Anna Netrebko, a beloved Russian opera star with strong ties to the Kremlin, has been mired in controversy over her planned appearance at the 2023 International May Festival in the German city of Wiesbaden.
In the latest development, the Hessian State Theatre Wiesbaden deleted individual comments on its social media channels that were related to her upcoming performance.
"Many of these comments were insulting and defamatory or disseminated nationalist narratives," the theater said in a statement explaining its decision and added that it was forced to do so to protect employees and artists. "This is not censorship," the statement added. The theater referred to netiquette guidelines saying that users who repeatedly make inappropriate or disrespectful comments will be blocked.
Meanwhile, the Russian soprano's two performances during the May Festival at the Wiesbaden State Theatre are sold out. The pre-sale that started on February 17 quickly sold out, despite some tickets costing more than €200 ($212).
The State Theater is still standing by its decision to give Netrebko top billing despite many quarters speaking out against her upcoming performance, including the state of Hesse and the state capital Wiesbaden.
In fact, when it was first learned that the singer was invited, musicians from Ukraine refused to perform at the festival.
The organizers couldn't easily find a replacement. Initially, they said that iconoclastic Russian punk band Pussy Riot would perform instead. But the band also refused to come to Germany.
'Highly immoral' in times of war
"[Netrebko] gave concerts in the Kremlin while they locked us up," Pussy Riot singer Maria Alyokhina told DW, referring to the imprisonment of members of the band in 2012 and 2013, during which time they say they were beaten and raped.
Referring to Russian President Valdimir Putin, Alyokhina claimed that Netrebko "honored his regime in exchange for a lot of money," adding "she was one of the faces of Putin's presidential campaigns in 2012 and 2018."
"She also transferred vast sums to occupied Donetsk," Alyokhina further claimed in reference to the invasion of eastern Ukraine beginning in 2014.
The Pussy Riot singer said the band had not initially been told that Anna Netrebko was booked to perform in Wiesbaden.
But only hours after the Hessian State Theater Wiesbaden announced Pussy Riot would be performing at the May Festival on February 13, the band, now aware that Netrebko was also on the bill, immediately canceled.
"Surely you can't choose between Ukrainian artists and Anna Netrebko," Alyokhina said, arguing that is "highly immoral" to have her perform during the war.
Cancellations labeled 'moral hysteria'
The Ukrainian participants in the festival, including the Taras Shevchenko State Theater in Kharkiv, canceled their appearance for the same reasons Pussy Riot did.
"When negotiations about our participation were underway, the name of the Russian singer Netrebko was not on the program," Mykola Diadiura, chief conductor of the National Opera of Ukraine and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine, told DW. "But when we learned that she was going to be in the festival, we canceled."
Festival director Uwe Eric Laufenberg called the cancellations "moral hysteria." He claims that the Ukrainian National Philharmonic's Academic Symphony Orchestra, and chief conductor Mykola Diadiura, had refused to perform "Messa da Requiem" with a Russian singer from the ensemble in Wiesbaden.
"Then they'll just have to stay at home," said the German theater manager, who has also stated his belief that Ukrainian politicians forced the musicians to cancel.
Chief conductor Diadiura has rejected the claim, saying there was no pressure to pull out. He pointed out that the orchestra had rehearsed without electricity and heating owing to consequences of Russia's missile attacks on Ukraine.
"They want us to react differently? You can debate and philosophize like this only in peacetime, but we are at war," Diadiura said. "This is our own position."
Why the Wiesbaden festival backs Netrebko
Ukraine's Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko wrote to Claudia Roth, the German federal commissioner for culture and media, stating that Ukraine does not want cooperation with people who represent Russian culture.
In response, the May Festival management argued that they were being forced to choose between Netrebko and participants from Ukraine, something they felt is not valid in a free country.
Demands to ban Russian cultural performances, clearly expressed in the Ukrainian culture minister's letter to Claudia Roth, are unacceptable, theater director Laufenberg told DW.
He said that such demands should not come from a country that wants to join the EU and is committed to freedom. "If you want to belong to the free world, then you have to put freedom above everything. If you don't do that, then you even prove Putin's propaganda right."
The Wiesbaden theater is primarily concerned with artistic freedom, he said, while claiming that Russian writers like "Dostoevsky and Chekhov have to be removed from libraries" in Ukraine.
As for Anna Netrebko, the artistic director of the Wiesbaden theater said the singer has signed a contract to sing the role of Abigaille in a performance of Verdi's "Nabucco."
Miguel Esteban, the opera singer's manager, told DW that Netrebko is currently not available for an interview.
This article was originally written in Russian and published on February 18, 2023. It has been updated to reflect recent developments.