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Opera star Anna Netrebko's controversial comeback

Rayna Breuer
August 30, 2022

Once the star of the great opera houses, Anna Netrebko came under fire for not distancing herself from Russian President Vladimir Putin. After a break, she's back on stage again. DW saw her in Cologne.

Anna Netrebko in costume holding up her arms and wearing a head decoration.
Anna Netrebko at her 50th birthday celebration at the Kremlin in 2021Image: Vladimir Gerdo/TASS/picture alliance

People in evening attire gathered in front of the Cologne Philharmonic in the late afternoon of August 29. "I like Anna Netrebko's voice very much. I have often heard her on television and on CDs and would like to experience her live and in color. I think she is a great and also very likeable artist," said one visitor from the German city of Solingen.

Another visitor, Regina Wirtz, also attended the Cologne concert to see star soprano Netrebko for the first time. "Of course we have been following the debate about Ms. Netrebko. We know about all the circumstances. But I am here because I love this music, and I can separate politics and art," said Wirtz, who lives in Düsseldorf.

A woman wearing a yellow dress and carrying a blue handbag took her seat inside the auditorium. "I did this specifically because I naturally support Ukraine and also hope that this war will end soon. And that Ms. Netrebko already sees that there are also people sitting here who are for Ukraine," said the woman named Jutta. She came with her opera-loving father, who had bought the tickets before February 24, 2022, when the Russian invastion of the country began.

"I think you should support culture even in these hard times. We have heard her several times before, she is an excellent singer. And that's why we saw no reason now why we shouldn't use the tickets," Jutta added.

Protests before the concert

People from Ukraine, Germany and Russia stood outside for hours before the Cologne performance to demonstrate against the opera singer's event.

Ludmila from Eastern Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast held up protest posters. In 2014, she had to flee from Donbass to another part of Ukraine. Today, she lives in Cologne. "People here in Germany are doing so much against the war, they are making so many efforts. I don't understand why Cologne invited this woman," Ludmila said, referring to Netrebko. Then, she pointed to her poster, which featured a photo of a destroyed building. "This is my city, by the way — and what's left of it."

Ludmila from Donetsk Oblast holding up protest posters.
Ludmila from the Donetsk Oblast protested ahead of the concert in CologneImage: Rayna Breuer/DW

Elina Knopp, an art historian from Ukraine, was one of the organizers of the protest. "I can't understand the people who are going to the concert today at all. I just hope that our action will make them think. We have a reception center here a few hundred meters away on the other side of the building, where Ukrainian refugees are taken in, some of whom also come from the Donetsk region," she said.

"Today, people have come to our protest who have already had to flee twice, once in 2014/15 and now a second time. They have no understanding that this person, who is really the face for Putin's regime, is allowed to perform here," Knopp noted.

Musician showing Ukrainian flag silenced

The atmosphere on this evening was tense. At the beginning of the concert, a musician from the orchestra of the Northwest German Philharmonic Orchestra held up a Ukrainian flag, which was then taken away during the intermission by the orchestra's artistic director, Andreas Kuntze.

Kuntze said the musician's action had not been previously discussed or agreed upon with him. The musician himself told DW he was willing to give an interview, but it was forbidden by Kuntze.

Too close to the Kremlin

Opera star Anna Netrebko, for her part, is back on stage, but that doesn't mean that things are like they used to be. Concert-goers could definitely feel that at the Monday evening concert.

For years, Netrebko was the acclaimed darling of the great opera houses. Whether in Verona, Vienna or New York — the audience was at her feet. With her voice and her charm, she enchanted the stages of the world.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov standing next to each other and smiling in 2021.
Yusif Eyvazov and Anna Netrebko sang together at the Cologne concert Image: Tim Osipov

There was no great outcry when she celebrated her 50th birthday in the Kremlin; in the fall of 2021 that was still acceptable.

When she supported Vladimir Putin in his presidential campaign in 2012, there were isolated reactions. Little attention was also paid when she had herself photographed with pro-Russian separatist leader Oleh Tsarev holding the "New Russia" flag. She was also named "People's Artist of the Russian Federation," an honorary state title.

Russian President Putin clapping with Anna Netrebko holding flowers next to him in 2008.
Vladimir Putin applauding after awarding Anna Netrebko the 'National artist of Russia' title in 2008Image: Vladimir Rodionov/epa/picture-alliance

The world's perception of Netrebko changed with Russia's full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine, however.

Her closeness to the Kremlin and uncritical opinion of Putin became Netrebko's undoing: "I want the war to stop," she wrote in a statement. She said she was Russian and loved her country, but also had many friends in Ukraine. "The pain and suffering break my heart," she wrote, then shrouding herself in silence for weeks.

For the West, she did not position herself critically enough. But for Russia, she was too critical. Netrebko became persona non grata both in Europe and in her home country. 

Summer 2022: Back on stage

But this summer, she took to the big stages again — from Verona, to Paris and now Cologne. With both standing ovations and protests in front of the venues.

But she is still not welcome everywhere: The German state of Baden-Württemberg decided to uninvite the singer, and the concert in Stuttgart has been canceled. The doors of New York's Metropolitan Opera also remain closed to the great soprano for now.

The city of Cologne and the Philharmonic took a different approach: "We have no reason in Cologne to say that Ms. Netrebko should not be here in the city. She is not an enemy of the state. This is a free citizen who is allowed to pass through here," said Louwrens Langevoort, artistic director of the Cologne Philharmonic.

Two years ago, the lease agreement with the organizer of the concert, the "handwerker promotion e. gmbh," was signed and the Philharmonic was merely fulfilling its contract obligations, Langevoort noted. "Ms. Netrebko is a very great singer. She has a certain political stance that I absolutely do not share. But I can't reproach her for anything," Langevoort said.

Similar reasoning came from the City of Cologne: "Anna Netrebko's statements with regard to the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine are now clear in distancing herself from the war. Nevertheless, I can understand that Netrebko's years of completely uncritical closeness to the Kremlin have raised doubts among many Cologne residents about Anna Netrebko's published stance on the war and Putin," Stefan Charles, Cologne's councilor for arts and culture, said in a statement.

Both the director of the Cologne Philharmonic and the City of Cologne stress that they themselves were not the organizers of the concert.

Protestors with banners outside the Cologne Philharmonic.
Protest against Anna Netrebko's concert in Cologne on August 29Image: Rayna Breuer/DW

Celebrated performance

Musician Misha Nodelman from St. Petersburg found this to just be an excuse. He brought his violin with him on Monday evening and played Ukrainian songs in front of the Cologne Philharmonic. In his homeland, he is seen as a traitor to Russia, he said.

After the demonstrators outside the building had long since made their way home, loud bravos rang out inside the concert hall. Anna Netrebko, her husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova and conductor Michelangelo Mazza were celebrated with flower bouquets and thunderous applause.

The City of Cologne and the Philharmonic announced that they will donate the proceeds from the concert to reconstruction in their project partner city of Dnipro, Ukraine.


This article was originally written in German.