• Jean Rafferty

ACROSS POLITICAL DIVIDES?


This weekend cinemas all over the world are showing the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s latest production of Don Carlos, starring Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva. In November the role was due to be sung in Italian by Russian superstar, Anna Netrebko. Now it is doubtful whether she will ever sing for the Met again.




I worship Anna Netrebko. If I were a believer I’d say the Russian soprano’s voice was God-given. It’s a divine voice, a gift - powerful, rich in tone, a great rolling river of sound that submerges the listener, drawing you into infinite realms of emotion and beauty. More than that she is a great artist, constantly pushing herself to develop her repertoire, never standing still. For me she’s the greatest singer since Maria Callas.


But she’s Russian. And that has led to her being blackballed in an art which by definition transcends all national boundaries. Operatic voices are rare and the musicianship and dedication required to succeed immense. Few people have the mixture of talent, professionalism and uniqueness to bring them stardom. As a result every major opera house in the West ships in its stars from all over the world - Elina Garanca from Latvia, Mariusz Kwiecien and Piotr Bzcala from Poland, Juan Diego Florez from Peru, Anita Rachvelishvili from Georgia, Albanian Ermonela Jaho, our own Karen Cargill from Scotland...


Netrebko has been the outstanding star of New York’s Metropolitan Opera for over a decade. During the pandemic she extended her repertoire even further with a shimmering gala performance of lieder. A colleague said of her, Anna’s a force of nature.

Nature, though, has come to a shuddering halt faced with the great juggernaut of political correctness. Because Netrebko will not denounce Vladimir Putin personally – though she has unequivocally denounced the war in Ukraine – she has been relieved of her forthcoming roles with the Met.



Image, Wikimedia Commons


It is a great artistic loss for the Met and for opera, Met General Manager Peter Gelb said earlier this month. Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward.


America has been here before, of course. During the 1950s the Republiucan senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that Hollywood was overrun with Communists. Artists were badgered into denouncing their colleagues, sacked and blacklisted from their jobs as screenwriters, actors, cameramen and directors for being associated with the party, threatened with prison. In the great Land of the Free, a philosophy which posited the equality of human beings was regarded not just as suspicious but as criminal. In 1952, the Screen Writers Guild cravenly authorised the movie studios to remove the screen credits of any workers who had failed to clear themselves before Congress. Many people’s careers never recovered.


Peter Gelb is the modern day equivalent of McCarthy, demanding that his artists swear allegiance to American political views. An insider claims that the Met spent several days trying to convince Netrebko to denounce Putin personally.


But you don’t have to be Russian to be uneasy about US President Joe Biden’s baiting of Putin before the invasion, baiting that Putin publicly construed as provocative. Nor to be uneasy about Biden’s own relationship with Ukraine. His son’s corrupt relationship with Ukrainian gas company Burisma was supposedly misinformation disseminated by the Russians – or was it?

You don’t have to be Russian to be uneasy about Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky, mentioned in the Pandora Papers for being partner in a whole web of offshore companies. He’s been framed as a hero because he actually stayed in his country to do his job instead of fleeing, but you don’t have to be Russian to be uneasy about the former actor’s clear relish for his starring role on the world stage - or downright scared of his wish to make Ukraine a nuclear power.


Anna Netrebko is Russian and, like many of her countrymen and women, is a supporter of Putin. The man the West sees as a dictator has brought stability and prosperity to Russia and is admired by many ordinary Russians. Netrebko was awarded the People’s Artist of Russia honor by Putin in 2008 and is on record as saying that she wished she could have been his lover because she loved his strong, male energy.


Image, Dimitri Sevastopol, www.pixabay.com

She also has family living in Russia. Putin has been implicated in the murders of many dissenters. Five years ago the Washington Post published a list of ten critics of Putin who died in suspicious circumstances – among them the journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova, former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, human rights lawyers, a tycoon, even a former army colonel, Sergei Yushenkov, who believed Putin’s government was behind one of the apartment bombings that helped trigger the Second Chechen war.


Whether Netrebko believes the accusations against Putin or not is irrelevant. Asking that she denounce him when speaking out could place her family in danger is simply immoral.


She is no politician, though our media are trying to frame her as one because she gave money to the war-ravaged Opera Theatre in Donetsk, one of the Russian speaking areas of Ukraine, and was photographed there with a Russian separatist flag. To put that in context, Donetsk, the mostly Russian speaking area of Ukraine, declared itself a republic in 2014, so to blame a Russian for supporting the independent state of Donetsk is the equivalent of blaming a Scot for brandishing a saltire in Glasgow.


As anyone knows who has ever listened to Netrebko sing, she has a huge and passionate heart. She has not been silent but has spoken out forcefully against the war in Ukraine. I am opposed to this war, she said on Instagram. I am Russian and I love my country but I have many friends in Ukraine and the pain and suffering right now breaks my heart. I want this war to end and for people to be able to live in peace.


Where will it all end? Will visiting divas have to salute the American flag and sing The Star Spangled Banner before performing at the Met? Netrebko may be a patriot or she may be protecting her family. Either way she should not be expected to parrot the West’s politics. Forcing artists, or any public figure to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right, she wrote, announcing her withdrawal from performances at La Scala, Milan; Munich; the Opernhaus, Zurich; Denmark.


Throughout the war in Ukraine the West has made the easy choice – freezing the bank accounts of individual oligarchs, targeting individual artists like Netrebko and her fellow Russian, the conductor Valery Gergiev, when instead we should have been turning off Russian gas. Why do we demand that artists make the hard choice?



Image, Zurich Opera House, 4997826, www.pixabay.com



Creative people are as accountable for their political opinions as anyone else, but they’re not exceptional. Should they have to put their careers on the line when none of the rest of us are doing so? Should singers, whose language is the universal one of music, be expected to do so when others are not? The world’s number one male tennis player, Daniil Medvedev, is still playing at tournaments. 44 Russian chess grandmasters have signed a joint statement condemning the war yet the five Russian players left in the final of the FIDE Grand Prix in Berlin have not and they’re still competing. Why are musicians uniquely expected to tug the forelock?


Anna Netrebko sings in Italian, French and German as well as her native Russian. She lives in Vienna and New York. I am an artist and my purpose is to unite across political divides, she wrote. What a forlorn hope in today’s over-hyped, over-heated, unthinking world, where the performance of politics takes precedence over the reality.


As Ukrainians cities burn and thousands of people die or flee, does it matter that the wealthy star of a minority art form has had her career derailed? Not if you think it’s all right to stifle dissent and bully people into accepting your views. A lot like Vladimir Putin, really.

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