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Siberian Theater Head Fired After Opera Runs Afoul Of Church

Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater director Boris Mezdrich attends a court hearing in Novosibirsk on March 10.
Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater director Boris Mezdrich attends a court hearing in Novosibirsk on March 10.

Russia's government has fired the head of a theater in Siberia over an opera production that drew criticism from the Russian Orthodox Church and conservative activists.

Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky dismissed Boris Mezdrich as director of the Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theater on March 29.

Mezdrich came under fire from the conservative, increasingly influential church over an updated staging of Richard Wagner's 19th-century opera Tannhauser.

Activists protested against the production, which portrayed the title character as a director making a film about Jesus visiting Venus's erotic grotto.

Mezdrich's dismissal was announced as thousands of people demonstrated outside the theater in the center of Novosibirsk, saying the production was offensive to Christians and reflected the values of a decadent West.

"Orthodox Christianity is the foundation of the great Russian culture," said one of the signs held by the protesters in Novosibirsk, a city of 1.5 million that is the third-largest in Russia.

The protests reflected what liberals say is an oppressive atmosphere in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has portrayed his country as a bulwark against an immoral West and allowed the Russian Orthodox Church increasing sway over everyday life despite the legal separation of church and state.

A deputy chief of President Vladimir Putin's administration, Magomedsalam Magomedov, said on March 30 that "state theaters must stay away from performances that split Russian society."

Protesters waved flags, including some with Putin's image imposed upon the Russian tricolor and others in the orange and black stripes of the St. George ribbon.

Long associated with commemorations of the victory in World War II, the ribbon is now worn to express support for the Russian-backed separatists fighting in Ukraine.

A local Russian Orthodox cleric filed a lawsuit last month against Mezdrich and the director of the Tannhauser production, Timofei Kulyabin, accusing them of desecrating Christ's image and offending believers.

As the controversy grew in recent weeks, many Russian cultural figures spoke out in defense of the theater's interpretation of the opera.

A court in Novosibirsk cleared Mezdrich and Kulyabin on March 10, saying there was no evidence they violated the law.

Mezdrich had directed the theater since 2011, and also from 2001-08.

Medinsky replaced Mezdrich with Vladimir Kekhman, director of the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg.

Kekhman said on March 30 that he would remain director of both theaters and the Novosibirsk theater will be renamed the Bolshoi Theater of Siberia.

With reporting by TASS, AP, and Interfax
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