The impact of Western sanctions on Russian musical life

In Volume II of my Memoirs of a Russianist: Russia in the Roaring 1990s, the diary entries which constitute three quarters of the book describe in considerable detail the musical and literary life of the country that I saw firsthand and in which I participated as sponsor in the name of my employers. Notwithstanding an economic collapse that was deeper than America’s Great Depression of the 1930s, Russia experienced a cultural renaissance, moving in new directions and bringing out great new talent that won over discerning cultural consumers the world over. My conclusion was that High Culture was, is and forever will be a distinguishing feature of Russia come what may in world affairs and in the domestic economy.

In this essay, I propose to examine how Russian culture is faring in the face of the new and dramatic challenges posed by Western sanctions and by the “cancel culture,” “cancel Russia” movements that are being fanned by Western media. They have resulted in the cutting of cultural ties at the intergovernmental level and also at the level of individual artists and individual symphony halls and opera-ballet theaters from both Russia and the Collective West.

Playbills in the West are being censored and revised to remove Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and other Russian staples of the international musical repertoire in a manner similar to the way Wagner was cut from repertoires during and after WWII. The direct consequence is the removal of opportunities to appear on Western stages for the best performers of such works, meaning both troupes and individuals first and foremost from Russia. Artists who regularly crossed what were invisible borders now are confronted with almost insuperable obstacles

I focus attention here on music, meaning opera, concerts and ballet, because, of all the performing arts, it is the most accessible to the broad public at home and abroad given that knowledge of language is not a requirement for full enjoyment.

But before we look at the present, I will go back to the 1990s and direct attention to what some of the same Russian institutions and individuals as figure in the news today at the head of Russian musical culture were doing then.

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Musical leadership in Russia today is less concentrated geographically and institutionally than it was in the 1990s.  Many new theaters and greatly improved troupes have emerged in places like Kazan in Tatarstan and in Novosibirsk in Siberia. They are well financed by local government, which is flush from income generated by extractive industries, and with their deep purses can attract some of the best talent in the country.  Nonetheless, the one person and the one house of music that stood out in the 1990s and which set the tone for the nation then remains the bellwether today:  Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater of St Petersburg.

Under Gergiev’s guidance, during the 1990s the Mariinsky moved way ahead of its key competitor and long-time ‘ elder brother,’ Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, which was beset by internal discord, political interference and an inability to respond appropriately to the economic challenges of the market economy then being established. It was precisely Gergiev’s genius at selling his ‘product’ abroad via recording contracts, joint productions, foreign tours and the development of opera and ballet festivals that drew in leading artists from the world over as well as a wealthy audience of foreign and domestic visitors.  Meanwhile, “Friends of the Mariinsky” fund-raising associations were cultivated in major musical centers. Besides financial contributions, they helped with the rebranding of what had been known as the “Kirov” company in Soviet times, to the new “Mariinsky” label. 

As musical director, Valery Gergiev had a clear agenda which he implemented with great consistency and success. Keen to turn his house orchestras into quality performers of symphonic music, he downgraded the ballet repertoire, for which the Kirov was best known abroad, to second place and brought forward the opera troupe with new, more demanding repertoire. This entailed promotion of Wagner, and of the Ring Cycle in particular. It entailed the promotion of compositions by long ignored geniuses of Soviet Russia, meaning Sergei Prokofiev in particular.

Gergiev invited leading stage directors from Europe to update the visual presentation of scenery, lighting and costumes from the static Soviet past, and, most importantly, to bring up to world standards the delivery methods of the singers themselves. From “stand up and sing,” they became actors and actresses on stage. The introduction of titles in English and Russian was a finishing touch to engage the audience in the dramatic flow of the opera.

Annual tours abroad to London and New York, among other global opera centers, consolidated the Mariinsky’s worldwide reputation and provided financial assistance to the orchestra members and singers who otherwise received miserly paychecks at home. 

All of these priority initiatives came together in 1991, three years into Gergiev’s tenure as Music Director, when the Mariinsky launched a sensational, unforgettable co-production of Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel with London’s Covent Garden. The presentation of this opera had been held up for many years by the inability to find a suitable female lead singer for the role of Renata. With the casting for this role of the young and rising star, Mariinsky soprano Galina Gorchakova, this gap was filled. Following the presentation of this show in London, Gorchakova was named opera singer of the year in the United Kingdom. She went on to make an important international career, during which she noisily denounced Gergiev as a “dictator” because of his tight control over the private lives of his protégés. Sometimes Valery Gergiev does not hold a grudge and today Gorchakova works at the Mariinsky as a voice coach, her singing career having ended some time ago.

