A year into war, Russian artists still must navigate a tricky path

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A year into war, Russian artists still must navigate a tricky path
A photo provided by Wilfried Hösl of, from left, Bekhzod Davronov, Maxim Paster, Stanislav Kuflyuk and Victoria Karkacheva in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production of “War and Peace” in Munich, Germany. The production, with a heavily Russian cast and production team, must balance competing demands brought on by the invasion of Ukraine. (Wilfried Hösl via The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall and Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- A production of Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” that opens this weekend at the Bayerische Staatsoper was never supposed to be this contentious.

But the continuing war in Ukraine has turned the 1946 opera, which features many Russian artists and nationalistic themes, into a vexed issue for the Staatsoper, one of Germany’s leading houses.

Staff members raised concerns over the past year about presenting a work with Russian militarism at its heart while Russian bombs were falling on Ukraine. The production’s creative team has made changes to dial down any sense of Russian patriotism or pro-war sentiment, saying that it’s important to keep staging Russian works even as the war continues.

Vladimir Jurowski, the Russian-born conductor who is the Staatsoper’s music director, said that he had questioned whether he should go ahead with it. But this “War and Peace” is not a tribute to a nation at battle, as Prokofiev’s opera is usually understood, he said; instead this production, directed by Dmitry Tcherniakov — a fellow Russian who lives in Germany and, like Jurowski, has denounced the invasion of Ukraine — has an anti-war message.

Jurowski said that for him it was a “statement against the current Russian government.”

A year after the Russian invasion, many cultural institutions like the Bayerische Staatsoper find themselves in a delicate position. They rely on Russian artists for their productions and concerts. But they also face public pressure to show solidarity with Ukraine and to ban artists with ties to the Russian state.

Russian artists, including those in “War and Peace,” have been caught in the middle. With the war stretching on, and tensions between the West and Russia worsening, some worry their careers might be damaged abroad, or that by performing in an anti-war production they may experience trouble back home.

Uneasiness around “War and Peace” is easy to understand, given the opera’s origins. Simon Morrison, a specialist in Soviet music at Princeton University, said that Prokofiev composed it during World War II to inspire Russians to defend their homeland, and to make them believe in the nation’s military might. Choosing to stage it now is “inexplicable,” he said.

At the opera’s climax, a huge chorus sings that “the glory of Russia shall never be tarnished.” “Glory to thee, Russia,” the singers bellow: “Glory to thy soldiers.” At the Staatsoper, that nationalistic ending has been dropped, with brass instruments substituted for massed voices in the final chorus. A Russian general’s rousing aria, in which he strategizes about Russia’s defense, has also been scrapped, as have the onstage battles that are usually a highlight of any production.

Those moves have quelled some discomfort within the Bayerische Staatsoper, said Serge Dorny, the company’s general director. A year ago, he said, staff had “lots of questions” about the opera’s suitability, but were now “more convinced than ever.”

Russian singers aren’t so willing to publicly discuss the production. Representatives of seven singers in “War and Peace” turned down interview requests for this article. Alex Grigorev, a director of artist management at TACT, a company that represents Russian and Ukrainian opera stars, said his clients were “afraid of saying something that would stop them being able to go to Russia to see their parents.”

In the immediate shock of Russia’s invasion, opera houses and concert halls had a clearer path. They slammed the brakes on collaborations with Russia’s storied opera houses, including the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. Many stopped booking stars with ties to Russia’s government, including soprano Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev. Some canceled performances of Russian masterpieces, including by Tchaikovsky.

A year on, Ukraine’s government is still urging a boycott of Russian culture. And in countries where Russia is seen as a direct threat, including Poland, Russian singers and composers are conspicuously absent from opera and concert playbills.

But for most classical music institutions, the situation is now murkier. Netrebko, a major star and box office draw, still has a busy international performing schedule. She is set to appear at La Scala, in Milan, on March 19, though she has been dropped by the Metropolitan Opera in New York and faced protests in several other cities. A planned concert this month in Taiwan was canceled at the last minute because of concerns about her connections to Putin.

All the while, numerous lesser-known Russian singers continue to perform in Moscow’s glittering halls and abroad, flying through Turkey.

For “War and Peace,” the cast and crew include Mikhail Gubsky, a tenor who regularly guests as a soloist at the Bolshoi, and lighting designer Gleb Filshtinsky, who last year was named an Honored Art Worker of Russia by presidential decree.

Jurowski said he would never work with anyone who openly supported the war, “but there are a lot of people in the gray area between opposing the war publicly, and fear of their lives, fear of the well-being of their families, or losing their jobs.” Some artists were also “politically indifferent,” he added.

The prominence of Russian singers and musicians also puts Ukrainian artists in a difficult position.

Olga Kulchynska, a Ukrainian soprano playing the lead role of Natasha Rostova in “War and Peace,” said many singers from her country felt pressure to boycott any artistic collaboration with Russians. Yet it was impossible for Ukrainians to work in Western opera houses and not cross paths with singers from Moscow or St. Petersburg, she said. “Every chorus, every production, will have Russians,” she said, adding that Ukrainian opera singers were in “a really hard situation.”

Kulchynska said she understood if her involvement with “War and Peace” upset anyone in Ukraine, but felt it was justified by the production’s anti-war message.

While Ukrainian artists navigate the complexities of working with Russians of any stature, Western opera houses have been focused on a handful of high-profile stars entwined with Russia’s government. Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said his company would maintain its ban on artists who have voiced support for Putin.

“Putin is looking for signs of weakness in the West, and I’m sure his first priority is not the Metropolitan Opera House, but I want him to know culturally that we will never weaken,” Gelb said. “It’s more important than ever that our position does not change until the war is won by Ukraine.”

Many major European houses have changed tack in one important way: Realizing it’s dangerous for Russians to publicly criticize their government, they no longer require Russian artists to make public statements against the invasion.

Grigorev, the artist manager, said in a telephone interview that companies now ask agents about a singer’s political views, rather than asking the artist directly. Some also tell performers not to make any public statements about the war during rehearsals or performances, Grigorev said. “They want to ensure there are no surprises from journalists,” he added.

Dorny, the Bayerische Staatsoper’s general director, said he did not ask any of the “War and Peace” team about their views on the war, or check their social media feeds. “Asking would already be an accusation,” he said.

Even without those demands, the pressure on Russian artists appears to be taking its toll.

Polina Osetinskaya, a pianist who lives in Moscow and has spoken out against the war, said she often felt caught in the middle: She has faced criticism at home for opposing the war and has been met with suspicion on the global stage because she is Russian.

“I have been banned and canceled at home and abroad,” she said. “My hope is that people can realize that a lot of Russian people never wanted a war, the suffering because of it and cannot do anything about it. Artists like me can only help heal the pain.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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