As the war in Ukraine raged, Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb spoke to the Met’s Matt Dobkin about the urgent need to take artistic and political stances in the midst of global conflict.
It seems that as soon as Putin invaded Ukraine, the Met sprang into action.
Yes, with Putin’s onslaught, the Met immediately came to Ukraine’s defense with words and deeds. We played the Ukrainian national anthem as soon as we reopened the second half of our season on February 28, a few days after the invasion began. And on March 14, we presented “A Concert for Ukraine” to help rally support for those suffering the horrendous impact of Putin’s war against the innocent citizens of Ukraine. We also suspended our co-production relationship with the Bolshoi and even had to sever ties with opera’s most famous star.
In general, do you feel that politics have a place in art?
Throughout my career, I’ve always believed in the value and importance of politically charged cultural exchange, whether in Russia or China or elsewhere.
How has this manifested in Russia, specifically?
Well, in 1986, as a young classical music manager, I organized Vladimir Horowitz’s historic return to the Soviet Union at a moment when relations had just begun to thaw between Reagan and Gorbachev. Later, I made the documentary film Soldiers of Music, about Mstislav Rostropovich’s return from exile after Leonid Brezhnev had thrown him and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn out of the country. That title comes from Rostropovich’s own belief that in times of political crisis, artists must always step up and be, in his words, “soldiers of music.” That’s something that has always stayed with me.
Do things feel different now, though?
Absolutely. In the past, even when political tensions between nations grew ugly, artistic endeavors rose above the din. But Putin’s murderous actions are the playbook of Hitler, not the Cold War. He has now made it impossible for the Met to work with his artistic cronies or those cultural entities he subsidizes. This doesn’t mean the Met will stop presenting Russian operas or engaging other Russian artists. They are not his accomplices. This month, we are performing Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, starring some leading Russian artists, whom we are proud to present on our stage.
So the Met is not cutting all ties to the Russian operatic tradition, in other words?
By no means. We will continue to honor Russian art and artists. We’re canceling Putin, not Pushkin.