Cancellation: an account
June 2023 in Articles
Read the full reply from Miguel Esteban (Anna Netrebko’s general manager) here.
Feature by Warwick Thompson – Opera Magazine June 2023
Can there be a more polarizing name in the current world of opera than that of Anna ‘La Putina’ Netrebko? Because of her stance on the war in Ukraine, the Russian-Austrian soprano currently attracts boos and cheers with equal ferocity. As a little reminder, here’s why. She condemned the war in Ukraine only after much pressure to do so, and even then did not directly criticize Putin himself. Her cheerleaders say that she has said as much as she possibly can against the conflict, and they question why, in any case, she should be forced to make political statements to prove her artistic worth. Enjoy her singing for what it is, they sigh, and leave the rest to politicians and armies. Those who boo say that her statements have been weaselly equivocations, and that—no—art is not above politics, and in a situation of appalling Russian aggression, you have to choose sides. If she is not cancelled, then we are all complicit in her evasions.
Of course there are two separate but related meanings to the word ‘cancellation’ here. The first is literal, and refers to the cancellation of her contracts. Several houses have taken this route and severed ties with Netrebko. I’ll come back to them and the implications of their actions in a moment. The second meaning—the meaning usually implied in the online culture wars—has much broader philosophical outlines. ‘Cancellation’ in this sense implies an active campaign, both virtually and In Real Life, to destroy a person’s reputation as well as their career, and to ensure that their opinions are silenced rather than discussed. Ask the academic Kathleen Stock about it: she was sacked from the University of Sussex for her wrongthink about gender.
A quick digression. This second usage of ‘cancellation’ is bandied about willy-nilly, but it seems to me that it should really be applied only to the cancellation of people rather than to cultural activities. If, for example, a production of Boris Godunov is withdrawn (as happened at Polish National Opera in April 2022 in protest over the Russian invasion) or courses on Dostoyevsky stopped (at Milano-Bicocca University in March 2022; the courses were later reinstated) then it doesn’t seem like cancellation. Protest, yes; cancellation, no. Mussorgsky and Dostoyevsky are simply too big to be cancelled. They’ll be around whatever happens.
On a personal level, it’s a different matter. Cancellation has real effects. Several musicians have chosen to endorse the Russian side in the Ukrainian war: the conductor Valery Gergiev, the bass Ildar Abdrazakov, the soprano Hibla Gerzmava and the pianist Denis Matsuev, for example; the conductor Teodor Currentzis refuses to give up the Russian sponsorship of his orchestra, and remains completely silent about the invasion. They have lost work in the West. Whether they have been motivated by money, fear or honest belief in the Russian cause, it’s clear which side of history they’re on, and personally I’d cancel them in a heartbeat too.
Because of the ambiguities in her situation, and her attempt (as she puts it) to ‘sit on two, or even three, chairs at once’, Netrebko makes a much more fascinating lens through which to view the rights and wrongs of the situation, so I’ve taken her as the focus of this piece to examine the larger issues. Welcome, then, to the murky world of Netrebshchina.
First, her literal cancellation. In 2022 the Metropolitan Opera dropped Netrebko from contracted roles in productions of Don Carlo, La forza del destino and Andrea Chénier,and from other roles with unfinalized contracts, after deciding that she had not been clear enough in her statement about the war in Ukraine, and had not specifically condemned Putin. The Met’s argument was that she had violated the company’s conduct clause, and that any association with her would bring the house into disrepute. Audiences would not tolerate her appearance.
For clarity, here’s a reminder of her previous actions and her statements. In 2014 she gave one million roubles to the Russian-occupied opera house in Donetsk, Ukraine, and was happy to be photographed in St Petersburg holding a Russian-separatist flag. Later, after the invasion in 2022, she said, ‘I expressly condemn the war on Ukraine and my thoughts are with the victims of this war and their families. I am not a member of any political party nor am I allied with any leader of Russia.’ And that was it.
In March 2023 Netrebko sued the Met for $400,000 to cover her lost earnings. The arbitrator Howard C. Edelman awarded her $200,000 for the signed contracts, but nothing for the rest. He noted that it was her right to be a Putin supporter, and that such support didn’t provide grounds for the Met to break her contracts.
There’s a curious twist, however. He also fined Netrebko $30,000 for a social media statement she released shortly after the invasion. She called out her critics thus: ‘People from the West […] are pretending to be brave, putting artists in trouble […] This is just hypocrisy of them. They are human shits. They are as evil as blind aggressors, no matter which side they are from.’
So she had a right to be a Putin supporter, but she didn’t have a right to criticize detractors of Putin’s (or her own) actions? It baffles me how Edelman could see her statement as worthy of a $30,000 fine, if he didn’t see her position as fundamentally wrong and disreputable. And yet he upheld the Met’s ‘pay and play’ contract, despite their argument of disrepute. Was it because she said ‘shit’? I know Americans can be puritanical, but still.
So, the tally at intermission: Netrebko 1, Cancellation 0.
London’s Royal Opera also dropped Netrebko from its new production of Il trovatore, which opens this month, but were much cagier about going on record to say why. A spokesperson merely stated: ‘Although the Royal Opera had scheduled Anna Netrebko for the role of Leonora in Il trovatore in June 2023, Anna Netrebko and the Royal Opera mutually agreed to not proceed with the engagement.’ They would not elaborate on whether there were any financial implications to the taxpayer. ‘We are not able to comment on individual contracts or negotiations as these remain confidential.’ But would the house be prepared to work with Netrebko in the future in principle?Would they be prepared to take a stand for or against her, one way or the other? The response was as evasive as something from Netrebko herself: ‘We have no plans at this time for Anna to return to perform at the Royal Opera House.’
