Metropolitan Opera Director General Peter Gelb on Canceling Putin, Not Pushkin

Gelb discusses the responsibilities of arts institutions in the midst of global conflict.

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 amid global conflict.

It seems 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 the second half of our season reopened on February 28, days after the invasion began. And on March 14, we presented “A Concert for Ukraine” to help rally support for those suffering from the horrific impact of Putin’s war against 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.

The Metropolitan Opera flies the colors of the Ukrainian flag on the evening of “A concert for Ukraine”

Jonathan Tichler / Met Opera

In general, do you think politics has a place in art?
Throughout my career, I have always believed in the value and importance of politically charged cultural exchange, whether in Russia, China or elsewhere.

How has this manifested in Russia, in particular?
Well, in 1986, as a young classical music manager, I organized Vladimir Horowitz’ historic return to the Soviet Union at a time when relations were just beginning to thaw between Reagan and Gorbachev. Later I made the documentary film music soldiers, about Mstislav Rostropovich’s return from exile after Leonid Brezhnev expelled him and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from the country. This title comes from Rostropovitch’s belief that in times of political crisis, artists should always step in and be, in his own words, “soldiers of music”. It’s something that has always stayed with me.

Do things feel different now, though?
Absolutely. In the past, even when political tensions between nations escalated, artistic endeavors rose above the din. But Putin’s murderous actions are Hitler’s playbook, not the Cold War. He has now made it impossible for the Met to work with his artistic buddies or the cultural entities he subsidizes. This does not mean that the Met will stop presenting Russian operas or engaging other Russian artists. They are not his accomplices. This month we are playing Eugene OneginTchaikovsky’s masterpiece, featuring leading Russian artists, which we are proud to present on our stage.

So the Met isn’t cutting all ties with the Russian operatic tradition, in other words?
Never. We will continue to honor Russian art and artists. We cancel Putin, not Pushkin.

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