Editorial: Russian Opera Through the Iron Curtain

Import Substitution, Censorship, Blotting Out, Cronyism & Other Customs of Russian Operatic Reality

By Polina Lyapustina

There are not many editorials that I write and have a memory to start with. The opera industry changes fast as new world crises hit it again and again. Today, we cannot even say if Peter Gelb is the villain or a savior.

One of my last memories from Russia, before I left it about ten years ago after Russia started the Annexation of Crimea, is how following the EU and US sanctions, Philadelphia and Mozzarella cheese disappeared from the shelves at the supermarket.

Almost instantly, famous Import Substitution was declared and all Russians were strongly advised to be very happy and proud of the results of local producers.

Why am I talking about cheese? To note a few important social and economic consequences appearing shortly after.

Very soon I reported from my homeland that the Italian products had returned to the shops. The Russian market was too important, and also, there is a strong historical bond between the two nations (imperialist past?) that always allowed them to understand each other.

Meanwhile, Russian producers have never achieved comparable results to import quality of manufactured goods, and later, in the absence of competition, quality has dropped even more.

The US-owned brands, produced mostly in Poland, have never returned (at least legally and at large), while the Russian-inspired brands produced in Poland and Baltic Countries were dismissed.

Making a Choice

When the war in Ukraine had just begun, amidst the common shock, opera artists still hoped that their art would not be affected that much. The condemnation of war seemed logical and right for many musicians, but suddenly two groups could not allow themselves that “easy” and fair gesture. The first group consisted of people of high status and therefore bonded to the government, which was slowly taking over control of absolutely every aspect of culture, education, or business since the early 2000s. Another silent minority was elder people from the Soviet past, who still remembered the time when having an opinion or talking about rights was a crime.

The silence of these people made others wary and unable to speak out too much unless there was strong backing in the West. This preoccupation paid off very quickly as soon as the condemnation of military action was declared an administrative and, shortly after, a criminal offense. The pressure was high.

We all remember the cancellation of Russian opera singers and conductors everywhere around the globe. Opera companies seemed to decide on people’s careers. There were numerous arguments and battles, claims, and big headlines. After two years, I’m sure, they meant nothing for their main characters as they actually made their life choices. One shouldn’t have decided in a hurry, none of the counterparts was known for flexibility and or forgiveness. There would be no way back.

Import Substitution

Before writing this article, I asked 11 singers and two musicians in Moscow and St. Petersburg to talk to me on the record, about the opera industry questions only. All declined. Three out of 13 agreed to confirm or disapprove some of my thesis off the record, while ten didn’t feel safe to say anything at all.

Ensemble singers, freelancers, young and older professionals do not feel safe talking about their work. Or just don’t feel safe.

They are now the [survived] working force of the Import Substitution. And the first thing they learned is that they can be substituted just as easily.

The first target to silence were obviously the young singers with active political positions. Many lost their mentorships and were dismissed from their internships in the first six months of the war. Do you remember the young Italian singers coming back to their hometowns to repair shoes as their ancestors did for a living? Hundreds of young Russian singers returned home carrying their broken dreams, unfortunately, they had no traditions to back them up, since such practices were fully destroyed during the Soviet time.

The second group to control was the liberal teachers and mentors (there were not many). They were warned, and in case of disobedience, sent to early retirement. Just as many professors at Russian Universities, not to mention that a dozen professors ended up in prison. Fortunately, if I can still use this word in the article, no musicians were reported to be convicted.

When theatres finally turned calm, silent, and a kind of empty without the world opera stars, international interns, and local interns condemning the war, it’s time to fill them with… someone.

The second cast singers took place in the first cast (sometimes more than deserved place, otherwise not at all). The vacant spots were soon filled with friends of friends, brothers and sisters, etc. Nepotism and favoritism were always a problem in major (not only Russian) theatres but now bloom in Russia like never before.

One [assumably] positive effect of the theatre refill was attracting way more young performers from the regions (but also, not only talented but loyal to Putin’s government).

Not to drop the level [too much] the progressive artist with the star status, bass Ildar Abdrazakov, received special support from the government for his foundation, which now is concentrated on searching for new talented singers and presenting fabulous operatic shows across the country.

The Ildar Abdrazakov Foundation’s withdrawal under Putin’s wing was, in fact, a real loss for the international and Russian opera community, since during the first years, the foundation indeed served an idea of cultural exchange and ties between East and West.

Now, the Foundation has a new mission, to present opera with a bang, glorify the art with bright performances of whoever he chooses throughout the country, and in general, fill the entire niche of opera stars with himself alone.

The main result of Import Substitution is the common inconsistency in the main stages and festivals across the country. Russian stars are now often surrounded by their friends on stage, but an opera performance is not a friendly jam session. The young singers are getting the promotions sometimes way too fast. Burnout has become commonplace in theaters.

A better situation can be seen in the regions, where they were not that dependent on Moscow. Perm and Ekaterinburg State Opera Theatres were always flagman-ships of progressive post-modern presentation and relied most of all on local musicians. The problems that affected them were the cut of the repertory due to unspoken censorship and the blotting out of unwanted authors and perspectives.

Better Leaving [Than Blotting Out]

The iron curtain has not yet fallen this time like a wall. All dissenters were “generously” advised to leave since the beginning of the Crimean campaign. Many did, sick and tired from the pointlessness of a decade-long resistance.

