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Russia reveres its artistic heritage of classical music and ballet. But Western European and American arts organizations are canceling appearances by artists with financial or personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including some of Russia’s biggest stars. At the same time, some Russian and Russian-born artists spoke out against the invasion of Ukraine.
Every individual and institution is trying to figure out what to do at this point – essentially, creating their own foreign policy more or less on the fly.
One American cultural institution that has cut ties with Putin-aligned musicians is New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera. In a video message on Sunday, the opera company’s chief executive, Peter Gelb, made the Met’s position clear.
“We can no longer engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him – not until the invasion and the killings have been stopped, order restored and refunds will not have been made,” he said.
Before a performance on Monday evening, the Met Orchestra and Chorus played and sang the Ukrainian national anthem.
On Thursday, Gelb announced that Russian soprano Anna Netrebko – who is by far one of the Met’s biggest stars – will not perform at the New York opera house at least in November, due to her failure to put Putin out. . One of her replacements is a Ukrainian singer, Liudmyla Monastyrska.
That same afternoon, the prestigious Cliburn Competition – founded by pianist Van Cliburn, whose victory in 1958 at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow became a high point of Cold War diplomacy – declared that it would allow 15 Russian and Russian-born pianists to participate in first-round auditions next week. (The final round of the contest will take place in Fort Worth, Texas in June.)
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is reprehensible and heartbreaking. The Cliburn strongly opposes and condemns this tyranny,” the competition said in a statement Thursday. He continued, “The Russian-born pianists who applied for the Sixteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition are not government officials, and their participation in the Cliburn is not state-sponsored. Therefore, in the vision of our namesake and inspiration, Van Cliburn, and our mandate to support young artists – which is at the very heart of our mission – Russian-born pianists will be allowed to audition for the Cliburn Competition.”
Kira Thurman is a professor of history and German studies at the University of Michigan. She is also a musicologist. She says these debates and decisions about the intersection of art and politics are nothing new — and there’s no way to separate them.
“We’ve totally seen this before, at least throughout the 20th century,” she notes. “This is the dilemma that artists always find themselves confronted with, it is the social and political responsibility of the artist in times of war.”
Thurman cites World War II as an example. “Immediately after the war,” she says, “the Allied forces, including the United States, had a very strong response to artists who had supported Adolf Hitler. The United States military, together with British forces and d others, literally tried and handed down sentences to artists who had supported the Nazis or who had performed and worked under the Nazi regime.”
Thurman points out that the Met itself also has institutional experience in making these decisions. “For example,” she says, “in the late 1930s they decided it was no longer acceptable to perform Richard Wagner’s play The Meistersinger of Nuremberg.” (Meistersinger is one of Wagner’s most blatantly anti-Semitic operas, and it was held in particularly high esteem by the Nazis.)
Because of this, Thurman continues, “It had become too great a political responsibility for the Met to continue to play this opera. At the same time, however, what is so interesting is that after the war we let’s see a wide range of artists who had been associated with the Nazis, come and play on different American opera stages, and also continue to perform throughout Europe.”
Conductor Semyon Bychkov was born in Saint Petersburg and emigrated in 1975. He is currently Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and has spoken out against the invasion, while canceling an appearance in June in Moscow. He says he believes the current situation is not just about art versus politics.
“It’s a matter of life and death,” Bychkov said firmly. “To be silent in moments like this, for me, it is not possible. I am an artist and that is what I do. But art is not separate from life. In fact, the art reflects life. It expresses it, and music does.” in the most extraordinary and eloquent way possible.”
He continues: “What we are experiencing at the moment is a situation of unspeakable suffering. Whether I am a musician or whether I was a doctor, engineer, driver, it does not matter. I am above all a human being”. , and we live in the community of human beings. And when you see this kind of suffering inflicted on people who have done nothing but want to pursue their path to national independence, to make their own choices, they have not harmed anyone.”
Bychkov, who is Jewish, adds: “We have seen this kind of thing in history. It’s not the first time — and each time we say it should never happen again, and it does. That’s why I couldn’t keep silent. .”
Bychkov says he understands why some Russian artists are in a very difficult position right now, though.
“You have to be aware that Russia today is not a free country. It is no freer than it was in those days, the very dark times, of Stalin,” he says. . “It’s a real dictatorship and the people who live there, life is complicated. They have families. They have jobs. They have obligations imposed on them. I would never judge them because it is really very hard. .”
Bychkov warns against this, however. “The only people I oppose are people who don’t think what is happening is so horrible, so inappropriate and so unacceptable. And they support the action the government has taken to invade Ukraine. They will find millions of reasons to say that it is justified.”
Thurman warns that in these hot times, the impulse to stay away from some artists allied with Putin means that all Russian artists – and the public – could be looked down upon, because of Putin’s actions, even outside the official sanctions.
She adds, “At what point can we try to cling to the idea that art can bring us together even in times of conflict, and that art can be the bridge, so to speak, that we can use to communicating with others through these terrible times and terrible times? I think the answer is always, in my opinion, to think flexibly and really have context behind the decision.”
For now, each individual and each institution must make their own choices.