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In the new millennium, the hyper-active musical director and chief conductor of the Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev, oversaw the creation of a musical empire.  A spectacular new opera house, dubbed Mariinsky II, was built adjacent to the historic 19th century theater, which underwent much-needed renovation.  Five minutes walking distance away, a third venue was added, the Concert Hall, where concert performances of operas also are presented on a daily basis.  Moreover, in a manner which paralleled the Russian art museum world, where satellites or affiliates of the Hermitage were being set up in other Russian cities, the Mariinsky went beyond domestic touring to establish several permanent operational bases in the country. 

One was in the city of Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, the area where Gergiev was born and spent his childhood. Western readers will know this part of the Caucasus best from its connection to South Ossetia, which was once territorially part of Georgia and was the land over which the Russian-Georgian War of 2008 was fought. The Gergiev family has maintained close relations with Ossetia. Valery’s sister Larisa, who otherwise is engaged as director of the professional vocal school attached to the theater in St Petersburg, holds administrative and production oversight positions in Vladikavkaz.  Lest one think that this remote territory is a musical backwater, I note that the conductor of last Friday’s splendid production of Rossini’s Barbiere di Seviglia in Mariinsky II, Zaurbek Gugkaev, bears the title of ‘honored artist of the Republic of North Ossetia.’ His conducting was world class.

Another key achievement of the Mariinsky’s extension of its domestic and international reach was the opening of its ‘Maritime Region Stage’ in Vladivostok in 2013. Housed in a new and architecturally exciting building, this opera and ballet company operates a full season of productions. The logic of its creation was not merely to raise the attractiveness of living in the Russian Far East by adding a center of European high culture there to complement the university center developed on Ostrov Russky in the Vladivostok harbor, but to serve as a beacon to opera and dance aficionados in neighboring Korea, Japan and China, where potential demand was huge. The logic of this investment seemed impeccable….until February 2022.

When the “iron curtain” fell on Russia once again following the start of the ‘special military operation’ on 24 February, among the first news reports in Western mainstream media were about the scandalous dismissal of Valery Gergiev from his position as principal conductor by the Munich symphony and of his status as persona non grata at the Met in New York, where he had once been very welcome together with the entire troupe for Russian seasons. Soon afterwards, the world renowned soprano who began her career at the Mariinsky, Anna Netrebko was also kicked out of the Met, while European performances in La Scala and elsewhere were cancelled on the phony pretext of health problems.

Gergiev did nothing to challenge the disgraceful and cowardly actions of his Western partners. He had seen this circus before, when he was given the boot by his hosts in Europe and America over his patriotic stance in support of the Kremlin during the 2008 war with Georgia. After a few years, they all came back to him to beg for renewal of ties.

However, Anna Netrebko’s career as singer is by definition not going to be as long-lived as Gergiev’s conducting career. Moreover, her tax residence is in Austria and that is where her home is, meaning that it would be personally quite painful to pull up stakes. Thus, she made the decision to meet the demands of the Met and openly denounced Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. In doing so, she enraged fans in Russia and a planned performance in Novosibirsk was immediately cancelled there by her hosts. Still she failed to sway the stubborn Met General Manager Peter Gelb to rescind his blacklisting her.

Gelb’s pre-Met career was in marketing at a leading recording company. As marketer he always pitched to the bleachers and continues to do so, without regard for ethical or cultural values. 

Netrebko’s public turn away from the Kremlin did win her some concessions in Europe. Her first success was at the Opera of Monte Carlo. Other appearances followed.  Now, as the White Nights Festival gets underway in St Petersburg, there are rumors that Gergiev has invited her to perform in one or another opera.

Follow-up Western mainstream coverage of the ‘cancel Russia’ movement affecting Russian cultural icons told us about the departure of a Resident Conductor at the Mariinsky, the American Gavriel Heine. Since joining the company in 2007, Heine had taken over nearly the entire historic ballet repertoire, conducting the orchestra both at home and on tour abroad. His loss to the Mariinsky will be felt, although as I explained above, the theater places primary emphasis on opera, where interpretation by the maestro at the podium plays a substantially bigger role. I also note that Gergiev has had a succession of Western conductor protégés over the years.  A select few like Gianandrea Noseda, went on to make international careers of the first order.  Others remained relatively obscure. 

