The Netrebko Question

MONTE CARLO — Anna Netrebko, the superstar Russian soprano, stood on the steps of the ornate Casino de Monte-Carlo, taking photos with friends and watching Aston Martins and Ferraris zoom through the night.

“It feels quiet and peaceful here,” she said in a brief interview outside the casino shortly before midnight. “And everybody loves each other, which is very rare.”

It was late April, and Netrebko had just finished a performance of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” at Opéra de Monte-Carlo. It was not how she had planned to spend the evening: She was supposed to be nearly 4,000 miles away, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, headlining in another Puccini opera, “Turandot.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Netrebko announced that she opposed the war but declined to criticize President Vladimir V. Putin, whom she has long supported. Almost overnight she was transformed from one of classical music’s most popular and bankable stars into something of a pariah. Appearances at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Zurich Opera and the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, were called off. The Met Opera, where she has been the reigning prima donna for years, canceled her contracts for two seasons and warned that she might never return.

The Monte Carlo engagement, her first in more than two months, was the start of an effort to rebuild her imperiled career. It was perhaps an unusual setting to stage a comeback: Its 517-seat jewel box of an opera house is attached to the famous casino, with slot machines near the lobby. Netrebko, whose seasons are usually booked years in advance, was invited at the last minute, when a singer contracted the coronavirus and efforts to bring in two other replacements were unsuccessful.

But Netrebko was warmly received, winning ovations and shouts of “Brava!” at her final performance. (That same night in New York, Liudmyla Monastyrska, the Ukrainian soprano who replaced her at the Met, was cheered when she wrapped herself in a Ukrainian flag for her curtain calls.)

After the performance, as Netrebko walked back to the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo with her husband, the tenor Yusif Eyvazov, who had starred with her in “Manon Lescaut,” she said she felt a reprieve from the scrutiny of critics in the United States and Europe, as well as in Russia, where she had recently come under fire for speaking out against the war.

“They shoot you from both sides,” she said, forming her hand into the shape of a gun.

Anna Netrebko and her husband, Yusif Eyvazov, performing “Manon Lescaut” in Monte Carlo, part of an effort to rebuild her career.Credit…Alain Hanel – OMC

Classical music’s answer to Beyoncé

After the invasion of Ukraine, cultural institutions in the United States and Europe denounced Moscow. And they were confronted with difficult decisions about how to deal with Russian artists.

Many cut ties with close associates of Putin — especially the conductor Valery Gergiev, a longtime friend and prominent supporter of the Russian president. Gergiev, who leads the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, where he nurtured Netrebko’s career, has conducted concerts over the years that were freighted with political meaning, including one in a breakaway region of Georgia and another in Palmyra, after it was retaken by Syrian and Russian forces.

Other Western institutions, though, were criticized for overreach after they canceled performances by Russian artists who were not closely identified with politics, and even with some who had spoken out against the invasion.

Now many cultural organizations face an uncomfortable question: What to do about Netrebko?

Her ties to Putin are not as deep as Gergiev’s, but they are substantial, according to a New York Times review of news reports in Russian and English and public records.

Her name appeared on a list endorsing Putin’s election in 2012, and she has spoken glowingly of him over the years, describing him as “a very attractive man” and praising his “strong, male energy.” In 2017, in the run-up to Putin’s re-election, she told a Russian state news agency that it was “impossible to think of a better president for Russia.” She has also occasionally lent support to his policies; she once circulated a statement by Putin on Instagram alongside flexed biceps emojis. In 2014, she donated to an opera house in Donetsk, a war-torn city in Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists, and was photographed holding a separatist flag.

Putin, in turn, has showered Netrebko with praise and awards over the years. She was invited to sing at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and other state celebrations. Last September, on her 50th birthday, he sent a telegram calling her the pride of Russia, and describing her as an “open, charming and friendly person, with an uplifting personality and a clear-cut civic stance.” At a concert celebrating her birthday at the State Kremlin Palace, the president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, read Putin’s message from the stage.

