Shortly after this article was published, the Metropolitan Opera announced that, after “not complying with the Met’s condition that she repudiate her public support for Vladimir Putin while he wages war on Ukraine, soprano Anna Netrebko has withdrawn from her upcoming Met performances in Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ this April and May, as well as the run of Verdi’s ‘Don Carlo’ next season. ‘It is a great artistic loss for the Met and for opera,’ said Met General Manager Peter Gelb. ‘Anna is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward.'”
I wonder what it was like to sit in the Bolshoi for the company’s September 2020 season-opener of Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” Especially as the monks in San Jerónimo de Yuste summarize the cautionary tale of a fallen dictator: “His arrogance was great, his madness immeasurable.” Were there any Russians in that pandemic-soaked audience who sensed a double meaning? Or were most of them preoccupied with the role debut of Anna Netrebko as Elisabetta, the woman betrothed to—and in love with—Carlo, until political alliances re-broker her to a loveless marriage with Carlo’s father?
Nearly a decade ago, Netrebko first talked to me about this role in an interview for her 2013 Verdi album, which included Elisabetta’s afflicted aria, “Tu che le vanità.” At the time, she’d said that it was the most difficult thing she’d ever sung. She may, in fact, be the saddest character of any opera. “Everything has died inside of her, before it even had the chance to blossom,” she said. “And she must be somebody who she’s not. I can’t imagine how a person can do that. It’s crushing. That’s why this music is such a killer; because it’s all there. She’s caught. She has no options. She has nothing.”
“Don Carlo” represented a departure for Netrebko’s career, both in terms of taking on heavier, maturer, and more complex roles, and in taking a more deferential approach to the music. “Usually I do what I want,” she said of her performances in earlier parts—the Lucias, Mimìs, and Norinas. In discussing Elisabetta, however, her speaking voice darkened into a hush from its normal effervescent and idiosyncratic tone; she sounded like she was at confession.
If all goes well, Netrebko will sing Elisabetta at the Met for the first time this November. But little over the last week has gone well for her. Following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, she responded to the numerous Russian artists denouncing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (or, perhaps more likely to those Russian artists who weren’t), by making a series of posts to her Instagram and Facebook. “I am Russian and I love my country but I have many friends in Ukraine and the pain and suffering right now breaks my heart,” she wrote in one image, shared in both Russian and (seemingly copyedited) English. “I want this war to end and for people to be able to live in peace. This is what I hope and pray for.”
She also made an addendum: “Forcing artists, or any public figure, to voice their political opinions in public and to denounce their homeland is not right. This should be a free choice. Like many of my colleagues, I am not a political person. I am not an expert in politics. I am an artist and my purpose is to unite people across political divides.”
Instagram filters are a curious technology. Adjust them right, and it’s like they’re not even there. In some cases, they even make a photo marred by bad or insufficient lighting more accurately reflect reality. Work on the same photo too long, however, and it’s easy to start questioning one’s own perception of reality—Was that dress blue and black, or was it white and gold? Is dumping a bucket of bronzer on my hole [sic] body racist, or is it racist not to do that if I’m singing Aida? I’m not a political person…right?
On Instagram, Netrebko responded to some of the comments that flooded in on these posts—which seemed divided between “stop forcing artists to be political” support and “all art is political” dissent. In her stories, she shared some of the sharper comments that spoke to an us-versus-them divide between Russians and, as one comment she highlighted put it, “despicable people from the West.” When, on Tuesday morning, the Munich Philharmonic announced the termination of chief conductor Valery Gergiev’s contract and the Bayerische Staatsoper did the same for both Gergiev and Netrebko, she posted a photo of herself with Gergiev at an earlier concert. He wore his traditional black mandarin collar shirt, she wore a plunging scarlet dress. On Tuesday afternoon, she then announced via the Zurich Opera that she was withdrawing from all performances “for the time being.” Then she deleted all of her recent Instagram posts. By Tuesday evening, she had switched her account, with its more-than-750,000 followers, to private.
This was, for me, a familiar scene. Between 2013 and 2017, I worked on Anna Netrebko’s digital marketing, including her social media. Although that’s a bit of a misnomer: Unlike many of her colleagues, Anna preferred to be in the driver’s seat for her Instagram (and, to a lesser degree, Facebook). She had an eye for imagery—sometimes even stopping mid-errand in New York to do a quick tour of a SoHo gallery with an interesting window display. She also had an eye for shaping her self-image. When people commented on her weight, she would post a selfie with a leaning tower of pasta, demanding to know who said she was on a diet. When she asked us to share a video she’d taken of her son, who is autistic, she said it was because she wanted her fans to see that he was doing well. When a massive snowstorm hit New York, she ran out onto her balcony in a bathing suit for a quick photo op. She had very little interest in graphics that paired a publicity photo with a sleek serif font to list her upcoming tour dates; at times she seemed to be bored by the idea of promoting her actual job. It was, frankly, refreshing. She has a certain courage of convictions—even if those convictions aren’t always right. Joel Rozen put it best when he wrote that Anna “embodies an excess that lies at the molten core of opera, and which spills into the images she unloads online.… She manages to make being over-the-top a vehicle for authenticity.”
