Criticism on Fridays: Crossing the Border

Do We Really See What Happened? Do We Want to See It?

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo: Jonathan Cooper)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most essential topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

On Monday, South African soprano Pretty Yende was detained at the French Customs. Once released, she immediately reported the mistreatment. Meanwhile, French Police commented that Yende did not have the correct documents to enter the French Republic. A few days later, the soprano decided to show her Italian documents and publicly accused French police of malfeasance. 

In relaying her events, there is no doubt that she has been in shock during the situation and the communication challenges (Yende stated that none of the French officers spoke English, which is only one of the official EU languages and is not required to work at the customs in France) undoubtedly protracted the entire situation and added to the confusion of the matter. 

I know this feeling well — the fear, confusion, loss of control. Six years ago, my family, which included a 1-year-old daughter, entered Lithuania (where we live now) for the first time. Both my husband and I had been working remotely in leading positions at the local company for three years. Yet, we entered the country with legal tourist visas, thinking that we would get national ones in Lithuania, check out our new apartment and move in the next month. And it took the whole day (not a few hours) for our lawyers, with the help of the National Committee for Business, to rescue their highly qualified workers from this “jail.” 

And even better I know how all the hidden fears take over your mind when you sit there, without knowing what happens next. 

“I was in shock and still am because they didn’t believe me and I was scared of what was going to happen to me because no one knew what I was being subjected to,” soprano said in her recent interview with OperaWire.

I, too, still remember every single moment in that room and the difficulty of being in there the whole day. I felt unsafe and collected all my fears and multiplied them. I felt attacked because I was a Russian in Lithuania (yes, national questions exist here, and they are very noticeable). I was worried about the health of my baby. I was scared to be deported back to Russia (which is not very friendly for creators like me). I felt imprisoned and abused — but in fact, by those fears, not by those people, not by sitting there. And it was just one story out of a million similar stories, all of which, as it was said hundreds of times following Yende’s case, we need to be open about — to understand and improve the process, not to accuse more people.

It’s important to spotlight this entire situation and question the facts as they have been explained and contextualized.

Yende stated that she was at risk of being deported, but nothing in the circumstance that she experienced suggests that this was a realistic possibility, regardless of the officers’ intentions. What we know from her account is that she was placed in a room where the travelers usually wait while the customs workers are investigating everything unclear to them, something that they have a right to do and often happens. The option of deportation is also always voiced at the customs not to scare and intimidate but so that the person understands that if sufficient grounds for being in the country cannot be found, entry will not be possible.

I still have no idea why Yende never figured out what the problem with this particular document was. Yende has stated that the documents she presented on Instagram were the same ones she presented to the customs officer. The customs denied them. That much is understandable. However, a few immediate questions come to mind: “What specifically was wrong with the document?” and, understanding that, “Which document was needed?” And more globally, how did the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées not advise her on this circumstance, especially since its next performance could have been at risk in the midst of a global pandemic (let’s not forget that Yende was already replacing a soprano who quit the production due to COVID-19)? I don’t know all the information, but was there no way for her to receive her legal documents at an Italian consulate in Paris without her having to leave the country?

Instead of the answers to these questions, I see only — “I had my permission,” from the soprano, and “she had no permission,” from the police. But there are always some small but important details that get lost in this back and forth discourse.

As an EU resident, I can say that different types of permissions, especially temporary ones (like the one Yende had), give different rights for different types of activities for different countries. Sound confusing and complicated? It is. So, and this is only my personal assumption, the French republic cannot allow work with a Italian temporary permit, which in other EU countries is also called a “national” permit or visa that gives all the rights inside the country which issues it, and tourist rights in other EU countries. And that’s without taking into consideration the complications imposed by COVID. And it’s in these little tiny details where this entire debacle might have come about.

But nobody is talking about that. The systematic failures or complexities, which are likely the true culprit of this whole situation, are being ignored.

Ultimately, Yende is not the first or the last artist that is going to have to deal with problematic experiences at the airport where they are detained for several hours that could potentially put performances in peril. Just apply this reality to the new travel conditions for the UK musicians. Every border crossing is now like that for thousands of musicians, who used to go and earn their living on the continent with no questions for years. And unlike Yende, who as a famous opera star has the ability to hire special staff to sort things out for her, a lot of those artists won’t. 

No doubt that this was a difficult day for Yende. But at the end of the first day, she was hurt but strong, asking people to stop hatred. I respected it a lot, I appreciated it. But following the reaction of the press and social media, which placed all the attention on the emotional aspects instead of the facts, we got loads of vitriol while the real issues were widely ignored. The hatred she was speaking out against was precisely what came about.

The world is not a friendly place, and national security has long been more important than any personality or superstar, and yet it has strict rules to follow, often different and changing with the times (or not). But if we play this game – traveling and working — we must be ready. It means, not only must we and the customs agents learn to work together, but we should understand how it works, or rely on professionals who can provide us everything for working in other countries.