New York Met’s Peter Gelb: ‘We’re canceling Putin, not Pushkin’ | The music
In the last week of February, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, was in Moscow to catch a glimpse of the dress rehearsal for the Met’s co-production with the Bolshoi Theater of Wagner’s Lohengrin. Six days later, minutes before the curtain went up on the new season in New York, Gelb watched Vladyslav Buialskyi, a 24-year-old Ukrainian bass-baritone in the Met’s Young Artists Program, hastily give a pronunciation lesson. ad hoc au Met the choir to sing the Ukrainian national anthem before the performance. Within a week, relations with the Bolshoi had been severed, plans to build sets and costumes for an exclusively home-produced Lohengrin had begun, and Anna Netrebko, the leading soprano of her generation and the longtime Met star, has pulled out of her performances. with the company without giving up on Vladimir Putin.
“When I was in Moscow, there was obviously a lot of political tension in the air,” Gelb says. “I remember talking to colleagues at the Bolshoi about how, at times like this, artistic exchange is more important than ever. That’s what I was trying to say. That’s how I’ve worked all my life. But then I got off a 10 hour flight home and what everyone thought was unthinkable, but had apparently been planned all along, happened. Putin had invaded Ukraine and at that time I switched gears. There was no great moral dilemma or difficult decision to be made. We immediately had to sever relations with the organizations supported by Putin, including unfortunately the Bolshoi. I admire them a lot artistically, but it’s Putin who literally signs my counterpart’s contract there and so the decision was clear.
The art world’s response to the invasion of Ukraine was immediate and far-reaching. From Louis Tomlinson hosting Russian concerts and the postponed release of The Batman, to paintings recalled to Madrid’s Prado Museum from Moscow and the Queen holding swords due to travel to Russia. Donors, trustees and board members linked to Putin have been forced to resign from prestigious arts institutions around the world. There have been high-profile concerts and performances to raise funds for Ukrainian charities, but also a slew of cancellations, resignations and withdrawals from classical music and dance, including the exclusion of young Russian pianists competitions and Tchaikovsky’s abandonment of performances.
The Met provides a useful case study of some of the moral, practical and aesthetic challenges faced by cultural organizations as they negotiate the repercussions of war. And Gelb has an almost unique perspective. Long before assuming his current role as the most powerful person in opera, he had demonstrated a Zelig-like propensity to be present at times when East/West politics intersected with classical music. In the 1970s, Gelb took the Boston Symphony Orchestra to China at the end of the Cultural Revolution to mark the normalization of relations between President Jimmy Carter and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. During the Cold War of the 1980s, Gelb worked with Vladimir Horowitz when the great pianist returned to the Soviet Union after more than 60 years of exile. Gelb was on another musical assignment in Berlin when the wall came down and was in Leningrad, producing a televised concert for Tchaikovsky’s 150th birthday in 1990, the day money rationing was introduced as the Soviet Union was heading for collapse.
The two classical musicians most closely associated with Putin are conductor Valery Gergiev and Netrebko. The hyperactive Gergiev was let down by institutions he was associated with outside of Russia – and also by his own management – but that wasn’t a direct problem for the Met as there were no plans to work with him . Netrebko was another matter. For two decades, she had been more or less the face of the Met: its reigning diva who received many plum premieres and, just as prestigious today, its live HD broadcasts to cinemas around the world.
“It was a painful but obvious decision,” Gelb says. “When I arrived at the Met, Netrebko had just been launched and I immediately saw that he was someone whose career the Met could hang their hats on, and vice versa. I offered him, deservedly, a huge range of roles and opportunities against which the careers of opera singers are measured. Gelb says he wanted to give Netrebko a chance to disown Putin but “she got into this impossible position where she couldn’t put him away. And even if I hadn’t made the decision for moral reasons, on a practical level, there’s no way she could play. Our audience wouldn’t allow it. No. Netrebko’s later statements seeking to clarify his position, and expressly condemning the war on Ukraine, did not change matters for the Met.
Gelb is careful to point out the details of Netrebko’s case. “She took a public stance over a period of years. Most Russian artists, including other singers who perform at the Met, have taken no public political stance. Their private positions are theirs to keep private. I don’t have a problem with that. We don’t ask them to fill out questionnaires, or for their loyalty to the Met or the West. We don’t do any of that and I don’t think it’s appropriate either.
This position is now becoming classical music orthodoxy with a petition signed by the likes of Simon Rattle, Antonio Pappano, Nicola Benedetti and others calling for an end to any “general boycott against Russian and Belarusian artists”. Gelb cites the case of Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko, now playing the title role in The Met’s Eugene Onegin alongside several other Russian artists in smaller roles. “He is one of the great hopes of Verdi’s baritone and we have engaged him in many productions. It is ridiculous if artists are fired because they are Russian and it is wrong that some orchestras and opera companies cancel Russian repertoire. It sends exactly the wrong message. Great Russian masterpieces are not responsible for Putin. We cancel Putin, not Pushkin. We are therefore not going to modify our plans for executing the Russian directory.
Musicians of all persuasions responded to the invasion, from Russian rappers expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian band that adapted the Clash classic to Kyiv Calling, to Odessa opera singers performing in front of tank traps set up to protect their building. Bolshoi leaders were among the Russian artistic signatories of a petition calling for peace. In times of national and international crisis – and triumph – classical music can find itself intertwined with statehood and diplomacy. The Met’s relationship with government officials in the United States is “non-existent”, says Gelb, but the Met’s concert for Ukraine held shortly after the invasion was attended by 35 UN ambassadors, including that of the states -United. “It was probably the closest that art and politics in the United States had been aligned in a few years. Not that we necessarily seek government approval. We were making an artistic statement of solidarity. But I think our government wanted to show its support because the Ukrainian ambassador was the guest of honour.
Gelb was delighted that the concert was broadcast on Ukrainian public radio and notes other unforeseen benefits for Ukrainian music. Netrebko’s absence prompted the need for a replacement in the next production of Turandot. “The best soprano available was Liudmyla Monastyrska. We didn’t hire her because she’s Ukrainian, but the fact that she is and will be performing on stage and in the HD broadcast perhaps does some poetic justice.
Half an hour after Buialskyi coached the choir, he was on stage at the season opener Don Carlos. “He is part of the contingent of Flemish deputies who sing this beautiful melody to King Philip II, who of course destroys them in the name of the Spanish Inquisition,” says Gelb. “The parallel does not go unnoticed by our audience.”
Although he has repeatedly found himself at the confluence of art and politics over the years, Gelb notes that cultural exchanges usually occur as the “first steps of re-engagement.” Even at the height of the Cold War with Horowitz in Moscow, etc., it was seen as a step forward. It’s a different situation. I hope that art will play its part in a wider reconciliation in due course, but at the moment with the war raging it is hard to see a direct role that art can play and of course who can make us feel helpless. But at the same time, it’s important to do what we can and for us, that’s making a difference in people’s morale. To provide moral support to Ukraine, to demonstrate the power of a united world against Putin and wherever possible in these dark times, to nourish the soul.