The words ‘blood’ and ‘stone’ spring to mind. But at least it leaves us with a new tally: Netrebko 1, Cancellation 1.
Let’s look next at some of the other items in the account. On the debit side, we should also note the artistic loss to both houses of a noteworthy (if divisive) singer. Love her or loathe her, she’s undoubtedly an important artist with a high success rate and big box-office pulling power. But on the credit side of the balance sheet, neither the Met nor Covent Garden now has to face the unenviable controversy of her presence, and the inevitable protests that would ensue. At this stage, the balance seems to tip towards the benefits of cancellation.
What of other houses? Some of them—La Scala, Arena di Verona, Baden-Baden—are satisfied with her statements, and are glad to welcome her back. Bogdan Roščić, the general director of the Vienna Staatsoper, said that she had been perfectly clear about the war, and he added some dark mutterings about ‘pitchfork mobs on Twitter’. The city of Stuttgart disagreed, and put a stop to her concert appearance there. The Ukrainian government has banned any of its artists from appearing anywhere in the world with her.
Flipping the coin for a moment, it’s worth noting that Russia has cancelled Netrebko too. Vyacheslav Volodin, the chair of the Duma, said that she ‘has a voice, but not a conscience’ and called her statements ‘a betrayal’. In Russian media it’s as if she barely exists now, so rarely is she mentioned. But then that’s how they do things in the land of state-controlled media: real cancellation, if you like.
And that leads neatly to another common argument regarding the deafening silence of many Russians on the actions of their homeland. The punishments given to critics of the regime—and their families—can be so fearsome that silence or evasion is seen to be the only solution. One only has to think of the Skripals, or Alexander Litvinenko, or Alexander Navalny, or the poisoned dissident writer Dmitry Bykov (or any of those recently defenestrated minor oligarchs) to understand the risk. Netrebko’s manager Miguel Esteban took this line when he said, ‘Anna has already put herself and her family and friends living in Russia at risk by saying she condemns the war. To go even further and to condemn Putin would be too much to ask of her.’ In other words, that’s just how Russia works. Get real.
My partner was born and grew up in Soviet Russia. He understands better than most what the penalties for dissidence were, but here’s a thing: he couldn’t leave.Until 1990 the borders were closed, and the punishments faced by people who tried to get out were truly appalling. But after 1990, anyone who wished to free themselves from the Russian way of doing things was at liberty to live elsewhere. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, only those with the most opaque of blinkers could have pretended that the Russian way of doing things was just or decent. And yet people stayed, Netrebko’s family among them. If they are now living with the consequences of a flawed and brutal system, they can’t say they weren’t warned, or didn’t see the signs.
However, even given all that, surely only the most implacable of judges would wish to cancel Netrebko for her silence, rather than her direct actions, wouldn’t they? (Let’s gloss over the separatist flag for a moment.) The Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel had this to say on the matter: ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’
But that brings me to another column in the cancellation balance sheet. How many people in the West made any noise when Russia openly backed the pro-Russian Donbas separatists, and annexed Crimea? How many were calling then to cancel flag-waving Netrebko? (Some, not many, is the answer; and, as with her silence around the Russian anti-gay propaganda law of 2013, her behaviour was soon forgotten.) Could it be that the scale of the wish to punish Russia-supporting singers is in direct proportion to Western guilt over our own previous apathy and indifference? Maybe her charge of hypocrisy has some dry powder in it, after all.
Another dangerous element of cancellation is the fact that it encourages easy binaries, and easier prejudices. Norway’s Queen Sonja Singing Competition has banned all Russian and Belarusian participants in 2023, even ones who have protested against the Russian war. The UK-based Russian singer Maria Ostroukhova, who has firmly and publicly opposed the invasion, tried to overturn the ban, and pleaded with the organizers to be more nuanced. ‘Since when did the democratic values of the liberal world include discrimination based on nationality?’ she asked. The competition referred her to its statement: ‘The board endorses Norway’s condemnation of Russia’s illegal and brutal attacks on Ukraine. Applications from singers with Russian or Belarusian citizenship will therefore not be accepted.’
If the Queen Sonja Competition truly wished to counter Russian aggression, then wouldn’t an encouragement of Russian protests be a great place to start? It looks rather like the members of the board preferred to honk their virtue-signalling horns than think of the actual aims and objectives of their actions.
Another musician who has been caught in the crossfire of cancellation is the Belarusian conductor Vyacheslav Chernukho-Volich, a critic of the war, who was until recently the chief conductor of Odesa Opera in Ukraine. He conducted La Bohème in Baku, Azerbaijan, on April 8 this year. On April 7, Anna Netrebko’s husband Yusif Eyvazov—who has been equally ambiguous in his statements about Putin—had been announced as the new director of Baku Opera. Volich went ahead with the performance anyway, and somewhat naively posed for photographs with Eyvazov on stage after the show. The axe quickly fell, and he lost his job in Ukraine. ‘Those who represent Ukraine internationally must understand the unacceptability of contact with those who support Russian aggressors,’ said Odesa Opera. ‘It is impossible for us to continue employment of those who do not hold a clear civic and patriotic position.’
In any other circumstances, such a misguided action would probably have led to a slap on the wrist, and some advice to be more careful. But this is a war. Countries closer to the firing line—such as Poland (cancelling that Boris Godunov), Norway (the Queen Sonja Competition), Finland, Latvia et al.—have reason, after all, to be extra careful, and to take an extra-hard line. The stakes are higher for them. Maybe that virtue-signalling was necessary after all.
But then, the stakes are now high for all of us. Sides have to be taken. And cancellation is a vital weapon in the armoury. All we can hope is that when Ukraine is finally liberated, and the dust settles, there will be room for more nuanced truths. I wonder if Netrebko will still be singing then?
Written by Warwick Thompson for Opera Magazine June 2023