Photo: Julian Hargreaves
Since the end of February 2022, in the comments made by several artists or theaters, we have not stopped reading something like: “Art must be separated from politics”. This is an encouraging point and probably correct, but can it be, especially when talking about opera?
Today, as we witness a performance worth hundreds of thousands of dollars of an art form that was originally created for those in power and elite audiences, do you still believe that IS THIS art form far from politics?
Centuries ago, without a good understanding of politics, you would never understand the meaning of the play and you would probably think that “L’incoronazione di Poppea” is just a powerful story of passion with a happy ending; however, Monteverdi wrote it as a brutal satire meant to show wealthy (and power-hungry) Venetian audiences just how horrible and disgusting the Romans were (and what terrible end awaits them all even after the glorious triumph).
When opera had just started, theaters were the center of social life, so it was no surprise that the sharper topics crept onto the stage soon after. This history of opera is also marked by censorship. Verdi’s fights with the censors over his works is arguably the most famous example, but you can also see it in how operas were often adapted under different names with different characters when performed in different countries. or theatres. So, for centuries, what you could see on stage affected the minds of generational leaders. But, as I wrote a few years ago World War II changed the game, cities were in ruins, and amidst all this confusion, we missed how opera and theater lost their social values, replaced by the media of mass and television. Since then, opera has become a treat for sophisticated opera-goers (still hungry for power and valuing status), and the art form has shifted towards perfectly formed performance. Context and social value have taken a back seat.
Audiences may have forgotten the social component, but artists and management continued to pay the price for great performances and their influence on elite audiences. You can become a pop star using YouTube, but to become an opera star you have to sing at La Scala, ROH, and the Met. And these temples of art dictate their own rules just as much as governments.
And no matter how much artists wanted to separate themselves from politics, when the war came, voicing their position for many artists became mandatory to keep their jobs. On top of that, mere rejection of war might not be enough for those who have been associated in any way with Putin in the past.
But were some of the best Russian artists free? Following the legacy of Soviet times, only loyal performers were allowed to achieve star status in 21st century Russia. Anyone expressing criticism encountered serious problems under Putin’s regime and often ended up being judged. Before the war, “supporting” the regime was a usual but not desirable attribute of fame on Russian stages.
Today, as we all follow the unfolding situation with Anna Netrebko and try to guess her true motivation, I found the possible background storylines more interesting than the truth, which I believe we will never know. for sure. But also, the “truth” that would finally be recognized and officially accepted, will show us the balance of power in the industry.
I guess for many artists to condemn war (as Anna Netrebko did in her statement on February 26) would suffice. But by then everyone was already appalled by photos of Netrebko with Putin when he was awarded the title of National Artist of Russia and another taken with separatist leader Oleg Tsaryov holding the flag of “New Russia in eastern Ukraine in 2014. This time, no one would so easily believe Netrebko’s actually very well-written statement. In the following days, the soprano withdraws from all her upcoming engagements at the Met Opera and from all events in Europe, including in Italy, where even the obvious and reasoned cancellation of Gergiev provoked a wave of indignation and protests. both in public and professional circles. The official position towards the famous soprano was absolutely clear.
But if we could stop applying Western practices to this case (those that imply that the artist has a clear understanding of what he is doing offstage, where power can be confronted, and where good deeds can have shades of grey), we must admit that awarding the national artist in the presence of the president as well as supporting Putin in 2012 (and less publicly in 2018) was a usual practice (and almost obligatory for a successful person) in Russia, and several artists who are now leading the protest were also participating in these activities.
The Donbass affair (in 2014 Netrebko donated a million rubles to the Donbass Opera) immediately put the soprano on the sanctions list. But while for the Western world this meant almost direct support for terrorism, the fact that the workers of Donbass Opera were in really difficult conditions was also not disputed. In all of Netrebko’s local interviews, it was easy to see that she was freaked out by the reaction her picture with the flag (which she says had suddenly slipped on her) had caused, but she never thought that anything can outweigh his majestic gesture of goodwill. .
All of these events from the past often came across as the reckless (and not really elaborate) actions of a Diva who wanted to shine in her homeland, where she hadn’t lived in a long time and seemed to have already forgotten how to live in this reality. Was it sheer madness or complete confidence that Putin’s patronage would save her from everything? Either way, trivial caution and conscience would have saved the disgraced queen’s head.
