How many opera divas can boast among their vocal supporters both an internationally-sanctioned separatist leader wanted for treason in his country and a preeminent US cultural institution? Until slightly over two weeks ago Anna Netrebko was known for her exceptional voice and a little bit as a face of Austrian Airlines. Since appearing, on December 7, in St. Petersburg, Russia at a joint press conference with Oleg Tsarev, the so-called speaker of the so-called parliament of the so-called Novorossiya, Ms. Netrebko has also become known for her support of the Russia-backed and supplied separatists in Ukraine. Understandably, that support immediately generated an international wave of consternation towards Ms. Netrebko. In response, the separatists have sought to push back, including by staging a second press conference on December 23 in Moscow for Mr. Tsarev and several Russian cultural figures to voice their support for Ms. Netrebko.
At the December 7 press conference Ms. Netrebko, dressed in the colors of the so-called Novorossiya, transferred to Mr. Tsarev a sum of 1 million rubles and together with Mr. Tsarev posed for photographs holding the flag of that entity. The money, Ms. Neterbko said, was meant for the Donbas Opera in Donetsk which Ms. Netrebko claimed was severely damaged in the fighting. YouTube clips posted in response show a building that not only sustained no damage, but does not even seem to require a paint job. In fact, the building’s façade prominently displays huge banners advertising upcoming performances. This is entirely unsurprising since no fighting has taken place near the theater.
Does Ms. Netrebko believe that the public is incapable of ascertaining simple facts or does she want us to believe that she is the one who is incapable of it? This is not the only time since December 7 that Ms. Netrebko has counted on us to play dumb. Facing the immediate backlash for posing with a figure as odious as Mr. Tsarev, she attempted to claim that she did not know that a flag would make an appearance and that she had not planned to take pictures with the flag. Mr. Tsarev, however, has repeatedly stated that the planning for that press conference went on for two weeks and that everything including the presentation of the flag was planned out.
While Austrian Airlines immediately released a statement, canceled any further dealings with Ms. Netrebko and removed from their website all clips featuring her, the Met where Ms. Netrebko is scheduled to star starting on January 26, does not appear to be nearly as discriminating. Responding to the open letter from a volunteer organization Arts Against Aggression, Met Opera Customer Relations stated that they are proud that Ms. Netrebko sings at the Met. They also state that “[a]s an artistic institution that believes in freedom of expression, the Met does not have to be in agreement with the personal views of the artists who perform on its stage.”
I know that I am not alone in finding this answer sorely lacking and in having several follow up questions for the Met. Chief among these questions is whether any and all personal views of artists are OK by the Met, or whether there is in fact a line crossing which would get an artist disinvited from performing at the Met. To wit, would the Met still be proud to have an artist perform there if that artist materially supported the Taliban? While comparison to an organization proudly claiming responsibility for the murder of 132 students, 10 teachers and 3 soldiers in a recent school attack in Pakistan may seem harsh, consider that the forces of the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” (DNR and LNR) that make up the so-called Novorossiya are responsible for the July 17 shooting down of MH17 with 298 people on board, including 80 children.
Ms. Netrebko and her supporters would like us to believe that the money was needed by and went to cover the needs of the Donbas Opera. However, no credible report exists that shows the money actually being used for the needs of the theater. In fact, at the December 23 press conference Mr. Tsarev made two conflicting statements about the money within thirty minutes of each other—first, in his opening statement he claimed that half the money went to repair the decorations and the building that suffered in the fighting and half to pay salaries of the artists. During the question and answer section, however, he stated that 304 employees of the theater got three thousand ruble apiece with eighty more thousand going to repair of “light damages.” Curiously, he claimed that the remaining eight thousand ruble went to purchase medicines, since in wartime “the theater goes through those as through food.” Perhaps going through some medicines as if it is food would actually explain Mr. Tsarev’s contradictory statements. More importantly, at that same press conference Mr. Tsarev claimed that he remains in constant contact with Ms. Netrebko and that the latter has no doubt that she did the right thing.
So is Mr. Tsarev lying—would not be the first time for him by any means,– or is Ms. Netrebko standing by her support of the so-called Novorossiya, the flag of which is stained with the blood of the passengers and crew of MH17 and thousands of Ukrainian citizens, not to mention thousands of Russian soldiers and mercenaries that have laid down their lives this past year? And is the Met, singing oddly in tune with Mr. Tsarev, standing by their support of Ms. Netrebko?
Artists and their art can stand apart from politics. However, artists who use their artistic reputations to further a political cause cannot then be allowed to hide behind that reputation and claim to not be political actors. Ms. Netrebko and the Met owe a better answer to the patrons and to the many institutional supporters of the Met. We call upon the patrons and journalists to demand such an answer, and we hope to hear it soon.
Featured image: Ms.Netrebko at a press conference with Mr.Tsarev