Before the invasion, Netrebko was at the height of her career. With a larger-than-life personality and a taste for extravagance, she built a loyal fan base and was sometimes called classical music’s answer to Beyoncé.

Now she hopes to persuade the cultural world to look beyond her ties to Putin. She has hired a crisis communications firm, lobbied opera houses and concert halls for engagements and filed a labor grievance against the Met.

Netrebko with Putin when he awarded her the title of People’s Artist of Russia in 2008 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.Credit…Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said it would be “immoral” to engage her during the war. The Met has worked to rally support for Ukraine, hosting a benefit concert and helping form an orchestra of Ukrainians, to be led by Gelb’s wife, the Canadian Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson. The company recently cut ties with another Russian singer, Hibla Gerzmava, who had also spoken in support of Putin.

“She is inextricably associated with Putin,” Gelb said of Netrebko. “She has ideologically and in action demonstrated that over a period of years. I don’t see any way that we could possibly do a back flip.”

Netrebko has declined repeated requests for an interview from The New York Times over the past several months.

Elsewhere, Netrebko’s comeback is gaining momentum. Several European institutions that had sought distance from her have recently announced plans to engage her, some as soon as next year. In late May, she sang recitals before enthusiastic crowds in Paris and Milan, where her concert at Teatro alla Scala sold out. Italian news outlets declared it a “triumph,” writing, “Anna Netrebko retakes La Scala: flowers and applause after her break for the war.”

In other theaters, she has faced boycotts, protests and persistent questions about her ties to Putin.

At a concert at the Philharmonie de Paris last month, about 50 Ukrainian activists staged a die-in outside the theater. They played a soundtrack that mixed the music of Tchaikovsky with gunshots and sirens meant to evoke the war. A woman dressed as Netrebko, with fake bloodstains on her dress, danced as the protesters lie still on the ground.

‘I’m still a Russian citizen’

Netrebko was in Moscow with her husband, her frequent artistic collaborator, when the invasion began, on Feb. 24. The night before, the two had performed in Barvikha, a town of villas and luxury boutiques near Moscow, singing works by Verdi and Puccini before an audience of wealthy Russians. Tickets for the concert, sponsored by the Swiss jeweler Chopard, for which Netrebko serves as a brand ambassador, sold for as much as $2,000 apiece.

The trouble for Netrebko started almost immediately. When she and her husband arrived for a concert in Denmark scheduled for the day after the invasion, she was forced to cancel amid an outcry from local politicians.

In the days that followed she came under pressure to forcefully denounce the invasion. A diva for the digital age, with more than 700,000 followers on Instagram, she preferred to speak directly to her fans in English and Russian on social media.

On Feb. 26, she posted a statement opposing the war. But she also seemed to resent the scrutiny, adding, “Forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right.” In another post, alongside heart and praying hands emojis, she shared a text that used an expletive to refer to her Western critics, saying they were “as evil as blind aggressors.”

As her cancellations mounted, her behavior grew more unpredictable. In early March she sent a photo on WhatsApp to a senior executive at Deutsche Grammophon, her longtime label, who had been trying to reach her, according to a person briefed on the photo, who was granted anonymity to discuss private interactions. The photo showed what appeared to be Netrebko’s hand holding a bottle of tequila up to a television with Putin on the screen, the person said. Her decision to send the photo frustrated friends and advisers, who saw it as unprofessional and worried it could further damage her career, the person said. Netrebko’s representatives declined to comment on the photo.

Netrebko has a history of courting controversy. When the Met tried to stop her from using makeup to darken her skin during a production of “Aida” in 2018, concerned that the practice recalled blackface, she went to a tanning salon instead. The next year, appearing with dark makeup in a production of “Aida” at the Mariinsky, she wrote on Instagram, “Black Face and Black Body for Ethiopian princess, for Verdi greatest opera! YES!”

