The company cut ties with the star Russian soprano for her refusal to denounce Vladimir Putin after the invasion of Ukraine. An arbitrator said it must pay her under the terms of her contract.
March 17, 2023Updated 6:38 p.m. ET
The Metropolitan Opera has been ordered by an arbitrator to pay the Russian soprano Anna Netrebko more than $200,000 for performances it canceled last year after she declined to denounce President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.
The arbitrator, in a decision issued last month that has not been previously reported, ruled that the Met should compensate Netrebko for 13 canceled performances — including appearances in “Don Carlo” this season and “La Forza del Destino” and “Andrea Chénier” next season — because of a contractual agreement known as “pay or play,” which requires institutions to pay performers even if they later decide not to engage them.
The Met had argued that Netrebko, one of opera’s biggest stars, was not entitled to payment because of her refusal to comply with the company’s demand after the invasion of Ukraine that she denounce Putin, which it said had violated the company’s conduct clause. Netrebko had endorsed Putin for president in 2012 and had spoken glowingly of him before the invasion.
The arbitrator, Howard C. Edelman, found that “there is no doubt she was a Putin supporter, as she had a right to be.” But he added that aligning with Putin was “certainly not moral turpitude or worthy, in and of itself, of actionable misconduct.”
Netrebko had been seeking an additional $400,000 in fees for engagements in coming seasons that had been discussed but not formally agreed to, including leading roles in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and “Tosca,” as well as Verdi’s “Macbeth” and Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades.” Netrebko earned the Met’s current fee for top artists of about $15,000 a performance.
But the arbitrator found that Netrebko was not entitled to fees for those performances because the contracts had not been executed. In addition, he imposed a penalty of nearly $30,000 on Netrebko for making “highly inappropriate” statements after the invasion, including sharing a text on social media that used an expletive to refer to her Western critics, whom she called “as evil as blind aggressors.”
In addition to endorsing Putin, Netrebko has occasionally lent support to his policies. When in 2014 she donated to an opera house in Donetsk, a war-torn city in Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists, she was photographed holding a separatist flag.
The Met did not comment on the specifics of the ruling but defended its decision to cancel Netrebko’s performances.
“Although our contracts are ‘pay or play,’ we didn’t think it was morally right to pay Netrebko anything considering her close association with Putin,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview.
He added: “It’s an artistic loss for the Met not having her singing here. But there’s no way that either the Met or the majority of its audience would tolerate her presence.”
Netrebko’s representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sam Wheeler, the national executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, the union that represented Netrebko, praised the decision, saying it would help protect the rights of artists seeking compensation for canceled engagements.
“‘Pay-or-play’ is the bedrock of our collective bargaining agreements across the country, and we will always defend ‘pay-or-play’ provisions to the fullest extent possible,” he said in a statement.
Netrebko, a major star and box office draw, still has a relatively busy performing schedule, though she continues to face protests and calls that she be banned from the global stage. A planned concert this month in Taiwan was canceled at the last minute because of concerns about her connections to Putin. She is set to perform a recital at La Scala, in Milan, on Sunday, and will return there this summer for a production of “Macbeth.” Her engagements next season include a concert at the Wiener Konzerthaus, and appearances at the Salzburg Easter Festival in Austria.
Facing a series of cancellations in the West last year, she sought to distance herself from Putin, issuing a statement saying that she had met the president only a few times and that she was not “allied with any leader of Russia.” She also canceled her appearances in Russia. But she has avoided directly criticizing Putin or addressing her record of support for him.
Separately, the Met announced on Friday that it was firing Netrebko’s husband, the tenor Yusif Eyvazov, from a production of “Tosca” set to open on March 30. Eyvazov, who had been engaged to play the role of the painter Cavaradossi in six performances, will be replaced by Matthew Polenzani. Rehearsals for the production are to begin on Monday.
Gelb said that he had hoped Eyvazov would withdraw from the production but that he had decided to fire him primarily because of comments he made last year criticizing the soprano Angel Blue, who withdrew from a production of “Aida” at the Arena di Verona after photos of Netrebko and other artists performing there in dark makeup circulated on social media.
Gelb also said that Eyvazov’s association with Netrebko was problematic and that he did not want to disrespect the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska, who will sing the role of Tosca in four performances.
Eyvazov’s representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment; the Met said he would be compensated for the canceled “Tosca” performances.