Opera artists were not a target at that moment as the international stage was not affected by sanctions. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, it became clear that nobody would escape the consequences, and they then had to understand and adapt to the new conditions.

Those, who had good international management or foreign residence mostly left.

Soon, Dmitry Peskov, the voice of Putin, came to call on those who left traitors to the homeland and told them never to return, but then, he changed to say that the state is only proud of its talented artists, so highly appreciated in the West.

In Russia, those “highly appreciated” or “liberal” artists were destined for a different fate. The Russian term “вымарывание” is not exactly a “blotting out.” The word has a particular flavor of covering something with dirt. And it wasn’t a coincidence when Russian journalists chose exactly this word to describe the disappearances of the artists and creators in the announcements. Numerous theater and operatic performances now have no directors or playwrights, and many singers (even Anna Netrebko once or twice) were removed from the concerts’ announcements on the Culture channel. And when it comes to asking about nameless artists, the explanation of their absence consists mostly of that very dirt…

When popular Russian writer, essayist, and playwright, Boris Akunin said that his name had been removed from the playbills of plays based on his works, Russian presidential spokesman Peskov said that there is no trend in the country to “erase” authors who are inconvenient for the authorities, and “specific cases should be dealt with separately.”

The special cultural censor institution was set up in the last two years, it is called “Laundry” and has no official status, but works directly with theatre management, giving them hints about which artists fall under the scope of the Presidential Decree No. 322 of 27.05.2022 “On Temporary Suspension of Obligations to Certain Rights Holders.”

Yes, there is a Presidential Decree in Russia, that deprives artists of their basic rights.

Russian News Portal RTVI asked the president of the Intellectual Property Federation, S. Matveev to comment on these precedents.

“In this case, we are talking about the right to a name. This is one of the parts of copyright, is part of personal non-property, respectively, inalienable rights. Removal of information about the author, as well as the name of the work, is a violation of copyright — it is directly stated in the Civil Code of the Russian Federation.”

Roman Feodori is not a director of his “Linda di Chamounix” at the Bolshoi. Alexei Ratmansky is no longer listed in the playbills for performances of “Cinderella,” “Anna Karenina,” and “The Humpbacked Horse” at the Mariinsky Theatre. Alexander Molochnikov was typed as “director — DIRECTOR” in the program at MHAT, while his two productions at the Bolshoi were canceled and now the theater denies that his previous officially announced productions existed at all.

The educational part of the theater culture has disappeared. The opinions and artistic positions were erased together with the names of their authors. The main aim of the theater, so recently raised to a new stage of development in Russia, had become the usual public entertainment.

Moscow and St. Petersburg just recently discovered a chest of British opera treasures, once again immersed in the familiar dramatic sound of native Russian operas and the sweet sounds of Italy, with occasional but regular additions of Wagner.

And this, I’d say, is how the Russian opera so accurately reflected the country surrounding it — with a huge step back from what was achieved in the last two decades, and covered with dirt in the last two years.

Russian Opera In Exile

And what about those, to whose words and decisions were all the opera world’s eyes drawn when everything went to hell?

Anna Netrebko left to perform in Europe, and Hibla Gerzmava stayed to sing in Russia. Aida Garifullina left, and Ildar Abdrazakov stayed but he is always welcomed in Italy. The bass was recently dropped by his international management. Elena Stikhina seems to continue her ensemble position at the Mariinsky Theatre performing there since 2022 while also performing in the EU and US. Albina Shagimuratova stayed in Russia but doesn’t perform frequently, and that’s a pity.

Almost none of the exiled singers perform Russian operas now, it’s a difficult period, they say. The problem is that this new and not at all cold war [period?] doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon.

Russian operas are still strictly forbidden in Lithuania and Poland. In the rest of the world, their number has now reduced. The new season announcements promise us “Onegin” in Düsseldorf, nothing so far in Berlin, one ballet in Paris, “Onegin” and “Cinderella” in London, and “Onegin” again in Madrid.

High-tier singers and musicians are trying to support each other abroad, if you want to see the friend circle of Anna Netrebko, just check out the program of this year’s Arena di Verona festival or dates around the Diva’s performances at La Scala or State Opera Berlin. Though you cannot blame or complain about them, they are all indeed great artists.

What we can see now, is that opera in Russia is highly suppressed, and Russian opera abroad is extremely fragmented and limited to a few pieces. Suddenly, it seems that even the old performing art fell victim to Putin’s great plan of dumbing down the entire nation. With even greater sadness, I see that instead of saving Russian opera, putting it in the red book of endangered species and protecting it, studying it, and passing on knowledge, albeit beyond the borders of Russia, we just gave up on it. We melted together the face of a real tyrant, Putin, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and Onegin’s eternal concerns, we added “Nutcracker” and “War and Peace” and threw it all back to Russia.

Don’t we need it anymore? Why did we just give it all to Putin, when we all know that he is a person most opposite of enlightenment, inspiration, and joy that art gives to people? Putin can do nothing to the score by Tchaikovsky, one may say. But if Tchaikovsky will only be heard to celebrate Putin’s victories, won’t it poison this music for us forever?

What if we take it back, play it, and give it new peaceful and enlightening meanings, then the Russian president’s absurd attempts to own the Great Russian Culture will fail. Because it’s not his, it’s ours. And you don’t need to be Russian to say it and to feel it.

Just play it again.