The Arena during the opera performance, Verona, Italy

Cecilia Gasdia is optimistic about the future. The opera festival in the Arena of Verona, which she has been director since 2018, has survived the last two years of crisis unscathed. Since most of the Corona measures in Italy have now been lifted, the performances can even take place in front of full ranks again this summer.

At the festival, which opened on June 17 this year, the Roman amphitheater can seat around 13,000 spectators per evening. Gasdia, who began her own career as a soprano in the arena, reports that the first performances were completely sold out.

The star soprano Anna Netrebko, who initially disappeared from western stages after the outbreak of the war because she was accused of lacking distance from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, is back in Verona.

Alternating with the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska, she appears as Aida in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same name, and also in the leading role in Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” – a role that the Russian diva was no longer allowed to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and the Berlin State Opera . Monastyrska filled in for her in New York.

Since Netrebko publicly condemned the war (albeit without breaking with Putin), her schedule in Europe has been filling up noticeably again. Their presence in the arena was never in question anyway. “Art creates bridges instead of destroying them,” says Cecilia Gasdia. No Russian or Belarusian artist will be excluded from the festival because of their nationality. “We don’t let anyone show us our passport.”

This attitude seems to meet with broad approval, at least among high culture audiences. Quite a few opera and concert visitors locate art in an ideal sphere from which daily politics should remain excluded. This became particularly clear in Italy, where at the beginning of March, after the Russian conductor – and declared Putin friend – Valery Gergiev was uninvited by La Scala in Milan, emotions boiled over on social networks. Gergiev conducts divinely – and that’s that, it was said.

Netrebko, who, unlike Gergiev, took a public – albeit not clear – position on the allegations against her, was invited again by La Scala in May. The audience celebrated her with an ovation. No one seemed interested in weighing her words on the gold scales. At the other end of the spectrum, there were individual voices wanting to banish Russian culture in general, including composers like Tchaikovsky and writers like Dostoyevsky.

To lump all Russians together seems absurd. Where the red lines run in the controversy is becoming increasingly confusing. The dilemma of Ukrainian artists currently engaged on international stages has largely disappeared from view. They find themselves in the moral dilemma of wanting to support their attacked country on the one hand and having to secure their professional existence on the other. Many of them are away from home, knowing that family and friends are at risk.

The fact that the soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska canceled her participation in an opera gala at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Andris Nelsons hardly made the headlines in April. The excitement that the event originally planned with Netrebko was canceled was much greater.

Monastyrska’s cancellation came after an “intervention” by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation said when asked. You were not allowed to appear in a program with Russian artists – in this case the tenor Bogdan Volkov – and with Russian music by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. However, the singer later revealed that she decides for herself which engagements she accepts or not.

At the beginning of April, the government of Ukraine published a statement in English on its website “Ending the cultural dialogue with the aggressor”. It remains to be seen how much scope for decision-making the “urgent recommendations” contained therein leave. It is said that cultural reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine is “under no circumstances” possible in times of war.

Participation of Ukrainians in joint projects under the motto “We are for peace” would obscure the real reasons for the Russian war of aggression. At the same time, the ministry made it clear that it would not call for the isolation of Russian artists who publicly condemned the war in Ukraine and assigned political responsibility to the Russian Federation.