Moscow: Russia has sacked the head of a Siberian theatre after its radical staging of a Richard Wagner opera angered the powerful Russian Orthodox Church and prompted street protests.
Culture minister Vladimir Medinsky yesterday fired the head of Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre over a controversial staging of Wagner's Tannhaeuser that senior clerics said desecrated the image of Christ.
The sacking of the head of the acclaimed theatre, Boris Mezdrich, is the culmination of a scandal over a production featuring Jesus Christ and the cross on stage and on posters.
The theatre has been subjected to legal action, checks into its finances and several large protests by believers.
The Church's head of public affairs, Vsevolod Chaplin, condemned the staging as "desecration of a symbol revered by Christians".
Wagner's 1845 opera focuses on a man torn between frolicking with the goddess of love Venus in her grotto and seeking salvation in the Church.
The contemporary staging in Novosibirsk shifts the action to the present day, with Tannhaeuser a movie director making a film about Jesus visiting Venus's erotic grotto.
Medinsky blasted the theatre, saying: "Actions carried out at the state's expense... Should not introduce division in society" or cause "mass protests, speeches, court cases and rallies."
A fiercely pro-Kremlin state television commentator, Dmitry Kiselyov, said the culture ministry "gave money for Wagner and got Christ in a bordello."
The scandal has sparked comparisons with Pussy Riot's punk protest in a Moscow church in 2012.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina received two-year prison sentences for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for their protest against President Vladimir Putin. They were released in late 2013.
Russian liberal media fiercely criticised the firing of the theatre chief.
Vedomosti business daily today said it was "the first case of an openly repressive decision" by Medinsky, whose ministry funds much of Russia's vibrant arts scene.
Opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta warned of a "broad offensive against creative freedom in Russia."
The scandal first erupted in February when a senior regional cleric contacted prosecutors, saying believers objected to the opera, although he himself had not seen it.
Prosecutors said the opera "publicly desecrated" a religious symbol.
A civil court then threw out the case, but the culture ministry and the Church have since piled pressure on the theatre.
One senior cleric, Archpriest Leonid Kalinin, called the opera "blasphemy that insults us."