precious few defenders — and certainly there were no editorials defending her right to speak out.
The case against Lisitsa is arguably not quite as clear-cut. The Toronto Symphony has amassed a seven-page collection of some of her ripest Tweets, including one that mocks Ukranians in traditional folk costume by comparing them to Africans in tribal dress. There are evocations of Nazi concentration camps and the Ku Klux Klan. There’s no question that it’s pretty distasteful stuff; digging around in it left this reader, at least, feeling soiled.
But where do you draw the line? You could argue that Lisitsa is writing, clumsily, in the tradition of offensive satire propagated by the magazine “Charlie Hebdo,” whose right to free speech many in the West passionately defended in the wake of the brutal attack on their offices earlier this year, which left 12 people dead. One of Lisitsa’s tweets that some found objectionable — “This is what happens when media ‘gets’ their news out of a..uh..sphincter,” she wrote about a New York Times piece on Russian leaders abandoning Ukrainian separatists — included a “Charlie Hebdo” cartoon, depicting news outlets drinking out of each other’s rear ends. (In a Twitter exchange, Lisitsa confirmed that she had swapped out the names of the media outlets to make the cartoon relevant to the Ukrainian situation.)
Conversely, you could argue that a musician who uses her podium for this kind of material is not someone you want associating with your orchestra. You could also argue that Lisitsa is propagating hate speech, and that hate speech is illegal in Canada and many other countries.
“There’s no doubt it’s a gray zone,” said Melanson in a telephone interview on Wednesday morning.
Whether or not you agree with the symphony’s position, they have gotten the worst of it in the social-media war — in part through not being more explicit right from the start about the nature of the Tweets they were protesting. In 2014, Opera Australia made it perfectly clear why they were letting Iveri go; by contrast, Melanson’s initial statement about “ongoing accusations of deeply offensive language by Ukrainian media outlets” made it sound as if the symphony were responding to someone else’s claims — which has fueled a lot of speculation about who it was that pressured them to act. Melanson, however, avers that no political pressure, no pressure from donors, no messages from foreign or local governments was responsible for the orchestra’s decision.
“The facts have been really distorted,” he says, adding that a number of different people had approached him about the Twitter account since he started the job last November. That initial diffidence has hurt the symphony badly in the ensuing PR war. “Because we didn’t start with fulsome description,” Melanson said, “people have jumped to conclusions about why we did it.”
The takeaway from all this is still unclear. In the short term, certainly, it’s a public-relations bonanza for Lisitsa, who gets to be a martyr to her beliefs, unpalatable though they may be to some. In the long term, I wonder if there will be lasting consequences to having her Tweets made more public, as their content begins to sink in; and I wonder if this will affect the willingness of orchestras, a group not known for their public courage, to hire her.
And in general, it’s a lesson about the uses of social media — which those timid orchestras tend to treat with a certain amount of reserve. If you want to hold your own in a social-media battle, you have to get out there on Facebook and Twitter and state your case honestly and engage with your followers. Lisitsa did this. The Toronto Symphony made a single Facebook post. Unfortunately, in today’s snap-judgment climate, that’s not enough to influence opinion, and they may be paying the price for some time to come.