Opera + politics + blurry lines + being kind Photo by Julian Hargreaves.

Opera + politics + blurry lines + being kind

Jenna Simeonov

Over the weekend the Metropolitan Opera announced that it “can no longer engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him.”

It’s a gesture of solidary and respect for Ukraine that is relatively small but certainly impactful. I’ll admit I’m surprised by such decisive action from a big old institution like the Met — even pleasantly so.

General manager Peter Gelb is letting the opera world ponder for itself exactly who might be the subjects of the Met’s newly severed ties. Gelb does elaborate to The New York Times about the Met’s upcoming production of Lohengrin, which was supposed to use sets and costumes from the Bolshoi.

“We’re scrambling, but I think we’ll have no choice but to physically build our own sets and costumes,” Mr. Gelb told The New York Times, adding that the Met’s five-year relationship with the Bolshoi would be lost in the “collateral damage” of Putin’s actions.

As for the rest of these Putin-friendly artists, everyone is assuming they include conductor Valery Gergiev and soprano Anna Netrebko, who both have ties to Putin and haven’t been great about condemning the Russian leader’s invasion of Ukraine.

Both Netrebko and Gergiev have endorsed Putin’s election campaigns. Gergiev signed a letter in support of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea; Netrebko was photographed with pro-Russian separatist leader Oleg Tsaryov, holding a separatist flag.

Gergiev has already been dropped by Carnegie Hall, Teatro alla Scala, and his own management. Netrebko is set to sing in the Met’s Turandot starting April 30, and I suppose that’s when we’ll know for sure whether Gelb is serious about keeping one of his major stars off the stage.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s fair to superimpose political expectations upon artists.

“Forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right,” Netrebko wrote on Instagram on Sunday. “I am not an expert in politics. I am an artist and my purpose is to unite people across political divides.”

She says she is “opposed to this war”, that she has friends in Ukraine “and the pain and suffering right now breaks my heart.”

It’s not that her argument isn’t valid — I do think we have a bad habit of expecting fully fleshed-out political opinions from famous people — but it’s still a lot of words that don’t include a plain denouncement of Putin’s actions.

I don’t know Anna Netrebko; we’ve never met, I’ve never interviewed her. She seems like a really strong personality, which makes a lot of sense for a successful opera singer. I get disappointed when she gives off a vibe of backward-thinking, and this current topic isn’t the first.

In 2019 when Netrebko posted a selfie as Aida in dark makeup and followers commented about blackface, she responded with toilet emojis.

Early on during the pandemic, she complained about socially distanced audiences and urged her followers to break quarantine because of a crowded airplane. This one stung extra, because it was irresponsible advice being given by one of opera’s true stars, someone who can not only financially survive all the cancelled shows, but who has worked a ton during the pandemic; that’s quite the contrast to literally most of Netrebko’s colleagues.

If the Met and Anna do end up splitting, what do you think? Does the end justify the means?

For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s fair to superimpose political expectations upon artists. It really isn’t what they signed up for, and we shouldn’t necessarily put weight in what they have to say about global affairs.

At the same time, if you wear blackface in 2019, you’ve got to be quite stubborn indeed not to apologize for it. And if you’re an opera singer who insists that opera-singing shouldn’t be interrupted by a pandemic, I think that you show a really low level of humility.

And: If you’re giving off a pro-Putin vibe to the point where the Met is willing to professionally break up with you, how hard is it to condemn his invasion of Ukraine?

Anyway. If the Met and Anna do end up splitting, what do you think? Does the end justify the means?

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