As the war intensified, the Met’s general manager, Gelb, called Netrebko’s representatives and asked her to denounce Putin. Netrebko demurred, and during their last conversation, Netrebko told Gelb she had to stand with her country, Gelb said. Gelb, who had made Netrebko a cornerstone of his efforts to rejuvenate the company, canceled her contracts and said she might never return to the Met.

Netrebko, a citizen of Russia and Austria who lives in Vienna, has since made it clear that she would not criticize Putin. “No one in Russia can,” she said in an interview with Die Zeit, a German newspaper, published this month. “Putin is still the president of Russia. I’m still a Russian citizen, so you can’t do something like that. Do you understand? So I declined to make such a statement.”

“Anna Netrebko retakes La Scala,” one Italian news outlet wrote after Netrebko performed a sold-out recital there in May.Credit…Brescia and Amisano, via Teatro alla Scala

‘I am guilty of nothing!’

Netrebko and Putin have crossed paths for decades, sharing a friendship with Gergiev, whom Netrebko has called her “godfather in music.” It was at the Mariinsky, run by Gergiev, that Netrebko made her career, rising from a promising vocal student who washed the theater’s floors as a part-time job to become one of the company’s biggest stars.

From his perch in the royal box at the Mariinsky, Putin often saw Netrebko perform, going back to at least 2000, when she was 28 and starred as Natasha Rostova in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace,” according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Netrebko was the “undisputed star of the performance,” the newspaper wrote.

Netrebko became one of Russia’s most famous cultural ambassadors, and in 2008 Putin awarded her the title of People’s Artist, the country’s highest honor for performers, at a ceremony in St. Petersburg that also featured Gergiev.

Netrebko, in turn, seemed to embrace Putin’s brand of nationalism. She has been photographed wearing the black-and-orange St. George ribbon, a symbol of the Russian military that has become popular among Putin supporters, and a T-shirt celebrating a victory in World War II.

“I am always unambiguously for Russia and I perceive attacks on my country extremely negatively,” she said in a 2009 interview with a Russian state-owned newspaper, in which she denounced foreign news coverage of the war in Georgia.

How the Ukraine War Is Affecting the Cultural World

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Gavriel Heine. The American conductor, a fixture at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, for 15 years, has resigned from his post as one of the state-run theater’s resident conductors. He said in a series of interviews that he had been increasingly disturbed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Valentin Silvestrov. Ukraine’s best-known living composer, Mr. Silvestrov made his way from his home in Kyiv to Berlin, where he is now sheltering. In recent weeks, his consoling music has taken on new significance for listeners in his war-torn country.

Anna Netrebko. The superstar Russian soprano faced backlash in Russia after she tried to distance herself from President Vladimir V. Putin with a statement condemning the war. She had previously lost work in the West because of her past support for Mr. Putin.

Olga Smirnova. A principal soloist at the Bolshoi Ballet since 2016, Ms. Smirnova announced that she had joined the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, becoming one of the most significant Russian cultural figures to leave the country because of its invasion of Ukraine.

Valery Gergiev. The star Russian maestro and vocal supporter of Mr. Putin was removed from his post as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic after he refused to denounce Russia’s actions in Ukraine. His abrupt dismissal came three years before his contract was set to expire.

Alexei Ratmansky. The choreographer, who grew up in Kyiv, was preparing a new ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow when the invasion began, and immediately decided to leave Moscow. The ballet, whose premiere was set for March 30, was postponed indefinitely.

In 2014, she stirred controversy when she made the donation of a million rubles — then roughly $18,500 — to the opera house in Donetsk. At the time, Putin had annexed Crimea and was escalating military pressure on Ukraine. Netrebko has since said that she was caught off guard and not aware of the significance of the separatist flag.

In recent days, Netrebko has sought more distance from Putin. She said in an interview last month with the French newspaper Le Monde that she did not vote in the 2018 election.

