Russia's prestigious Bolshoi Theater was embroiled in protests Wednesday as a pro-Kremlin youth group vowed to picket the premiere of an opera written by an iconoclastic Russian writer it has branded a pornographer.
Moving Together, a nationwide youth movement devoted to President Vladimir Putin, has in the past publicly burned books by Vladimir Sorokin, who was commissioned to write the libretto of the new opera. It condemned the state-funded Bolshoi for staging such a work.
"We are protesting that a man who is a pornographer and uses foul language is being given a platform in the Russian State Bolshoi Theater, with state funds," its head Vasily Yakemenko told The Associated Press.
Moving Together activists, who have been holding daily demonstrations outside the theater in the center of Moscow, were planning to stage a protest at its entrance but would not try to disrupt the evening performance of "Children of Rosenthal", he said.
"If people want to go to the opera of a pornographer, that's their choice," said Yakemenko.
The opera, whose music is by avant-garde composer Leonid Desyantnikov, is about a meeting of clones created by a Russian scientist of five great classical composers _ Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky and Verdi.
In 2002, prosecutors opened a criminal case against Sorokin acting on a complaint from the pro-Putin group, but later dropped the investigation. Sorokin's novel "Goluboye Salo," which can be translated as "Blue Lard" or "Gay Lard," depicts sex between former Soviet leaders Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, among other material.
The investigation alarmed free-speech advocates, who fear a return to Soviet-style censorship under Putin, a former KGB officer who was elected in part on the strength of promises to restore order to society.
Four nationalist lawmakers who went to the dress-rehearsal Tuesday walked out before the end.
"I don't understand why there was a choir of prostitutes on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater," Irina Savelyova of the Rodina party told the Gazeta.ru news Web site.
But the head of Russia's federal culture agency, Mikhail Shvydkoi, defended the opera.
"The music is fantastic, and it is a social work about a difficult relationship between the artist and the state. The same heroes exist in Carmen and Madam Butterfly," he said.
The Bolshoi's director, Anatoly Iksanov, said the theater wanted to expand its repertoire beyond classical opera.
"We commissioned it two years ago as we want to stage new works of opera. If I listen to Moving Together, and tomorrow the Communists, then what performances could the Bolshoi stage?" he told Ekho Moskvy radio.
HENRY MEYER Associated Press