The Bolshoi company in Moscow took a much bigger hit when its Russian music director and principal conductor Tugan Sokhiev resigned, saying he had been under pressure to take a stand on the military operation in Ukraine. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Sokhiev also resigned from his decades long position as head of the Orchestre nationale du Capitole in Toulouse, France, for the same reason. This case illustrates perfectly the dilemma of performers who have not only great talent and skills, like Netrebko, but also brains and self-respect, like Sokhiev.

Turning from the fate of individuals to that of the institutions which shape national culture, we note that the descent of the new Iron Curtain instantly stripped away all of the foreign sources of income and performance opportunities of the Mariinsky company as a whole.

Now that the traditional White Nights Festival which runs from 24 May to 17 July is about to open, I have taken a look at their program to consider what changes the sanctions have made.

Firstly, you note the nearly total absence of foreign performers. This may well explain the unusual fact that a good number of performances on the playbill are still listed with casts “to be announced.” Nonetheless no shows have been cancelled, and as in the past each of the three Mariinsky venues in St Petersburg that I cited above offers one or more performances during each day of the Festival.

It is still too early to say what effect the loss of foreign visitors will have on ticket sales to the Festival events. One side effect of the difficulty Russians have had traveling abroad since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic was that domestic tourism shot up and St Petersburg is a top tourist destination. That trend has of course been given further powerful encouragement by the shutdown of air transport links with Europe and America, and the complication of getting visas for travel abroad resulting from the shutdown of foreign consulates and expulsion of embassy staff dating from the beginning of the military operation.

Of course, the foregoing will not be of much assistance to the Mariinsky’s Vladivostok stage. The city is nearly twelve hours flying time from Moscow and is not a significant tourist destination among Russians. It is now cut off from the neighboring countries. China remains under lockdown, and both Korea and Japan have joined the sanctions parade.  Relief to Vladivostok will come only when China reopens. In the meantime the house will surely incur serious operating losses.

Besides out-of-town Russians, another boost to sales in the St Petersburg venues has been the implementation of a previously introduced scheme of federally financed allowances enabling students to buy tickets to museums, concert and opera houses for tiny out of pocket cost. At our evening in the Mariinsky last Friday, there were large numbers of young people present, despite the posted ticket prices that would normally be out of their reach.

In a way, market laws have long determined pricing of tickets at the Mariinsky. As a rule, starting prices for ballets are double the price of operas. Ballets are less demanding intellectually and they are considered by loving parents to be a perfect way of introducing their children to high culture.  All seats are sold out whatever the price.

At performances of the best loved ballets, Swan Lake and Nutcracker, there will always be lots of kids aged six and up sitting with their parents in the most expensive front rows of the stalls (“orchestra seats” in American parlance). By expensive, I mean on the order of 150 euros. The same seats will sell for half that to see a popular opera, one quarter of that for an opera that is either not beloved by Russians (as, for example, Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyennes in the current Festival) or is simply a poor show with dull staging and weak cast. Needless to say, there are very few of the last named category in the coming weeks.

In the program of this year’s White Nights Festival, there are several shows which will be in great demand and which are priced at levels that may cover direct costs of the theater. I have in mind Swan Lake in several star-studded casts and a revival of Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace staged by the Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky.  I was present when this opera production premiered on 11 March 2000. Also present at the opening was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spent the day in St Petersburg as the first Western leader to meet with the newly installed President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. He was seated with his wife in the royal box, next to Vladimir Vladimirovich. The whole Russian government was in attendance and security was extraordinary. The opera’s revival is particularly timely today:  while the first half, Peace, is lyrical and romantic, the second half, War, is very patriotic, aggressively anti-French and more generally anti-West. It should do especially well with the audience now.

Other shows in this year’s Festival may also do very well in drawing audiences and keeping the box office busy on the strength of a single star performer.  I have in mind the June performances of Macbeth, Don Carlos and even the less loved Troyennes in which the soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk sings. She might just as easily have taken the easy way out and stayed in Paris or Salzburg, where she is most welcome, but Semenchuk has opted to sing in this year’s Festival, which will warm the hearts of Russian opera lovers.

The White Nights Festival has in the past featured performances by world renowned instrumentalists. Looking over the program, one might conclude that this aspect of the Festival has suffered the most from the ‘cancel Russia’ movement.  However, there will be a concert by the Russia-born pianist Nikolai Lugansky that is sure to be successful. Given his solid standing in the West, Lugansky’s boldness in coming to St Petersburg merits recognition.