Meanwhile, during the first days of March, the soprano star lost all her engagements in Europe and the United States. And Met manager Peter Gelb said: “It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which she will return to the Met.”
At the end of the month, Netrebko, who was vacationing in Dubai, was also dropped from her European management of Center Stage Arts Management and moved to Berin Iglesias Art.
On March 30, the disgraced soprano returned with a new statement in which she remarked: “I expressly condemn the war against Ukraine and my thoughts are with the victims of this war and their families. My position is clear. I am not a member of any political party and I am not allied with any leader of Russia.
At first I thought it only underscored her lack of understanding of how the modern world works and that the soprano still couldn’t understand that she would now have to pay a much higher price to return.
Industry executives thought so too, Peter Gelb of the Met commented: “We are not prepared to change our position. If Anna demonstrates that she has truly and completely disassociated herself from Putin in the long term, I would be open to having a conversation. Obviously, no arrangement was resumed anywhere after this statement.
But Netrebko’s new manager, in his many bragging-confident interviews in Russia, said the soprano will return to European stages very soon. The artist herself also noted this in her statement: “After taking my announced break, I will resume performances at the end of May, first in Europe.”
What could be hiding behind this confidence? I couldn’t find any reason for this until I saw the news on April 1st. What a strange coincidence (?), the news fell on the day of the fish.
“The Novosibirsk National Opera and Ballet Theater in Siberia has canceled Anna Netrebko’s concert on June 2,” he said.
“Yesterday, the artist made a statement condemning the actions of our state. Living in Europe and having the opportunity to perform in European halls was more important to her than the fate of her homeland. Today, it is not “Now is not the time to sacrifice principles for more comfortable living conditions. Now is the time to make a choice,” the statement read.
Headlines flooded the Western and Russian press. This was immediately called the beginning of the end of the soprano’s career in Russia. And almost immediately afterwards: “The Chairman of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, accused the Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko of having betrayed her country.
All these harsh words… “She has a voice, but no conscience,” Volodin wrote in his Telegram channel.
Oh, give me more, I thought. What a circus.
At that point, I had a major question: is this all as bad for the soprano as it sounds? Or does this “really and completely disassociate” Netrebko from Putin as requested by Gelb?
The Novosibirsk State Theater is indeed a great institution, and yet tours in Siberia are not in the habit of stars like Anna Netrebko, who was mostly seen on the stage of the Bolshoi or Mariinsky. And while the press was shouting about the cancellation, gazeta.ru and some Sankt-Peterburg media noted another interesting fact – the Mariinsky Theater did not question Netrebko’s participation in “Stars of the Nights white” after any of his statements.
Every summer, the Mariinsky Theater traditionally hosts a big festival, the “Stars of White Nights,” led by Putin supporter (and backer) Valery Gergiev. The festival program includes premieres, major symphonic concerts, masterpieces of chamber music and the best opera and ballet productions from the theater’s repertoire.
This event is not the one that Netrebko would like to lose and also, the one that should have been canceled in the first place and with great publicity to underline the refusal of the Russian authorities to engage with the singer. But two more months before the festival leaves enough room in this game to either forgive the artist or use this cancellation to confirm (slowly and systematically) Netrebko’s break with the Russian authorities.
An aggressive call to strip the singer of her titles in the State Duma seems an even less reliable signal. Today, Russian politics finds its true mission either in praising Putin or in pointing out and threatening enemies of the state as loudly as possible in the best traditions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Union Soviet.
The wars of today are not like the wars of the past. They seem to collect all the most terrible features over the centuries and upgrade them with modern technology. However, the art of opera (at least in Russia) seems to be stuck in the Soviet tradition and today we see how one of the greatest sopranos of our time explores the rules of life in a bipolar world. The artist’s actions do not look smart and confident, and so far it is clear that she is trying to sit on two chairs at the same time.
And I could try to predict the outcome, but I don’t think I should. I would base any prediction on logic, laws, and morality, but the one thing I know for sure today is that 21st century politics doesn’t work that way.
However, one thing I am sure of is that 21st century opera is still stuck in politics up to its neck.