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Perhaps the least authentic thing Anna has said on social media is that she’s “not a political person.” This is an argument easily contravened by her own personal branding: a 2011 Newsweek interview where, while quashing rumors that she was Putin’s girlfriend, she added that she’d “have loved to have been…He’s a very attractive man. Such a strong, male energy.” An autograph signing after a May 2010 performance of “Carmen” in Vienna for which she donned the ribbon of St. George and a hand-made tank top that read “Towards Berlin!” (both images part and parcel of what Boris Filanovsky describes as Putin’s “ugly monopoly [built] out of Russia’s ‘great victory’ over Germany”). That time in 2012 where she signed on as one of Putin’s 499 “trusted people,” supporting his run for president. That other time in 2014 where she appeared at a press conference to make a 1 million rouble donation to an opera house in eastern Ukraine and wound up being photographed holding the separatist flag of Novorossiya. Her own Instagram includes a post from 2015 praising Putin after the deadly attack on Metrojet Flight 9268, complete with a battalion of 💪 💪 💪 emojis.
Images can be treacherous. Did 499 Russians genuinely agree to be active supporters and authorized campaigners for Putin in 2012? I’m sure many of them would have, but I’m also sure that many who were approached for this “honor” agreed not so much out of patriotism, political conviction, or even opportunism, but for the very simple reason that Putin has built his own self-image as one who is not to be refused. This wouldn’t be without precedent: In 2012, The Moscow Times reported actress Chulpan Khamatova, another of the 499 “trusted persons,” appeared in a Putin commercial where she thanked the then-prime minister/presidential candidate for supporting her nonprofit. Sources at that nonprofit later said that she was forced to participate.
I have a similarly hard time making sense of the Donetsk donation. While the photographs don’t lie, Anna argued that they don’t show the complete event: In handing over the check, she was given the flag to hold, which she did without realizing what it was for. Oleg Tsaryov, the sanctioned Ukrainian separatist who received the check as the designated person to get the funds safely to the opera house, was the one who politicized the event as “important for us, not just because it’s money, but because it is support for us.” Anna later told The Guardian, “this is politics and I have nothing to do with politics, I just want to support art.” This attitude is confounding in 2022, but it’s just as much a self-defense mechanism for Russians, who have seen cautionary tales in the likes of Anna Politkovskaya, Alexei Navalny, and Pussy Riot. Perhaps they are no longer uniformly “anesthetized by stability,” as David Remnick once put it. Nevertheless, millions of Russians have spent decades “apolitical and atomized, [having] learned to live with a system that provides few legal guarantees but does offer some economic advancement.”
Netrebko is one of those people. Even when Putin’s actions were at their most abhorrent—such as the 2013 anti-“gay propaganda” law or 2014’s invasion of Crimea—she managed not to capsize while navigating dire straits. There was, at the very least, plausible deniability. The risks have not diminished for speaking out against Putin, or against his new war of aggression in Ukraine. However, Anna now has the benefit of both her visibility and the hundreds of peers and colleagues who are also speaking out in no uncertain terms. Yelena Kovalskaya resigned from her post as the director of the state-run Meyerhold Center, stating “It is not possible to work for a murderer and receive a salary from him.” After learning that the military had invaded, Ukrainian-Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky quit the Bolshoi, leaving a ballet set to Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” in limbo. Many of Anna’s closest colleagues and most frequent costars (on both the stage and on her Instagram) likewise spoke out and withdrew from Russian engagements on a matter of principle—actions that have been a matter of course in histories of oppression (see: BDS, the Anti-Apartheid Movement).
To be fair, the argument that “all art is political” is as flaccid as the argument that artists are inherently “not political people,” and is just as easily used to fuel arguments both bad faith and good. What’s more, many artists have, in making their own comments on Ukraine, fallen into the crevasses of slacktivism and/or making the situation about their identities, politics, and suffering. (Or they perform a baffling slam poem about being Putin’s mother.) In a 2017 article for Demokratizatsiya, the media scholar Irina Kotkina argues that being an opera singer on social media is a double paradox, merging artistic elitism with lifestyle consumerism and filtering both through a means of expressing emotion that is “essentially inauthentic and histrionic.” Two adjectives that can describe many of the blue-and-yellow-filtered comments over the last week. Justice cannot be predicated upon a single post, comment, or image any more than it can be predicated upon a single movement.
But most people can also understand the difference between denouncing their homeland and denouncing the invasion of a sovereign territory and the leaders who authorized it. They can also understand the difference between McCarthy-esque loyalty oaths and blatant violations of international law. “Either Anna is eager to play Putin’s propaganda games or she is someone who is sincerely affected by this propaganda,” Kotkina suggests. My bet, especially in the wake of this week’s screenshot-it-or-you’ll-miss-it flurry of social media posts, is that it’s the latter. Unlike Elisabetta, Anna has spent the last decade projecting a comfortable existence with Putin’s terms of power. What we’re watching now is her real-time moral grappling with Putin’s most flagrant abuse of that power and the limitations of the world she built within it. ¶
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