Anna Netrebko and the freedom of art
The example of Anna Netrebko demonstrates the revolting hypocrisy with which the cultural world has been able to cancel Russian artists. Fortunately, there are also intendants who show some backbone.
Author : Georg Etscheit
The Russian opera diva is unjustly accused of being close to Putin. She fell out of favor with many organizers and was no longer allowed to perform. At the Wiesbaden May Festival, she is present, thanks to artistic director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, who has to leave in 2024 because of his courage shown during the Corona period.
These are strange times when the culture minister of a German state "asks" the responsible artistic director via Twitter to forego a concert just a few hours before a world-famous singer is due to perform, knowing full well that by doing so she is not only violating artistic freedom but also calling for a breach of contract. Times in which the culture minister of an Eastern European state addresses his Berlin colleague in the same matter and threatens to boycott the concert if his request is not immediately complied with. Times when demonstrators have to be prevented by the police from occupying the venue and visitors who only want to listen to good music can have themselves insulted as sympathizers of an unjust regime and as "Nazis".
This is what happened at this year's International Wiesbaden May Festival, to which the artistic director of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden and organizer of the festival, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, also invited Anna Netrebko, for her role debut as Abigaille in a concert performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco". The opera, with its famous prisoners' chorus, is about the liberation struggle of the Hebrews against the Babylonians, with which Italians identified during the time of their own independence efforts against Austria in the mid-19th century, which helped the work achieve popularity that remains unbroken to this day. Artistically, at least, it was a treat last weekend, according to professional music critics, to experience Netrebko "at the height of her powers."
There is no basis for calling the Russian diva, whose current rank can only be compared to that of Maria Callas, a warmonger. She has always been reticent about making political statements. Unlike in the case of Valery Gergiev, it is also difficult to attest to her special closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, she fell out of favor with numerous Western organizers after the start of the Ukraine war. Munich State Opera Director Serge Dorny, for example, canceled her contracts, as did Peter Gelb, head of the New York Met, who, in addition to her official distancing from the war and the Kremlin, demanded that she explicitly name Putin as a dictator.
Holding on to Netrebko against all odds
After she finally condemned the war against Ukraine more or less clearly, she was canceled in her Russian homeland. The great artist, who in addition to Russian citizenship also has Austrian citizenship and a residence in Vienna, suddenly found herself in the most uncomfortable position imaginable - between all stools. According to the Ukrainian Consul General in Frankfurt, Vadym Kostiuk, Netrebko, of all people, is the "most toxic Russian singer of the present"; it is "inhumane" if she is still allowed to perform "despite resistance from politics, (Wiesbaden) city administration and civil society". Who is actually inhuman here?
Fortunately, there are directors like Laufenberg, who held on to Netrebko's commitment in Wiesbaden against all odds. Even during the corona pandemic, he showed backbone. In several solo appearances on the YouTube channel of the Wiesbaden State Theater, he had criticized, among other things, the restrictions on freedom and encroachments on fundamental rights in the course of the corona policy. Media close to the state, such as the FAZ, immediately placed his remarks in the category of conspiracy theories, a stereotype with which critics are to be silenced. In the process, on May 19, 2020, he succeeded in allegedly becoming the first theater in Europe to play again in compliance with all official hygiene regulations.
When Ukraine, using the Wiesbaden May Festival as an example, tried to enforce its policy of a total boycott of Russian art and Russian artists in Germany as well, and was supported in this by (Hessian) politics, Laufenberg once again fought back. At the same time, he tried, perhaps somewhat clumsily, to take the wind out of his critics' sails by trying to engage the opposition Russian punk rock band "Pussy Riot" after the cancellation of the participation of Ukrainian ensembles in the May Festival because of his adherence to Netrebko. They, for their part, cancelled out of solidarity with Ukraine and will now perform at another venue in Wiesbaden outside the festival at the end of May.
"No political confessions demanded from artists"
Only Nikolaus Bachler, artistic director of the Salzburg Easter Festival, who has invited Netrebko to Salzburg for 2024, and Markus Hinterhäuser, head of the Salzburg Summer Festival, with his adherence to the Russian-based Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis, are as courageous as Laufenberg. The majority of German opera and theater impresarios are trying to muddle through like Serge Dorny in Munich. The Ukrainian flag flies dutifully on his house in Munich, but under the radar screen of a "critical public" that scandalizes every Russian name on a program or cast list, business as usual prevails by and large.
Thus, in the most recent new production of Sergei Prokofiev's opera "War and Peace" after Leo Tolstoy, singers from all parts of the former Soviet Union cavorted around, although it is difficult to say in detail who among them might be living permanently in the West. The Bavarian State Opera "of course does not demand regular political confessions from artists," Dorny's spokesman announced upon request and in a gender-correct manner. The position of the house on Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine may be assumed to be public knowledge. On the question of whether the house would stick to the planned appearance of the great Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov at the upcoming Munich Opera Festival, the spokesman gave a telling answer: none at all.
Cultural journalists such as Axel Brüggemann also accuse Abdrazakov of intolerable proximity to the Kremlin and Russian financial backers. They say he has given himself away for propaganda purposes. The same has not yet been said of the Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk. In any case, she will not participate in the upcoming new production of "Parsifal" at the Bayreuth Festival. Are the officially announced "private reasons" for the cancellation perhaps due to the well-known closeness to the government and the hare-footedness of festival director Katharina Wagner, who still can't let go of the corona mask?
Germany is once again particularly rigid
In other European countries, the ban on Netrebko and other Russian artists and ensembles is much less rigid than in Germany and the United States, for example. Netrebko performs regularly at the Vienna State Opera and La Scala in Milan, and will open the Verona Arena season in June. Teodor Currentzis will soon start a tour of Spain with his Russian period instrument orchestra, MusicAeterna, which has not been well-liked in Germany since individual musicians showed solidarity with Russian actions in Ukraine. Otherwise, he is touring with his new Utopia Orchestra, with which he will also perform at the Salzburg Festival this summer.
Laufenberg will leave the Hessisches Staatstheater after the end of the 2023/24 season to make way for a female "dual leadership." It became known as early as September 2021 that the state government in Wiesbaden was not interested in extending his contract, most likely in response to his opposition to the corona policy. He used the freedom he had thus gained to set an example in the matter of Netrebko: for the freedom of art even and especially in times of war.