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Russian conductor suspended for peace speech

Anastassia Boutsko
March 3, 2022

A day after the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Ivan Velikanov stood up for peace on stage in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. That resulted in immediate consequences for the star conductor.

Ivan Velikanov
Ivan Velikanov: 'I said war is bad and peace is good'Image: Ivan Starostin

The opera in Nizhny Novgorod, a city with more than 1.2 million inhabitants on the Volga River in Russia, had Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" on its program on February 25 — the second day of Russia's war on Ukraine.

Before the performance, conductor Ivan Velikanov — a star on the Russian music scene hailed as "the new Teodor Currentzis" — came on stage, gave a short speech calling for peace and led the orchestra in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." The opera followed.

Afterwards, the conductor was suspended from all further performances of his production, which has been nominated for the Golden Mask, Russia's most prestigious theater prize.

DW spoke to the conductor, who was born in France in 1986 but is currently in Moscow.  

What did you say on February 25 in Nizhny Novgorod before conducting Mozart's opera "The Marriage of Figaro" — and why?

I said that war is bad and peace is good. In my naivete, I assumed there was nothing to argue about. And I said it because the war had just begun. I think that today, with the many shadows overlaying a bright day, we should call things by their names, as simply as possible.

How did the audience react?

People applauded, someone shouted "Bravo!" Later, however, I was told that some elderly ladies were incensed.


Because they watch Russian television and believe that this is not a war, but a "special operation."

Unfortunately, that is not a rare event. Russia's propaganda culture is so advanced, it has such a powerful, centuries-old history that you might as well not wonder about anything here. I don't even blame these often ordinary or elderly people. How could they know any better?

Nizhny Novgorod, view of a large yellow building on a river, cruise ship in the forefront
The opera was performed in Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia's largest citiesImage: Vladimir Smirnov/Tass/dpa/picture alliance

After your speech, the orchestra played Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Why did you choose that particular piece?

Because war is incompatible with life and art, and no one expressed this idea better than Ludwig van Beethoven. "Ode to Joy" is a universal human symbol of peace: "Be embraced, Millions!" — what could you possibly misunderstand? I didn't even think about the fact that it is also the EU anthem, which I am now being criticized for.

Did you discuss your act of peace with the orchestra, the singers, the theater management? Did they support you?

That's a very delicate question — I didn't arrange anything with anyone, I acted completely on my own. I simply asked the orchestra librarian to place the sheet music of the Ninth Symphony on the music stands. It was a surprise for the musicians. If one of the orchestra musicians or the theater management wants to accuse me of anything, they are justified.

Basically, if the conductor were an officer, and the musicians were soldiers, then I was such an officer refusing to carry out the general's criminal order. And the soldiers are obliged to obey their officer. Of course, anyone could not have played, but I believe that everyone did.

Is that what you felt like, an officer?

I just felt like a person who has to tell the truth, an obvious truth that you can't oppose. Had I known it would be perceived as a political action, I might have chosen a different form. Perhaps I also did it because I sensed a heavy, depressed mood in the audience the night before, with us playing cheerful and lively Mozart while bombs and rockets whistled through the air — no matter who fired them.

You noticed a "depressed mood" in the audience. How do you assess the general mood in Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia's largest cities?

It is mixed. It is clear to everyone that a cold civil war is raging in Russia. The lines run not only within society as a whole, but often within an individual collective, a business or a family.

There may be differing views of what is happening, of which media to trust, as well as varying predictions of the future and attributions of blame — but there is a common denominator, a forbidden topic, a topic that concerns absolutely everyone. It is impossible to think or talk about anything else.

Men and women sit around a huge table in an ornate room
A meeting of Russia's Presidential Council for Culture and ArtImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Shipenkov

The theater's management very quickly decided to suspend you, triggering a storm of indignation on the culture scene. Do you think the management had a chance to make a different decision?

If you are not in the epicenter of the information war, it is hard to understand. It is obvious to people in Russia that no state theater management can make a decision without interference from above. I know that many have tried to defend me. The decision to suspend me was made at the very top.

People have completely forgotten the times when one Josef Stalin was very interested not only in what the great pianist Maria Yudina said, for instance, but also in what she played. I am amazed by the lack of collective memory when people remark that "the head of state of Russia is too busy, he has other things to do." Russia's heads of state always find time to ask about what artists are doing.

All over the world there are calls to boycott the arts from Russia: The Cannes Film Festival has said Russian delegations are not welcome this year, performances by Valery Gergiev and Anna Netrebko on leading international stages have been canceled, even works by Russian composers are being removed from concert programs. Is that the right move?

Ivan Velikanov
Ivan Velikanov is a rising star of the Russian music sceneImage: S.Ryzhov

I don't think that's a good thing, in particular if everyone is found guilty across the board. It seems like blind revenge. I understand that it is an expression of solidarity, but the approach doesn't make sense. It is aggressive, and above all it usually affects the wrong people.

How much courage does it take to say "no" to war in Russia today? What is the risk for people who act like you did?

That is a question I cannot answer because we are seeing a completely new situation. Thousands of people have been arrested for taking part in demonstrations and protests against the war, whether they were retirees, students or teens.

But we don't know what those in power will do to artists, which doesn't only concern me, but numerous others, including musicians, actors and theater directors. I can honestly say that so far no repressive measures have been taken against me personally, except for being suspended from performances.

Right now I am off to a rehearsal at the Bolshoi Theater to prepare for a "Falstaff" premiere. But I have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow.

This interview by Anastassia Boutsko has been translated from German.