One special feature of this year’s Festival is the attention given to works by the ‘house composer’ of the Mariinsky, Rodion Shchedrin, who will be celebrating his ninetieth birthday in December of this year. Shchedrin is best known in the West not for his ballet and opera compositions but as the husband, now widower, of one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated ballerinas, Maya Plisetskaya.

Schedrin has composed in many different genres including instrumental music ranging from chamber music to concertos and other orchestral pieces. His pieces for the stage have been shown in various European and American theaters, but have not entered into repertoire and are unfamiliar to the general public, except for one – his Carmen Suite.

The four pieces by Shchedrin to be performed in this Festival are the ballet Little Hump-backed Horse and the operas Adventures of an Ape, Boyarina Morozova and The Enchanted Wanderer. In light of the patriotic feelings sparked by the military operation in Ukraine, Gergiev may well now regret that he did not have the foresight to bring back to the stage Shchedrin’s opera The Left-Hander, which premiered in 2013 and was dedicated by the composer to Gergiev’s sixtieth birthday that year. I can say, from my personal impressions, that the production which premiered in the Mariinsky as staged by Aleksei Stepaniuk was brilliant.

The opera The Left-Hander is based on a novel by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, as are several other operas by Shchedrin. The Left-Hander is set in the first quarter of the 19th century, in the rein of Alexander I, the conqueror of Napoleon in 1812, who later made a royal visit to the United Kingdom, which is depicted here. The opera highlights the civilizational divide between Russia with its sobornost (collective solidarity) and England, with its individualism. Very timely!

Finally, it bears mention that in keeping with the house rules Gergiev established at the very start of his directorship at the Mariinsky, the Festival program includes a couple of Wagner operas, Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde. Let it be noted that these productions, as well as the other featured operas that I mentioned above all require enormous theatrical resources which very few opera theaters in the world can summon in the best of times.  The Mariinsky is proceeding full speed ahead in these, the worst of times.

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I have spoken of how the Mariinsky may fill most seats and cover some of its Festival related expenses from the box office.  But the loss of its revenues from foreign tours, recording contracts, live broadcast contracts (Mezzo and national broadcasters) present an enormous challenge to management.  In this context, none other than the country’s President has stepped in to help. It is widely rumored that Putin proposed to merge the management of the Bolshoi theater in Moscow with that of the Mariinsky theater, all under the musical direction of Valery Gergiev.  The vacancy in the Bolshoi created by the departure of Tugan Sokhiev makes this decision not only possible but necessary for the sake of both companies. 

Of course, taking control of the Bolshoi has been a long time ambition of Valery Gergiev.  It will be opposed by many in the Moscow musical establishment, but no one will dare go up against The Boss. The benefit for the Mariinsky in the new, pending arrangement is that it will be able to tap into some of the generous federal funding that the Bolshoi has enjoyed since the 1990s, when it failed to enjoy the success in the global marketplace that Gergiev had assured for his theater. Most everyone in the Russian musical world will be watching closely to see how this proposed merger develops.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

10 thoughts on “The impact of Western sanctions on Russian musical life

  1. Really enjoyed this summary, demonstrating the resilience of the music, art and artists in the face of Western barbarism. Their loss!! Cheers, Dr. D.

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    1. I enjoy your comment so many thanks.it is good to hear someone on-site, experienced and professional. I live in a small village in England and the man in the big Manor House entertained Alexander 1 when he came over . The man opposite in the smaller house inoculated Catherine the great against small pox to his great fortune. If you climb on the church roof the next highest thing you can see is in the urals ( so they say ) keep on keeping on

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  2. Thank you for your very, very interesting articles. It is very sad that true and onest artists are forced to take stands in politics, either on the russian or ukrainean stand . I always had in mind that the great maestro Sviatoslav Richter refuse to have anything with politics . So in his time it was possible to listen him in West, though he was living in USSR, now its not possible . By the way I read somewhere that White Nights Festival was created by the great maestro Sviatoslav Richter .

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  3. Thank you for this wonderful report! I was especially pleased to hear about Vladikavkaz, where I was a student for a year in the mid-1990s and remember well people’s passion for and pride in their history, literature, music and culture, and education in general. Your knowledge of and enthusiasm for the Mariinsky Theatre and everything around it are inspiring. I look forward to more.

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