iron curtain call

The Met Opera’s Big Breakup With the Bolshoi Is Worse Than in the Cold War

Photo: Jonathan Tichler

Last night, the 24-year-old bass-baritone Vladylsav Buialskyi made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Vlad’s mind, however, was 5,000 miles east in Ukraine, with his friends and family in Berdyansk, a port on the sea of Azov. When the Sputnik chandeliers ascended, Vlad was not in the role of the Flemish deputy in Verdi’s Don Carlos, for which he had rehearsed. Instead, he was standing center stage with his hand over his heart as the Met’s chorus and orchestra played the Ukrainian national anthem for an entire opera house on its feet. “Yesterday was maybe the most emotional moment of my life,” he says, “because I feel that not only me, but all my country, understands that the whole world supports us.”

Indeed, as Vladimir Putin presses on, an unprecedented backlash from the world’s artistic and cultural elite has crescendoed. “Nobody wants this war except for Putin, and the Russian artists are all collateral damage,” says Peter Gelb, who runs the Met, and was himself in Moscow only hours before the invasion commenced, checking in on a production of Wagner’s Lohengrin that his opera house has been producing in collaboration with the Bolshoi Theater. “We’re not going to be working with any artists who are supporting Putin or who Putin supports,” Gelb says.

But who does that mean, exactly? Artistic connections between Russia and the rest of the opera and classical worlds run deep — and for Gelb and the Met in particular. Gelb’s wife, the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, often performs in Russia and was due to conduct in Odessa, Ukraine, next week. Gelb took one of the last flights out of Moscow before heavy sanctions and European airspace bans went into effect. “The Russian people I was with, nobody thought this would happen,” says Gelb. His counterpart at the Bolshoi, Vladimir Urin, was one of a number of Russian artists to sign a letter of opposition to the war. (Last fall, while I was writing about the Met, Urin told me that working with Gelb “is sheer pleasure. He is a man of his word. He keeps his promises.”) Now, Gelb has, at least for now, severed all ties with the Bolshoi, and therefore Urin, too, despite his personal stances. And yesterday morning, he had the idea of giving Buialskyi center stage.

This ban is likely to impact Anna Netrebko, the Russian diva who is thought of as the Met’s biggest star and is set to play the title role in Puccini’s Turandot in April. A noted Putin pal, she’s been posting statements to Instagram that attempt to not take a side, and has already withdrawn from her performance at the Zurich Opera House. The Bavarian State Opera dropped her as well. Valery Gergiev, the Russian maestro who was instrumental in shepherding top Russian talent into the Met after the fall of the Soviet Union, is persona non grata, too. (Netrebko pointedly also posted a photo of the two of them together.) He was just sacked by the Munich Philharmonic and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and he resigned from the Edinburgh Festival.

And that is just to start. “Opera is a global art,” says Justin Davidson, New York’s opera and classical-music critic. “The Met is a thoroughly international company, and the pipeline of Russian talent has been as crucial to American opera since the 1990s as the gas pipeline is to German industry. To see that choked off is a loss, but it’s one we can bear without too much hardship.”

Better to have a hundred friends than a hundred rubles, goes an old Soviet proverb. Thanks to Putin, some Russian artists will have neither.

Classical music, so essential to the Russian identity, has always been intertwined with the nation’s politics. Joseph Stalin was believed to have written an unsigned review of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Dmitri Shostakovich, who played a lifelong cat-and-mouse game with the totalitarian regime. Artists became important chess pieces during the Cold War. Americans scored points in 1974 when the master cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his soprano wife Galina Vishnevskaya defected from behind the Iron Curtain, settling in the States; Rostropovich became music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. When the Gipper and Gorby set about achieving a détente, they prioritized cultural swaps. One such instance was having the famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz return to Russia, an event that was organized and produced by Gelb.

“It just shows the contrast,” he says. “Even at the height of the Cold War, artistic exchange was possible. But now all bets are off. We’re in a situation where this madman is trying to destroy a country that is populated by the brothers and sisters of Russians.”

The Met’s Big Breakup With the Bolshoi