Dropping Anna Netrebko, the Met turns to a Ukrainian diva

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Dropping Anna Netrebko, the Met turns to a Ukrainian diva
Liudmyla Monastyrska performs the title role of “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Nov. 20, 2012. The Ukrainian soprano, replacing one of Russia’s biggest stars in “Turandot,” is using her platform to defend her country. Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- The call from the Metropolitan Opera came one afternoon in early March.

Liudmyla Monastyrska, a Ukrainian soprano, was in Poland, shopping for concert dresses before a performance. Her phone rang, and it was Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, on the other end. He was blunt: His company was in a bind.

Ukraine had recently been invaded, and the Met had parted ways with Russian soprano Anna Netrebko over her previous support for President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Gelb wanted Monastyrska, a charismatic singer known for her lush sound, to replace Netrebko in a revival of Puccini’s “Turandot,” which opens Saturday.

Monastyrska, 46, was reluctant. In 2015, after a punishing run at the National Opera of Ukraine in Kyiv, she had vowed never to perform the title role of “Turandot” again, worn down by its demands. And she was nervous about getting caught in the politics of the Russian invasion and alienating Netrebko, one of opera’s biggest stars, whom she has known for seven years.

Gelb reassured Monastyrska, promising that her appearance would help bring attention to the plight of the Ukrainian people.

“I was surprised, but I felt it was important for me to sing,” Monastyrska said. “I wanted to help however I could.” She still felt uneasy, though. “I don’t like to sing other people’s contracts,” she said.

Throughout her career, Monastyrska has made a studied effort to avoid politics. She does not have a Facebook page and tries not to read the news, preferring to focus on her family, her faith (she’s Ukrainian Orthodox) and her artistry.

But in recent weeks, as the war in Ukraine has intensified, she has found a political voice. She has criticized Netrebko’s meandering statements on the invasion, saying that Netrebko’s opposition to the war and attempts to distance herself from Putin have come too late. She has railed against the Russian government (“They are killing people for no reason,” she said) and denounced artists who continue to support Moscow.

Her profile will likely rise in the months ahead. Next season, she will step in for another artist who has come under fire for her ties to Putin, replacing Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava in a Met revival of Puccini’s “Tosca,” the company said Thursday. (Gerzmava had been criticized for signing a letter in support of Putin in 2014.)

And the Met announced this week that Monastyrska will be front and center when the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, a newly formed ensemble of Ukrainian musicians, tours Europe and the United States this summer. She will sing “Abscheulicher,” an aria from Beethoven’s “Fidelio” that touches on themes of peace, injustice and humanity.

“She is a powerful, vocal symbol of the Ukrainian cause,” Gelb said, “and it will be manifested every night of the tour, when she’s singing Beethoven’s words against oppression and call for freedom. The opening recitative of the aria she is singing could be addressed directly to Putin.”

Gelb said he chose her for “Turandot” primarily because of her “very beautiful and incredibly powerful voice.”

“It’s a voice that can knock ‘Turandot’ out of the park in a house like the Met,” he added. “The fact that she’s Ukrainian is an extra element of poetic justice that certainly didn’t go unnoticed.”

Born in Kyiv, Monastyrska trained in Ukrainian conservatories and spent much of her early career in opera houses there. Her break on the global stage came in 2010, at age 35, when she was asked to sing, with only a week’s notice, the title role in “Tosca” with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.

She made her Met debut in 2012, taking up the title role in Verdi’s “Aida.” In The New York Times, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim described her performance as a “triumphant house debut,” saying she had arrived at the Met a “fully mature artist.”

“She is gifted with a luscious round soprano that maintains its glow even in the softest notes,” da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote.

Monastyrska became known for sensitive portrayals of opera’s most famous characters, including Lady Macbeth, Manon Lescaut and Abigaille in Verdi’s “Nabucco,” which she sang at the Met in 2016. Her blossoming career brought her into the same orbit as Netrebko, who is four years older. She described Netrebko as a “very warm person” and a “fantastic singer”; once, Monastyrska was invited to Netrebko’s apartment in New York for a party around Thanksgiving.

Shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two crossed paths in Naples, Italy, where they were appearing on alternate nights in the same production of “Aida.” During a rehearsal, Monastyrska said, Netrebko approached her and told her that she opposed the idea of war between the two countries.

Later, Netrebko came under pressure to publicly denounce the war and Putin, whom she had supported in the past. She had endorsed his reelection and was photographed in 2014 holding a flag used by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

After condemning the war but remaining silent on Putin, Netrebko saw her engagements in Europe and North America evaporate. She issued a new statement last month seeking to distance herself from Putin, saying that she had met him only a few times and that she was not “allied with any leader of Russia.”

Monastyrska said the statement was insufficient. “She is No. 1 in the opera world; she is a very public person,” she said. “Why did she wait so long to say anything? That is intolerable.

“She is a normal person; she is not an animal,” Monastyrska added. “But she should say, ‘I don’t support Putin.’”

Netrebko did not immediately respond to a request for comment through her representatives.

Monastyrska still has some hesitation about replacing Netrebko. “It’s not very good for me; I don’t feel good here,” she added, placing her hand over her heart. “This is not mine.”

Monastyrska said that it is a complicated time for Russian and Ukrainian artists. She said she did not feel it was appropriate for Ukrainian singers to appear in operas by Russian composers now, but she believed many of those works should still be performed.

She had mixed feelings about the attention paid to a video of her hugging Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova after a recent performance of “Aida,” which was widely circulated online shortly after the invasion began and seen as a symbol of peace. She said she was happy to embrace Gubanova as a friend, but she also understood that some might find it inappropriate for Ukrainian singers to perform alongside Russians in a time of war.

In the hallways of the Met during rehearsals for “Turandot,” she ran into Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, who was featured in a performance of Ukraine’s national anthem during a concert last month in support of Ukraine at the Met. She asked about the safety of his family and told him to be strong.

“She is a star everywhere, both here and at home,” Buialskyi said in an interview. “She is an incredible singer and an equally incredible person.”

Monastyrska has been working to overcome her hesitation with “Turandot,” her first Met engagement in five years. She has been practicing the intricate choreography of Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagant 1987 production, a favorite with audiences.

At times, she has had trouble focusing, she said. Her parents, her son and her brother remain in Ukraine. “I think about them every minute and every second,” she said. During breaks at the Met, she sends messages to friends and family back home.

Right now, “it’s almost impossible to sing,” she said. “But I am praying all the time. I try to be strong.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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