“Over the past 20 years, Vladimir Putin has done a lot for culture, the arts and artists, to the point that Russia is today a world cultural capital,” she told Le Monde. “Many artists have voted for him. But I never did any campaigning, including by going to sing in Russian cities.”

“I am not guilty,” she added. “I am guilty of nothing!”

Ukrainian activists staged a die-in outside Philharmonie de Paris when Netrebko performed there in May.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Attempts at a comeback

In the spring, with her career in disarray, Netrebko sought a turnaround.

She parted ways with her longtime manager, Judith Neuhoff, who had urged her to denounce Putin, and brought in Miguel Esteban, a music producer who had helped handle her finances. With the assistance of the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union representing opera singers, she filed a labor grievance against the Met. She is expected to seek more than $350,000 in compensation.

To ease concerns among presenters and boards, she canceled her appearances in Russia, including at a festival run by Gergiev. She stopped speaking about politics on Instagram. In late March, Netrebko issued a statement distancing herself more explicitly from Putin. She said she had met the president only a few times and that she was not “allied with any leader of Russia.” But she avoided directly criticizing Putin or addressing her record of support for him.

While her opposition to the war cost her some engagements in Russia — a senior lawmaker called her a traitor — her approach seemed to work in European institutions, with invitations from Monte Carlo and Berlin soon following.

Jean-Louis Grinda, the director of Opéra de Monte-Carlo, said he was reassured by Netrebko’s comments opposing the war.

“She produced a statement against the war, and it was very clear,” he said.

When she arrived in Monte Carlo, Netrebko apologized to Grinda for the scrutiny her appearance might bring, he said, and expressed concern that performances might be disrupted by protests. Grinda said he told her it was a risk she had to accept.

Matthias Schulz, director of the Berliner Staatsoper, which is planning to engage Netrebko in fall 2023, said Netrebko seemed pained by the invasion during a recent 40-minute video call.

“I really could see that she suffers under this situation,” he said.

Schulz said he did not think it was appropriate to ask her to distance herself further from Putin, given the risks she might face as a Russian citizen. (She still has family living in Russia.)

Netrebko has been trying in recent weeks to win allies in other American institutions, including Carnegie Hall, San Francisco Opera and the New York Philharmonic, with her representatives sending letters pitching the idea of comeback concerts. But so far, no American institution has announced engagements.

“We didn’t have much of a relationship with her anyway, and now would hardly seem a time to start one,” said Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and chief executive.

Gelb said that while he would “never say never” to Netrebko returning to the Met, he could not imagine such a scenario until Putin was out of power and Netrebko had demonstrated remorse, such as by performing benefit concerts for Ukraine. He said Netrebko “put herself in this position by being a staunch Putin supporter.”

“If other opera companies can find some equivocation or rationalization,” he added, “that’s their problem.”

‘As a human, you can’t be silent’

Netrebko at the Philharmonie in Paris. “Anna was prepared to get any kind of reaction from the audience,” said another singer on the program.Credit…Jan Crowther

After the recital in Paris last month, the protesters surrounded departing audience members and chanted, “Netrebko, collaborator.” They handed out fliers reading, “You are supporting the Putin propagandist Netrebko and thus supporting the Russian regime and all its horrors.”

Sophia Anisimova, 25, a singer and a recent graduate of the Kharkiv National University of Arts, held a sign showing scenes of destruction at her school amid the Russian invasion.

“She’s an amazing singer, but as a human, you can’t be silent,” she said. “Our families are struggling, our children are dying and our women are suffering.”

Before the recital, Netrebko huddled with others performing that night to discuss what to do in case of a disruption. “Anna was prepared to get any kind of reaction from the audience,” said Elena Maximova, a mezzo-soprano who sang on the program, but was “greeted by the audience like a queen.”

At the start of her recital, though, one man, addressing her as Anna, began shouting loudly about the war in Ukraine from a balcony. She paused and smiled, maintaining her composure, as the audience booed the man and he exited the theater.

Then she began to sing.

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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