Valentina Lisitsa: Freedom of speech is a two-way street Photo: Gilbert Francois

Valentina Lisitsa: Freedom of speech is a two-way street

Jenna Simeonov

I’m by no means the first to weigh in on the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cancel Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa’s performances on April 8-9th. The decision came after the TSO was made aware of some crass tweets on Lisitsa’s Twitter feed, and after they confirmed that Lisitsa was indeed the author of the controversial comments, they made the quick decision to cancel.

Shortly after the media flurry began, Lisitsa tweeted that she had found a new location for the cancelled performance, at Lawrence Park Community Church. In a weird exchange, the minister of the LPCC, Dr. John Suk, tweeted back:

Lisita asked if the LPCC had been threatened into cancelling her performance, and Suk said no. Lisitsa fans proceeded to call him a liar. I’m not sure what kind of miscommunication went on between them, but the exchange added to my general distrust of the censored-artist spin on this story.

The brunt of the frustration over Lisitsa’s cancelled concerts fell upon Torontonian pianist Stewart Goodyear, who agreed to step in on short notice to perform Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Shortly after the news broke, Goodyear was forced to turn down the concert after Lisitsa’s fans loudly opposed his performance. He writes on his Facebook page: “[Lisitsa’s] most recent ‘plea’ to her fans and followers to attack the orchestra that released her of her performance schedule was unfortunate. Free speech has consequences, and one most own one’s position. Dragging other people who have nothing to do with her position does nothing constructive. Her attitude, and the mob-like behavior of her devotees, censored Rachmaninoff’s second concerto. It is no longer on this week’s program.”

So, this is all frustrating. There is quite a bit already written in support of Lisitsa, condemning the TSO’s decision to cancel her performance. There is talk of pressure by donors, which Lisitsa claims is true, but which TSO CEO Jeff Melanson says “is complete fabrication, and she is basically distorting the truth and making this up. We did not cave to pressure by one lobby group over another, and we absolutely are not taking a position politically between Russia and the Ukraine.”

On the topic of donor influence, my hunch is that the truth lies somewhere in the hazy middle ground between Lisitsa’s and Melanson’s accounts. I’m more interested in all the talk about freedom of speech, and the censoring of political opinions.

The thing about free speech is that it works in all directions. I have free speech, you have free speech, we all get to say our opinions and that’s a protected right we have. But that doesn’t mean that what we say doesn’t have a ripple effect.

Lisitsa voiced her opinions on the Ukrainian government, and the TSO, passively as it may have been, voiced their opinions on her opinions. I think it’s an important detail that the TSO never questioned paying Lisitsa as per their contract. They’re not saying that she hasn’t done an exceptional amount of work in preparation for her performance, or that she’s no longer valuable as an artist for expressing her ideas.

The TSO is dissociating themselves from Lisitsa’s opinions. That may seem weak, lame, or passive; it does suggest that there’s more to it than the public will get to know. I don’t think we can honestly ignore that it’s not just about voicing unpopular decisions; how they’re voiced is not negligible. Lisitsa seems to think that she’s tweeting with wit, stating on her Facebook page, “…satire and hyperbole are the best literature tools to combat the lies.”

Courtesy of Musical Toronto, you can find a collection of Lisitsa’s more questionable tweets here (PDF password: MusicalToronto). Frankly, Lisitsa’s tweets were shortsighted and un-witty. She pulled the Nazi card, the goverment-pig card, and the gross card; she used oversimplified memes and photos to explain what I hope she understands are complicated issues surrounding the Ukrainian government. This isn’t satire; even if her opinions hold some truth, she presented herself immaturely and without foresight online.

Like I said, the right to free speech doesn’t mean no one gets to disagree, and when we’re talking about online, it certainly doesn’t mean there won’t be a public reaction. Lisitsa makes good use of her online presence as a pianist, particularly on her YouTube channel. She doesn’t separate her personal and professional on social media, and yet by arguing that her political views (personal) are unrelated to her playing (professional), she asks her audiences to draw the line in the sand. I feel badly for Stewart Goodyear, who caught the brunt end of the mob-like reactions to his stepping in. On that topic, I pose this question to Lisita and her supporters: since your political opinions aren’t allowed to be considered in order for her to play, any perceived opinions of Goodyear’s should be irrelevant, too, right?

I think this story of perceived artist censorship is really a story about how artists represent themselves. There’s nothing anyone can do about what someone thinks about what we say. It doesn’t mean we have to censor ourselves, but we do have to be able to either back up our online footprint, or absorb the ensuing criticism. Lisitsa is arguably a public figure, and she has used that to her professional advantage. Like it or not, her audiences are the same when she’s tweeting about politics. Even if a disgruntled donor kicked this whole thing off, it’s a realistic part of what it means to speak online. I’m not politically wise enough to judge Lisitsa’s opinions, but I don’t blame the TSO for distancing itself from them.

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