“I am opposed to this war,” said the superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko on February 26, 2022, just two days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine. She repeated that sentiment many times in the weeks and months that followed, but that wasn’t good enough for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she had performed in starring roles to near-unanimous acclaim since 2002. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, demanded that Netrebko go a step further and denounce Russian president Vladimir Putin, variously claiming that she had been his “close personal ally,” a “huge Putin supporter,” “inextricably associated with Putin,” and “in lockstep politically and ideologically with Putin.” Gelb vowed that the Met would not employ artists who failed to denounce Putin (though it appears he has only selectively applied this rule). “We can no longer engage with artists or institutions that support Putin or are supported by him,” Gelb announced, “not until the invasion and killing has been stopped, order has been restored and restitutions have been made.” Gelb later extended these conditions: “until the war is won by Ukraine.”
After Netrebko told Gelb in a March 2022 phone call that she, as a Russian citizen, could not denounce Putin, the Met severed all ties with her and refused to honor a contractual clause requiring payment for her canceled performances. Gelb has said in multiple interviews that he sees no way for Netrebko to return to the Met, claiming that neither the company nor “a majority of its audience” would “tolerate her presence” (there appears to be no polling data suggesting that the Met audience supports that claim). Gelb’s wife, the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who has Ukrainian roots, refused to conduct performances at Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón of Puccini’s Tosca, in which Netrebko was cast.
Netrebko has consistently claimed that she has met Putin on only a handful of official occasions, that she is not a political person, and that she does not believe her employment should depend on denouncing her country of birth and its leader. In any case, criticizing the Russian government, its president, and the war in Ukraine—indeed, even calling it a “war”—is a criminal offense in Russia, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Unofficial reprisals have also been made against political critics and their families in Russia, allegedly including murder. Russian government officials have already denounced Netrebko as a “traitor,” and her scheduled performances in Russia have been canceled.
In May 2022, the American Guild of Musical Artists filed a labor grievance against the Met on Netrebko’s behalf and eventually sought arbitration over the question of her canceled performances. In February, arbitrator Howard Edelman awarded Netrebko more than $200,000 in compensation for canceled performances. He did not, however, make any ruling pertaining to unscheduled future performances planned as far ahead as 2026. These, he believed, fell beyond his remit.
Netrebko has now sued the Met and Gelb in U.S. federal court, seeking $360,000 for the unaddressed canceled performances and unspecified additional damages for defamation and discrimination based on national origin. Her case seems compelling. Though Netrebko is neither a U.S. citizen nor resident, New York State and New York City anti-discrimination laws apply broadly to all people within their jurisdictions, regardless of citizenship or residency. According to Netrebko’s court complaint, the Met and Gelb singled her out as a performer of Russian national origin to compel speech that they did not require from performers of other national origins and then terminated her when she refused to speak as they wished.
Netrebko’s breach-of-contract claims also appear strong. In his arbitration, Edelman specifically found that the Met violated her contract by not paying her for scheduled performances. There is little reason to believe that New York State contract law, which includes clauses governing good faith and fair dealing, would produce a different result for unscheduled performances. Gelb also appears to have admitted to breaching Netrebko’s contract in a March 17, 2023, New York Times article, in which he was quoted as saying that “although our contracts are ‘pay or play,’ we didn’t think it was morally right to pay Netrebko anything considering her close association with Putin.” There are no known legal scenarios in which Gelb’s moral compass would supersede basic contract law.
The defamation claims, which arise from Gelb’s statements that Netrebko’s lawsuit is part of “an unabated smear campaign,” may be harder to prove. A competent defense could argue that Netrebko is a public figure who does not enjoy normal legal protections against defamation, that Gelb’s description of her as a Putin ally was a subjective judgment, or even that she continues to enjoy a robust career in most other countries and thus has not suffered significant loss.
Meantime, the Met’s fortunes seem to be in decline. It lost an estimated $150 million amid the Covid-19 pandemic and has for many seasons struggled to sell more than 70 percent of capacity, while competing European companies have achieved near-sellout crowds. In the first months of the 2022–23 season, the Met reported a $40 million decline in revenue due to poor attendance and had to raid its relatively small endowment for $23 million to meet operating costs. In the coming season, it has reduced the number of productions to the lowest level in living memory and also cut back the overall number of performances. Under Gelb, who has served as general manager since 2006, new productions have routinely flopped amid critical derision and popular apathy.
Gelb’s anti-Putin animus appears to have cost the Met not only Netrebko but also the celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and noteworthy soprano Hibla Gerzmava. In February, star bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov “paused” his collaboration with the company in solidarity with Netrebko and Gerzmava, stating that “my deep conviction is that people of art should remain neutral, thereby continuing to unite peoples and countries”—a lesson Gelb would do well to learn.
Elsewhere, apart from sporadic politically motivated cancellations, Netrebko continues to flourish. At Milan’s La Scala last month, she gave a riveting performance in Verdi’s Macbeth to what looked like a sold-out audience. Coincidentally, that was the last role she sang in a complete stage production at the Met and one of the roles in which she was contracted to return in a future season. It was perhaps the greatest performance I have ever heard her sing, and she reveled in the applause, spinning around in delight as the adulation rained down on her, far from New York.
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