Criticism on Fridays: Theatres vs. States

The European Opera Houses Give Ingenious Lessons on How to Anger the Authorities

By Polina Lyapustina

As if the war tearing Europe apart was not enough, in the last weeks, the theatres of the continent seem to show us how unfriendly and deeply political our industry is. In several areas, quite irrespectively and for various reasons (worthy or not), the state authorities interfere in the affairs of theaters. 

Lithuanian National Opera workers are still protesting against the assignment of the new general manager, but it has yielded no results so far. Although there are also artists on the other side of the barricades, the case that is turning the State theater to a narrow and limited national focus after five years of international progress is now obviously political. 

Meanwhile, the newly appointed director started to share her vision, continuously emphasizing the national and local context.

“I am glad I was born a Lithuanian. It is a strong and brave country with so many talented people. We are a small nation with an extraordinary power of talent. We have much to be proud of,” Laima Vilimienė starts her statement as a new LNOBT director. The most popular message in Lithuanian politics now. 

Besides the rhetoric about the past victories of Lithuanian culture, though not of the LNOBT, Vilimienė also shared her thought about the future: “The program I have presented has no room for pro-aggressor creators or performers. Projects to help Ukraine will continue and new forms of cooperation will be sought.”

Just in case, according to the current Minister of Culture of Lithuania, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky are pro-aggressors and are supposed to be canceled. Thank God, the geniuses of music are dead and cannot hear this nonsense. Such a shame. 

And if anyone in the audience would confront this “strong and brave” position, the new director then doubts their artistic taste, and her new program takes that into account, too.

“My goal is to broaden the audience, not only by meeting existing cultural needs but also by developing a higher level of artistic taste among the public.”

Moving west, we meet another developing confrontation between the state powers and artistic freedom, though this case is not that obvious.

Anna Netrebko is at the center of a loud argument about her participation in the Wiesbaden May Festival. While both parties voiced their position, and now the discussion is being held behind closed doors, the German press is up to conveying this to the audience.

The discussion is now reaching a point where the journalists are explaining, very loudly (though not for the first time), to Uwe Eric Laufenberg that his main point is feeble — opera is indeed political, and the director himself was once appointed there by politicians. 

Opern News also reminded him that the May Festival and the Staatstheater Wiesbaden are funded by taxes. The simple fact is that the befitting narrative eventually leads to the heartbreaking conclusion — the people of Hesse support the war financially. And, considering a fee of 100.000 euros announced for two performances at the Festival, that might be a massive support. Although, as an economist, I can confidently say, this assumption is incorrect even if we assume Netrebko still supports Putin somewhere in her heart. The soprano is not even a Russian tax resident and will certainly not risk her unstable international status by having any connection to Russia now. 

Whatever the decision, or whatever our judgment of the sincerity of Netrebko’s statements (and, accordingly, her appropriateness on the international stage), we see that, as was said almost a year ago, despite the self-assured statements of the soprano’s manager, thediva cannot sit on two chairs.

Turning to Italy, where the authorities seem to be concerned about the Russian context the least, we find just the same parties confronting each other, this time for an entirely different reason. 

From the end of last year, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Superintendant Alexander Pereira was being investigated for embezzlement

One can notice that the amount of funds embezzled is not as critical as we are used to hearing in such scandals — “just” 60.000 euros and Pereira himself always points out publically that while he did spend this amount on what is difficult for people to recognize as work expenses, he also brought significant fundings to the Maggio.

“With my contacts,” he explained, “we brought in May about 7.5 million in 2021 after 4 million in 2020 and compared to an average before me in 2019 of just 2.5 million.”

Pereira is the Anna Wintour of the Italian opera industry. He knows the right people and how to get their money for the Maggio. It is probably for this reason that the Maggio Superintendant doesn’t look ashamed at all, spending money from the foundation for private jets and luxury dinners — he “earned” them himself and was undoubtedly more successful than directors of many other Italian theatres. 

That is why the statements of the opposition (the State and the City of Florence) party sound like good Italian political talks at the dinner, not a real accusation for the modern world.

“Pereira never hid his style. In the Control Commission there are those from the majority who justified his presence by saying that after all, it is like “having Vlahović [the Serbian star soccer player signed for Juventus last year, — author’s note],” if you want a champion, do you have to pay for helicopters?” Antonella Bundu and Dmitrij Palagi made their statement on the official site of Commune di Firenze.

But then, maybe we should better approach the story in this “good Italian dinner” style and not worry about the embezzlement made by the successful manager? Then we could just enjoy the new Pereira plan, which promised to turn the Maggio into a space for public events in the next two years which would then see him bringing even larger funds to the Maggio. 

We could definitely do this if we define the successful manager as the one who can convert the costly dinners into theatre funds, but I believe that this position implies many more responsibilities, such as taking care of the well-being of your employees, guaranteeing timely payment, working with trade unions, and providing a decent material base not only for star tours but also for daily work. And all this has been neglected and violated throughout Pereira’s tenure, especially during the pandemic crisis. 

That may explain why the Italian theatre workers’ union FIALS is raging about any money spent off-label. And if we think about what authorities really have to ask the Superintendant, that would be not how he spent his “deserved” 60K unapproved, but how his idea of a new great Maggio Musicale (which was paid by 7.5 million brought in last year) correlates with the art of music itself, musicians, and their needs. 

Otherwise, the theater runs the risk of becoming one big luxury dinner, like those which Pereira cooks himself out of premium products paid by the Maggio Musicale for wealthy donors, and which have nothing to do with Music. And we don’t know, it may even work out and bring more revenue. But as long as musicians of the Maggio can only state the loss of assets, layoffs, reductions in staff, wage cuts, and attacks on artistic quality in the last 10 years, I don’t think the side expenses are the main problem of the Florentine theatre.

When I oversee all this happening around us, I cannot believe for a second that any of these arguments (that itself is often a good thing leading to problem-solving) is fair and true. They all seem to show how scattered and disconnected our society is, and none of those serves the art and artists. 

#ArtIsPeople and #ArtIsWork were declared during the pandemic but never found their place in the tough opera industry of nowadays. And no matter how many times the phrase was repeated in the last few months, I don’t think anyone on earth would now believe the infamous “Art is not politics.”