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© Ismene Brown 2017

Werewolf: The Nutcracker Prince, © Novosibirsk Opera House

13 JAN 17

Just as you thought things couldn’t get any stranger in the world, a leading Russian bishop has had The Nutcracker ballet banned from his city's theatre at Christmas because it is an ‘occult’ production about a 'werewolf prince' - as in shapeshifting by magic. His intervention comes on top of his previous success in getting a production of Wagner's Tannhaüser binned and the opera house chief sacked because he found it offensive to the faithful.

Russian media yesterday erupted with the story about this new case of the Orthodox Church intervening in arts in the Siberian capital Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city. Last month the city's bishop, Metropolitan Tikhon, pronounced that The Nutcracker was not a Christmas story, but a tale by the German fabulist E T A Hoffmann about a boy who through magic is turned into a nutcracker doll and a prince - hence he was a ‘werewolf prince’. ('Werewolf' is the main translation for the word meaning a magical transformer, a shapeshifter.)

And the Church ordered the Novosibirsk opera house to stage a more suitable new opera, Christmas, by Mother Iraida Salnikova, the composer wife of one of the diocesan elders, instead of the fiendish ballet. This was apparently premiered on December 11.

The Metropolitan told a TV interview, ‘We discussed it with Mother Iraida, saying there should be a new production that would be performed every year at Christmas time, on Christmas Day itself, and New Year’s Day. Since we consider The Nutcracker to be about a werewolf prince, an occult creation, when we talk about our traditions, then there should be a festival offering that expresses the true essence of the birth of Christ.’

Law suit

This is the second time that the Orthodox Church has openly controlled and censored Novosibirsk's arts.

In 2015 Metropolitan Tikhon caused havoc and scandal at Novosibirsk Opera House over its new production of Tannhaüser,  outraged by a poster displayed within the staging depicting Christ crucified between a woman’s legs. The Church duly took the opera house to court on a charge of abusing the feelings of believers.

Although the judge threw the case out, the opera house's boss Boris Mezdrich, much respected in the arts world, was sacked by the Culture Minister, and was replaced by the banana tycoon, declared bankrupt and government loyalist Vladimir Kekhman, who is also the boss of St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Kekhman instantly binned the offending Tannhaüser and sent its young director Timofei Kulyabin packing.

Now Kekhman happens to be a huge Orthodox supporter, holding three honorary orders from it (Order of St Seraphim of Sarov, Order of St Sergius of Radonezh, and Order of St Prince Daniel of Moscow) for his charity activity and support of Orthodox churches reconstruction (this information from his page on the Mikhailovsky Theatre site).  

And last month once again he let the Church dictate, compelling the opera and ballet companies to put on its required new opera and holding over The Nutcracker from the holy period into safer waters in January (extra performances have been put on to accommodate public demand).

Yesterday came a rebuke for the Church from the state Duma’s Culture Committee, whose deputy chairman, the film director Vladimir Bortko (a Communist Party member) said that the bishop was straying beyond what should concern him. ‘In our country the church is separate from the state - we render to God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’

Another churchman, Archdeacon Andrei Kurayev - a controversial, media-savvy figure whose blog and allegations of a ‘gay lobby’ within the Russian Orthodox Church have made him enemies - suggested that the Novosibirsk bishop had simply not had fairytales when he was a child.  ‘This is a very highly cultured and highly educated man, whose worldview is seen as if through the visor of an armoured car.’ His choice of phrase has itself caused some comment.

Vladimir Urin, boss of the Bolshoi Theatre, where The Nutcracker has been a cherished Christmas family treat for decades, also counter-attacked. The Metropolitan had the right to his own opinion, said Urin, but he had no right to impose it - and Urin and the public had the right to disagree with him.

However, with two examples of enforced censorship by the Church in Novosibirsk, questions need to be asked not of opinions elsewhere but of the man who approved the censorship, Kekhman, general director of the theatre.


Medvedev urges restraint on censorship calls

Arts conflicts committee takes next step

Blasphemous Tannhaüser wins people's award


"The Nutcracker is about a boy who through magic is  turned into a nutcracker doll - hence he is a werewolf"

The Nutcracker is 'occult', declares Russian bishop