Three days ago I wrote about the remarkable “Statement- Ukraine” that the world renowned Queen Elisabeth Musical Competition posted on its website recently. I praised the directors of the Competition for their courage and eloquence in defending humanistic values against the rampant Russophobia that has shown its ugly face at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, at the Munich Symphony Orchestra, to name the two institutions which were among the first to fire Russian artists in a show of self-righteous indignation at Russian foreign policy. Meanwhile, the same mass hypnosis seems to have deprived leaders of the Parisian cultural world of their wits as well.
With regard to the Queen Elisabeth Competition, I pointed to its royal patronage as a factor in its holding true to its values and resistance to the volatility of mass politics. For that very reason, the extraordinary decisions taken now on repertoire and the explanation of its choices by the management of the Brussels opera, the 300 year old Théâtre de la Monnaie, merit our very close attention. After all, the opera house is a federal institution and everything that it rolled out in its press briefing yesterday could not have happened without the tacit or more likely explicit approval of the respective ministry that funds the opera.
The statement read out to journalists yesterday by the Monnaie’s Intendant Peter De Caluwe is a bit over 1,000 words long. My first thought was to provide excerpts here. But then upon re-reading the piece, it was clear that it is so logically interwoven that taking separate phrases will not do justice to the logic of the author.
Although the briefing for the “musical press” of Belgium was conducted, as is the custom, in alternating French and Flemish segments, Mr. De Caluwe chose to deliver his statement on the new season’s rationale in English, making it perfectly accessible to the world at large without any intermediary translations.
Readers will note that the speaker denounces several times the Russian military intervention or invasion of Ukraine. That is not a judgment I share. However, opinions can differ on such matters, and the opera, as a federal institution has to be aligned with the government on that issue, which I would call here a ‘subsidiary issue.’ The overriding issue is the purpose of music and of the arts in our society. This is a subject that was always foremost in the thinking of the Intendant during his long tenure. Year after year he has gone hat in hand to the government for funding and had to justify the social utility of the institution and not merely declare ‘art for art’s sake.’ In his statement explaining the repertoire choices of the new season, Mr. De Caluwe is exemplary. I can only wish that his words reach the broadest possible audience across the world. This is a message of sanity in our insane times.
Peter de Caluwe
Two years ago, we presented the BREX-IN season, which emphasized links with British culture. In a similar vein, are now proposing a totally unplanned-for season in which Russian titles feature more prominently than ever. We are aware that this programming might well raise questions and perhaps even trigger discussion or dismay. We have nevertheless decided to run with what was planned, or rather, what has become a cluster of Russian titles to be performed in one and the same season as a result of the COVID pandemic preventing us from performing them according to the original schedule. So while the cluster was not intentional, it provides us with an unexpected opportunity to endorse our intrinsic mission: to unite, federate and build bridges between people.
I consider our house to be an anti-war and pro-peace institution, as borne out by our position in the heart of the capital of Europe, by our purpose, our programming, our leadership style and our way of working. Our model is one of harmony, not conflict. This constitutes our moral base and there is a greater need than ever to defend it. We are therefore taking a clear stand on this matter: strong towards those who are responsible, supportive towards those who are suffering, empathic towards those who are caught in the middle.
WE ARE HERE TO MAKE ART, NOT WAR.
La Monnaie strongly condemns the devastating aggression of Ukraine by the Russian regime and expresses its solidarity with the populations who are suffering the terrible consequences of this unnecessary war: first and foremost, the Ukrainian people and Ukraine’s artists. It is our responsibility as citizens to do everything within our power to help bring about a peaceful future based on the humanist values at the core of our European societies.
We also express our support for those artists who are committed to peace and who oppose, each in their own way and with great courage, this unacceptable aggression. We subscribe to the statement of Opera Europa and its members in that we “believe that there are many artists and institutions within Russia that are experiencing profound concern, disapproval and shame at what is happening, but dare not speak out for fear of savage retaliation…. We endorse the words published by Ukrainian artists and cultural activists: ‘Art has always been at the forefront of humanitarian values. We strongly believe that art cannot be subservient to political propaganda; instead it should be utilized to develop critical thinking and promote dialogue.’”
Though we cannot emphasize enough that we do not understand the motivations of the aggressors, we do believe that Russian culture is part of our shared heritage. European arts, literature, cinema and music will always be connected to Russian culture, which has inspired some of the most eloquent works on our shared continent. We cannot erase history. Indeed, great and immortal artworks confront us with ourselves>bring us face to face with ourselves? and with our own time. With our mistakes, too, and how to avoid them. It is clear to us, therefore, that the Russian repertoire should not be banned and that we must continue to perform it.
So the current conflict has not tempted us to make changes to our programming. Especially as the two composers, whose operatic and symphonic work is at the core of our season, have been victims of previous Russian regimes. We cannot contemplate punishing them again for their opinions, which defended the same values we are trying to protect now.
DURING OUR NEXT SEASON, RUSSIAN AND UKRAINIAN ARTISTS WILL BE WORKING TOGETHER, ALONGSIDE MANY OTHER NATIONALITIES.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was often accused of being too Westernized, and therefore not Russian enough. Yet in his two operas we are presenting next season, he provides insight into the poetic Slavic soul which, combined with Pushkin’s libretti, is so reminiscent of our European literature… Dmitri Shostakovich suffered greatly under the Communist regime. He was constantly being told how he should function as an artist. He reacted by closing himself off from the world and wrote music permeated with subtlety and criticism of the system from which he could not escape. Hence his tortured decision later on in his career to join the Community party. Neither composer turned his back on his country but tried to walk the fine line between acknowledging the regime and rejecting it. They were Russians, but they were first and foremost humanists. They themselves suffered enough under the political conditions of their time. Their works should not be banned once more just because a dictator has lost his senses.
Throughout its history, La Monnaie has been a stronghold of encounters and openness through the shared experience of music and theatre. Artists from all backgrounds have been able to meet here in a welcoming and creative atmosphere. I do not believe that banning Russian artists from our theatres will bring us any closer to peace. The aggression against Ukraine by a violent regime should not hinder nor put a stop to our collaboration with an artistic community that is committed to peace and to the shared European values.
Culture and the arts remain some of the best recipes for creating solidarity, understanding and harmony between people, regardless of nationality. Of course, artists and institutions that openly support Vladimir Putin’s actions will not be welcome at La Monnaie. We expect artists performing in our house to defend our shared values. At the same time, we cannot force Russian artists who oppose their culpable leadership to make statements that might endanger their safety and security or that of their families. This would not be an act of solidarity. The answer to war should be cultural cooperation, not cultural exclusion.
Even more importantly, I have always defended opera as the best example of collaborative work: so many male and female artists, technicians, artisans, etc. from every corner of the world working side by side on a production. No fewer than thirty-eight nationalities have permanent jobs at La Monnaie. Add to that the large number of international guest artists and it is clear that we play the card of multinational and multicultural cohabitation and collaboration.
During our next season, Russian and Ukrainian artists will be working alongside many other nationalities. It is the responsibility of our institutions to continue to engage collaborators and artists regardless of nationality so as to show the world just what can be achieved by bringing together people, communities, generations and cultures. Art is and remains the domain of freedom, exchange, understanding and humanism.
We are here to make art, not war.
Peter de Caluwe